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Stage Fright, Performance Anxiety, and just plain Nerves

Most of the things I teach usually don't come from myself (hard to believe). The majority of my pedagogy actually comes from something my students or fellow colleagues say or do. This topic will be no different. So, I apologize if I don’t reference the proper people. I only make these posts to aid others in their musical endeavors.

I have known countless friends and fellow musicians who suffer from crippling stage fright, performance anxiety, or just plain nerves. One of my high school students many years back brought up the subject of nerves. I asked what were some of their symptoms. They responded "I just make a lot of mental mistakes and I shake." My response at the time was the sterotypical "Just practice more!" which I look back on and cringe. While that may be something that does help a great deal, some musicians just have an incredibly difficult time making music when they are put in scenarios that trigger their nerves. Fast forward to today, I have another high school student who is very interested in competing in competitions like the National Trumpet Competition and the International Trumpet Guild solo completion and they brought up the topic of nerves. I was very excited because I have since had quite a bit of experience dealing with my own nerves and I have developed a number of exercises the student could do. Before I could say a word the student said "I heard there was some medication you could take that would help! Is this something I should be looking into?" That student is a sophomore in high school... I know many musicians turn to beta blockers for the answer and while I am not disparaging the use of these drugs I do think more can be done before that option is used. It also is concerning when a 15 year old looks at you and asks if they should be taking drugs to fix their stage fright... Anyway...

I want to say first that I suffer from pretty crippling stage fright myself. When I was younger I was much better in high stress situations. I was once told by a former teacher that I had "ice in my veins" when it came to playing trumpet. I looked back on that time and wondered what it was that I did that prevented me from having nerves. I now realize that it was sheer ignorance. I was ignorant to what I was doing and what kind of impact I could have on the audience, my fellow musicians, and my teachers.

It feels like the better musician that I become the more nerves come into play. It feels like there is more at stake. But enough rambling!

Here are 10 tips and tricks that I have learned from great musicians, soloists, and pedagogues to deal with nerves:

  1. Be Prepared: I know this is a pretty common sense thing but you would be surprised the number of students (and professionals) that are not prepared for a competition, audition, or performance. The fear of making a mistake is magnified when you don't feel prepared. Know the music inside and out so when you perform in front of people you can focus on making music instead of getting the right notes and rhythms.

  2. No Caffeine 6 hours before before you perform: The affects of caffeine can last up to 6 hours and you don't need to aid your nerves in making you more hyper active and jittery. I know that this isn't a popular idea with the coffee drinkers but a simple cup of decaf before the performance will help tide you over.

  3. Get Plenty of Sleep: It will shock you how much getting a good nights sleep can make you feel before a performance. If you talk to any pro athlete about what is one of the most important things they do to prep for a high stakes event, it's sleep! Sleep allows your body to recover and to be operating at 100% on the day of your performance. Sleep as much as your body will let you!

  4. Perform for people more often: This is another simple solution. The more you get in front of people and perform the more you will understand what happens to your body when you get nervous. Notice I didn't say "so you will get over your nerves." As long as you care greatly about what you are doing you will always be some degree of nervous. Find out what your body does under pressure and see what remedies you can come up with. Cold hands? Keep your hands in your pockets until you have to play. Shaky hands? Make a very tight fist (as hard as you can), hold it tight for fifteen seconds and then release it. Your hand should be shaking less now. Dry mouth? Drink something like orange juice or lemonade before you go out on stage. The citrus will help you to produce saliva. Which brings me to the next tip.

  5. Drink lots of water or *Don't drink lots of water*: If you suffer from dry mouth when you are nervous don't drink water before you perform or during! Fun Fact: It will actually dry your mouth out more. If that isn't a problem, drink lots of water the day before and leading up to the performance. I am not a huge advocate for bringing water on stage for a number of reasons. Drying your mouth out is one.

  6. Eat a banana: Heres another fun fact: Bananas are a natural beta blocker and are very high in the B vitamins which helps calm the nervous system. Sorry if you don't like Bananas (like myself).

  7. Listen to calming music: These next four tips are pretty personal to me. I have a routine that I go through before every performance and competition and it has worked out for me pretty well (NTC - Winner Grad Division 2017 and IWBC Susan Slaughter Trumpet Solo Competition - Winner Pro Division 2019 *Humble Brag*). I really believe that these four things greatly aided in my success. Listen to music that brings your heart rate down. Listen to the music with noise canceling headphones if you have them.

  8. Write a phrase in your music: Ok, time to get sentimental. I auditioned for solo and ensemble my senior year in high school on the Hummel trumpet concerto. I was nervous out of my mind when it came time for me to perform. I opened my music and found my mother had written in my music "I am very proud of you and I know you will do great! I love you!" That made me feel so relaxed and comfortable in that moment. I still write little phrases myself or my wonderful wife Jen Oliverio will write something as well. It can be as simple as "You got this." If it works than write it!

  9. Remember why you chose music: Right before I go out on stage I think of the honest truth of why I chose to do music as a profession. I enjoy making music. That realization usually puts things in perpective and gives each one of my performances meaning. It's not about me impressing anyone but its about me sharing my music with the audience and hopefully making them feel the emotions that I am trying to convey through my music. Know that everyone out in the audience wants to see you succeed, not fail.

  10. Meditate: I saved this one for last because, lets be real, its the weirdest. Many people don't feel comfortable talking about or trying meditation. "Do I have to say Ohm?" "Do I need to sit cross legged on the ground while holding my hands in the stereotypical meditating position?" NO! There are so many ways to meditate! All I do is simply sit in a chair, close my eyes slowly, and focus on my breathing. That’s about it! Let your thoughts come and go with each breathe. If you want to experiment with meditation I highly recommend either looking into guided meditation videos on youtube (there are thousands) or getting the app Calm. These resources will help you develop techniques you can use with or without the guided cues. I like to meditate for 10 minutes, 15 minuets before I go perform. I have never felt more in control of my performances like when I meditate before. It is a pretty cool feeling, especially if you are use to not feeling in control.

I hope that these tips help you obtain the performances and auditions that you would like and that you are capable of. There is no worse feeling than preparing extremely hard for a performance only to have it derailed by nerves. I’ve been there and I know that nerves can be worked around. All it takes is time and practice. Feel free to contact me with any questions or comments about my blog! HAPPY PRACTICING!

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