Stage Fright & Performance Nerves

Scared To Go On Stage?

Taming The Saxophone
Taming The Saxophone: Vols 1, 2 & 3

There’s Nothing Wrong with a Bit of Fear

We’ve all had stage fright at some time. Some of the very best performers have it all the time, but learn to cope with it or even use it to their advantage. Fear of going on stage is extremely common, most professional performers agree that not only does stage fright never completely go away, a certain amount of it can help give your performance an edge. A rush of adrenalin is what allows animals to overcome very serious situations, whether it’s running away faster, gathering more strength to fight or more significantly making your brain focus on one thing. Also, the odd bead of sweat on your brow may give you a bit more charisma.

It’s easier than you think to deal with Performance Anxiety

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Trying to completely conquer your fear of going on stage is a daunting prospect and probably not necessary. Don’t conquer your fear, control it and use it. The best advice I can give is to work on keeping your nerves under control or in balance. Too much fear or nervousness will, of course, get in the way of a good performance but if you can channel some the fear into excitement, you have more or less won the battle.

Tips on How to Control Nerves and Anxiety

  • Don’t just practise until you know that you can play the music right, practise until you no longer get it wrong
  • Don’t take a big deep breath before going on stage, this will only cause hyperventilation and even more adrenalin, better to breathe moderately and evenly, concentrating on the exhale not the inhale.
  • Imagine the audience naked. Seriously, this can take your mind off obsessing about your fear and prevent you from worrying about making a fool of yourself.
  • Drugs or alcohol will not help to gain a permanent ability to control or balance nerves. Coffee may make you even more nervous or jumpy.
  • Allow yourself to make mistakes – the audience very often doesn’t notice, honestly!
  • Concentrate on your last really good performance, remember how well you played
  • Concentrate on the audience applauding and gaining something from your performance
  • Look at the audience and imagine they are your friends and family, they are not your enemy – they are there for you, not against you.
  • Keep fit, this will give you more self esteem and confidence
  • Wear something that you are comfortable in, but also that makes you feel like a performer. Not necessarily a suit or anything glamorous but it should be a bit different to your everyday clothes.

My Scariest Performances

Being guest soloist with New Orleans legend Fats Domino at the Royal Albert Hall was the third most frightening moment. I’d played with the band around Europe, but this was at home with a lot of English press and in one of the world’s most famous concert halls. I wasn’t actually expecting to be doing much soloing, mostly just section playing in the band, however I suddenly got the nod to play a long solo. Luckily there was not enough time for the real fear to take over, I just had to do it.

Second scariest moment was on a recording session for a film. Director Francis Ford Coppola was in the studio control room and I had to improvise a blues solo for a romantic scene. I managed to talk everyone into doing this when the rest of the orchestra was at lunch. This was very lucky as Coppola was extremely demanding and knew exactly what he wanted. It took quite a few takes but finally got there. In this case it was the gradual build up of the fear of failure that seemed to suddenly get me focussed on exactly the right mood and sound for the scene.

While writing the article on intonation, I remembered what was probably the hardest recording session in my life was for a Michael Caine movie, Blue Ice. My brief was to compose and play a tune in the style of Charlie Parker. I assembled some great musicians for this including Bobby Orr on drums, Steve Rose on piano and Guy Barker on Trumpet. I was quite confident about the tune as I’d studied a lot of be bop in my time, but to play and sound like the great Charlie Parker was rather daunting.

Of course, Bird improvised his solos on the spot, but I cheated slightly by preparing quite a lot in advance. I wasn’t expecting anything to quite equal the quality of Bird, that would be impossible for most players, let alone me, but in the end I got something that would do, although would never fool anyone who knows Charlie Parker’s music. However the piano player, my friend and trusted be bop expert Steve Rose, mentioned that my playing sounded flat. Not what you want to hear when you are a professional musician who should be able to play reasonably in tune. I checked my saxophone against a tuner and guess what – bang in tune.

So I tried again (more or less the same solo, by now I’d practically memorised it). Steve still had a problem with my tuning. I pushed the mouthpiece on to sharpen the instruments and tried again. Slightly better but still flat. So I pushed on even further and tried again. This one got the thumbs up from the control room so I breathed a sigh of relief and settled down for a cup of tea, but not without first checking my saxophone. It was actually about 12% sharp according to the tuner, but so what? It sounded reasonably like Bird. It just shows that being in tune does not always mean being in tune. Mind you, in the movie, Michael Caine crashes his car while listening to the track.

The really scariest moment?

Playing the saxophone to my son’s class of four year olds.

What Others Say about Stage Fright & Performance Nerves

Stage Fright Strategies This article is aimed at public speakers, but is still relevant.

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