Here Comes the Fear
ALL PHOTOS (unless credited otherwise): Unsplash
The Growing Issue of Stage Fright
THERE is probably a better name…
to describe the sensation and nerves an artist gets when they hit the stage; the feeling of cotton balls being stuffed into the mouth and the stomach being pounded – the head spins and the words fail to come (anxiety, I guess, is more apt and less rigid). A lot of new artists I am interviewing at the moment are saying the same thing: they had to overcome stage fright and tackle something that, until recently, ruled their lives. There is something heartbreaking about having all that talent and ambition inside of you; the fact nerves and an inability to project in front of a crowd – or step up to the microphone in a studio – prohibits expression. One of the reasons I am raising this issue is my own drawbacks: stage fright and nerves have restricted my horizons and made me a little hesitant to get onto radio and put my voice out there. Many say that, when you are flying and get over those initial hurdles; everything is okay and you’ll wonder why you were ever so worrisome. The trouble remains: getting past those, seemingly insurmountable roadblocks are a lot harder than pithy bromides and casual maxims. The same way one afflicted by depression cannot simply overcome their illness with good spirits and optimism: someone who has that terror and crippling stage fright cannot, by force of indomitable determination, lose that burden and purge all that weight.
I can do radio and speak fine – I have been on before – and, aside from those initial nerves when the show gets started; I relax into the task and am excited to be where I am. One of the problems comes when being asked to sing or take control of the mantle. There are legendary artists, and new heroes, who have confessed to having stage fright. In fact, many of the biggest Pop names, at some time, have battled fears and anxieties. There is, however, a distinction between straightforward anxiety and the unholy pain of being unable to perform on stage. To some, it is about the immensity of the task and the sight of thousands waiting for something spectacular – the expectation gets heavy and starts to prod the heart, head and stomach. To others, it is the fear of losing their voice or screwing up their words; the embarrassment that comes with back-tracking and improvising – others, for example, are affected by the fact they are unaided and have to produce an entertaining and coherent gig. In my case; I have that sense of eyes being trained onto me; the way people are waiting for something to happen that moves them – having to face self-doubts and the unnerving silence that comes with gigs. I have not performed myself but the mere thought of stepping onto the stage holds some problems.
Maybe experience and conquering that fear is, in itself, the best way to remedy stage fright. Maybe you need to have some bad experiences and keep going before you can truly be confident and comfortable. There are deeper psychological issues and anxieties that make it hard to visualise a day when one can transition from a nervous and dry-mouthed performer/orator to a truly level and calm star. From holistic and homoeopathic remedies through to hypnotherapy and counselling; there are ways people are dealing with stage fright. Artists like Adele and Val Halen have, at some stage in their careers, faced stage fright and all that comes with it. I have been reading a few studies that explain what stage fright entails and ways one can try and defeat it. An article in The Guardian - back in 2015 - examines invoking stage fright in its physical manifestations and sentient self:
“At the Royal Northern College of Music, Professor Jane Ginsborg has a particular method for explaining this to her students. She asks them to write down what it feels like to fall in love, then, much later, write down what it feels like to stand backstage moments before a performance. Love and fear seem like contrasting emotions, but the descriptions most students will write for each are eerily similar. The bottom line is that the body has only one way of knowing excitement.
It’s why almost every soloist will experience the physical symptoms of music performance anxiety to some degree, particularly in the moments before walking on stage. At its very worst, this anxiety causes the heart rate to rapidly drop, resulting in the player simply freezing or even fainting on the spot.
Most common is the “fight or flight” response, less severe than freezing, but it can still stimulate a vicious cycle. The nervous system pumps two hormones, adrenaline and noradrenaline, into the bloodstream. When their levels get sufficiently high, it leads to physical reactions such as higher heart rate, muscle tremors and increased blood flow from the stomach to the muscles, causing nausea and the feeling we describe as “butterflies”.
If controlled appropriately, these hormonal imbalances can lead to a heightened state of awareness, and a more powerful performance. But given the fine muscle movements and coordination behind musical technique, too much can impair technique, leading to increased anxiety and panic, followed by concentration and memory lapses, and more stress”.
