How to Deal With Stage Fright and Mistakes

If you perform in public in any capacity, then you’ve undoubtedly experienced some degree of stage fright, and you’ve probably made a mistake or two during a performance. Performance anxiety is completely normal: most professionals admit to feeling some anxiety over doing badly prior to going out on stage. But what do you do about it, and what do you do if you mess up?

In her article “Stage Fright: Five Tips,” author and pianist Melanie Spanswick provides some excellent advice for performance anxiety, all of which is based on her own experience as a performer. The first thing she stresses is preparation. “Know the piece or pieces you are going to play inside and out – literally,” she says, adding that you shouldn’t stop if you make a mistake. And if you do make a mistake, it’s a good thing to have places in the music where you can regroup your confidence, so identify those in advance. Finally, Ms. Spanswick suggests ignoring any negative self-talk that might float through your head prior to or during a performance.

While preparation is a powerful tool in combating stage fright, it is equally important to know what to do when (not if) a mistake occurs. An employer of mine once put it this way: plan to fail. I understood the message, but I always thought it sounded too negative. Noted musician and educator Gerald Klickstein prefers the kinder and gentler term error response, a simple process he outlines in “The Primary Error Response.”

Echoing Ms. Spanswick’s advice, Mr. Klickstein advises performers to play through a mistake, adding that “audiences connect most deeply with the pulse of our music.” Hence, they are more likely to notice a change in tempo than a quick improvisation. As you play through, release the tension by controlling your breathing. Finally, even as you ignore negative self-talk, let your body language project a positive image.

I’ll never forget the first time I played in a praise band for a church. The band leader walked around before mass and chatted easily with some parishioners,  the priest, and other musicians. He was completely laid back and at ease with himself; I was a borderline basket case. He sensed this and approached me.

“Listen,” he said quietly as he clapped his hand on my back. “You know this music. You’re good. So just go up there and knock it out. The congregation really wants to connect with us, so help them do that.”

Remarkably, it worked. I felt the tension drain out of me with the first note, and I focused completely on having a good time and drawing the congregation into what we were doing. In fact, I’ve kept that bit of advice close, and I use it still today.

Remember: there is a reason you perform, and whatever it is, it’s powerful enough to override your comfort zone setting and force you out onto a stage. So practice, prepare, and above all, enjoy yourself!

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