The subcutaneous itch and sting of stage fright is something some people never get over. The way the article above simplifies the body’s response to nerves and copes with it fascinates me. I guess, in some ways, stage fright is binary and does not have that many tentacles. One has that fight-or-flight instinct and it is hard to temporise the need to flee and abandon the stage. Are there, then, ways around the problem and medications one can take to negotiate with stage fright?! Another article I have been reading looks at the question in more depth:
“Janet Hilts, a California-based anxiety coach and producer of the DVD workshop, Dissolving Stage Fright, describes performance anxiety as a sort of post-traumatic stress disorder.
"When you think of little kids in moderately normal homes, they love performing — you can't stop them," Hilts says. "Then, some experience stomps that enthusiasm out of people. Some might have grown up in an environment where there was a lot of criticism, or maybe they were encouraged to be quiet."
To treat stage fright, some doctors prescribe "beta blocker" medications that close off the receptors responsible for our natural "fight or flight" response. Though these medications have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, some anxiety specialists such as Hilts favor a more natural approach”.
There is that battle between taking a natural approach to medication and relying on prescriptions and drugs. The will and defiance needed to conquer something like stage fright can be rooted in, as alluded to, how our hormones react and guide us when we are children. It is interesting seeing the reasons why some might take to the stage with aplomb and no fear: others might have those jitters and pace backstage before they go on. Is there a downside to self-medicating and finding individuals ways to control those nerves? The Telegraph, back in 2014, cast the spotlight on that question:
“…The problem is that, by dulling nerves, pills or alcohol also dull the edge of tension and inspiration that makes for a great performance. They also treat the symptoms not the cause, says Aaron Williamon, head of the Centre for Performance Research at the Royal College of Music. “Basically there are two components to stage fright,” he says. “There’s the automatic physiological response to being in a stressful situation, things like dry mouth, racing heart and so on.”
Then there are the psychological aspects, which include unhelpful thoughts, like imagining the performance is going to be a disaster.
“The first one you can treat with things like exercise, which lower the amount of tension-inducing hormones in the body, such as cortisol,” says Williamon. “For the second one, cognitive therapies are very effective. It’s a matter of getting the musician to think about the situation in a more rational way. For example, instead of thinking that the audience is the enemy, and the performance will either be perfect or a disaster, you retrain the performer to accept that there will inevitably be a few mistakes, and the audience is on their side”.
There are a few articles that look at ways one can manage stage fright. Although it might be impossible to go from a cowering and nervous performer into a huge and boldly empathic alternative; that does not mean all is lost. Few artists out there can stand on a stage and be free of nerves and never be affected by stage fright. Classical artists have it; mainstream Popstars are afflicted – it is an issue in every corner and avenue of music. The best way to control and manage the problem so that one can get onto the stage and sustain a career is to follow a combination of self-actualisation exercises; natural cures and supplements – consider, if the issue is pronounced; go into therapy and look at the reasons why the stage fright is so bad. Many assume they are alone and it is not that bad for other people: so many others have the same fear and anxieties that affect how they approach music. I am going to radio and the media more but realise I need to address minor stage fright – looking at talk-therapy and some natural options that might alleviate some of the symptoms. I cannot imagine how bad it is for other people, though. The added pressures put on artists’ shoulders these days makes it all so much worse.
IN THIS PHOTO: Adele/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
There is endless competition so the desire and demand to have them endlessly perform and be at their best ALL OF THE TIME can create insurmountable nerves and exacerbate a real problem! We need to go easier on musicians and recognise those who are afflicted by stage fright. Although few accommodations can be made; having a greater knowledge of the condition and how debilitating it can be will go a long way to lessening the severity of the symptoms. For anyone who does face daily stage fright; there is help out there and ways to take some of the strain off – even if there might not be a quick cure. Some big artists have suffered from stage fright for years. NME, back in 2015, looked at Adele and how her stage fight made it increasingly difficult for her to tour:
“In a new interview with NPR, the singer explained that she was finding it harder to perform and was “too frightened to try anything new.”
“I get so nervous with live performances that I’m too frightened to try anything new,” she said. “It’s actually getting worse. Or it’s just not getting better, so I feel like it’s getting worse, because it should’ve gotten better by now.”
“With my stage fright, I just don’t want to let people down,” she continued. “I get so nervous onstage that I don’t have the guts to improvise or anything like that”.
There is hope, though, that stars like Adele – who can still tour and take to the big stages – have found ways of dealing with stage fright and its worst traits. The bigger question is whether something effective and concentrated – without causing harm and addiction – can be given to musicians who suffer bad nerves and anxiety. The rewards, if that is ever possible, would be hugely beneficial…
TO the music world.