Managing Performance Anxiety

Almost everyone who sings in public has experienced stage fright at one time or another. This can range from a little fluttery feeling in your stomach before you go on stage, to the kind of severe panic attacks that hamper one’s career and  make it almost impossible to perform, such as that famously experienced by Barbra Streisand.

What is performance anxiety -­‐ or stage fright -­‐ how does it manifest itself, and what can you do about it?

When we are nervous about performing in public, we react with the fight-­‐or-­‐flight response, and our bodies flood with a rush of adrenaline. This reaction was very handy when we were cavemen reacting to a dangerous situation, such as a dinosaur about to attack us. The hormones flooding into our muscles helped us to summon the strength to throw our spear   at the dinosaur, or to run away as fast as we could. The hormones also made our senses extra sharp so that we could see and hear and smell acutely, helping us to be extra aware of danger.

When we react to the perceived danger of a performance situation, however, we usually don’t literally want to run away or throw a spear at anyone, so that flood of adrenaline may seem counter-­‐productive. However, it can give us a heightened energy that lends that extra “edge” in performance. So our goal shouldn’t be to get rid of the response completely – which we probably can’t do anyway – but to manage it so that it powers our performance rather than sabotages it.

Stage fright can manifest in a variety of ways, depending upon the person and the performance situation. Common symptoms include: sweaty palms, racing heart, butterflies in the stomach, blushing and shaking. You might experience stage fright for just a short time before the performance, and find that it starts to diminish after the first few minutes. Or you may experience anxiety for days or weeks beforehand with symptoms that include nausea, insomnia, difficulty concentrating, etc. If you’re in the latter camp, try to channel your nerves into some constructive preparation (see Before the Performance, below).

Doctors sometimes prescribe drugs called beta blockers for severe symptoms of stage fright, but as they have many side effects that may be of concern to singers, they should only be used as a last resort.

Here are some suggestions for managing the symptoms of stage fright.


  • Most people find that as they get more used to performing, their symptoms diminish. As an analogy, a study was done of men in the Norwegian military doing parachute training. While their stress levels were off the charts the first time they did a jump, they settled down significantly after the jumps became routine. So it is with singing. The first time you perform at an open mic or a recital, you might be very nervous, but the next time probably a little less so. Still, your stage fright might come back when you do your first real gig at a club or perform in a show…or with the addition of another stressor such as a reviewer in the audience…or your mother! So seek out performance opportunities, especially low pressure ones at first, and use them to practice and build up to those performances where the stakes may be higher.


  • Prepare adequately. Practice, practice, practice. First of all, if you practice your technique enough it will become muscle memory so that even if you FEEL terrified, your voice will come out the way you rehearsed. Repetition of lyrics until you can do them in your sleep will keep you from blanking out on them. If you are worried about remembering lyrics, in some performance situations it may be appropriate to have them nearby on a music stand. But make sure they are printed out in a very large font so that you can see them even if your eyes are dilated (part of the fight-­‐or-­-flight response) or the lighting is inadequate. Preparation can also include avoiding last minute crises over finding music or equipment, making sure your clothes are clean and pressed, and arriving at the venue in enough time for a sound check.
  • Take care of yourself physically and mentally. Eat healthy food. Exercise. Try to get adequate sleep leading up to the performance. (This can be difficult if one of your symptoms is insomnia! But if you can’t sleep at least REST. Try doing a deep relaxation exercise – see below.) Avoid using too much caffeine before your show, and don’t drink alcohol before performing.
  • Deep relaxation. Many disciplines such as yoga and meditation train us to relax. There are also many recorded relaxation exercises available, or you can make one yourself. Or just do a simple relaxation exercise like this: Sit or lie down in a comfortable place. Silently go through your body and tighten and relax each muscle, asking it to release. Pay attention to your breathing and try to make it slower and deeper. Add a slow count: inhale 1-­‐2-­‐3-­‐4, exhale 1-­‐2-­‐3-­‐4. You can even do a  modified version of this while you are waiting to go on stage.
  • Visualization. Many athletes prepare for a big game or event by visualizing themselves shooting the ball into the basket, soaring over the high jump, etc. If you find yourself up at night worrying about your performance (and imagining it going badly) spend that time more productively and visualize the show going exactly the way you want. Imagine yourself feeling great singing, the audience responding enthusiastically, etc.


  • Don’t Expect Perfection. Do your best but don’t get hung up on any little mistakes that you might make. Even the most experienced performers make mistakes all the time. When the great cellist Yo Yo Ma was asked whether he ever made mistakes, he answered “Every night.” He went on to say that he welcomed the first mistake because then he didn’t need to worry about it any more! If you’re too worried about perfection, you probably can’t be very invested emotionally, and your performance will be superficial. If you do make a mistake, don’t draw attention to it or apologize, just keep going.
  • Focus on the audience – not yourself. What are we so afraid of anyway? We are afraid of being judged by people and found lacking. But the truth is that most people in the audience are not sitting there like members of the Spanish Inquisition just waiting for you to fail. They are there to be inspired or entertained. Focus on what it is you are trying to get across and think of the audience as guests in your home. How do you want them to feel? Taking the focus off yourself may make you feel less self-­‐conscious.
  • Positive self-­talk. Remember the acronym for FEAR: False Expectations Appearing as Reality. If you find yourself doubting your ability to give a good performance, or criticizing yourself during the show, just thank that part of yourself for sharing, but immediately say an affirmation such as “I love to sing and my audience appreciates me.” Many of us have harsh inner critics that may echo a difficult parent or teacher who originally made us feel we could never be good enough. Identifying those messages (with the help of a therapist, if necessary) can be an important part of freeing ourselves from holding back or even self-­‐sabotage.
  • Keep the pressure off. It may be difficult if you are auditioning for a role you really want, or if you are hoping to get another booking at the club you are performing at. But stressing over things we can’t control rarely helps us to perform well. You have no idea what factors may come into the judges’ decision – whether it’s the producer’s niece wants a role or they were looking for someone with red instead of blonde hair. Some members of the audience may just not like your repertoire. Or they might be having a bad day. No matter how hard you try, you can’t please everyone all the time! Just use the show or audition as an opportunity to do something you love doing, and try to let go of any imagined results. Focus on the music itself, communicating with the other musicians and that portion of the audience who is going to “get” you, and above all have fun!

While stage fright can feel uncomfortable, most of the time the audience cannot tell that you’re feeling it. And, with adequate practice and preparation, your performance will come out well. You may not FEEL confident, but you can “fake it till you make it.” As you gain experience with performing, you may come to appreciate the heightened energy and excitement that that extra dose of adrenaline gives you, and turn performance anxiety into performance excitement!



Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Robert M. Sapolsky. 1994.

New York, Henry Holt. The Art of Public Speaking, Stephen Lucas. 2009.

New York, McGraw-­‐Hill. Improvisation for the Theater, Viola Spolin. 1999.

Chicago, Northwestern  University Press. Creative Visualization, Shakti Gawain. 2002.

Novato, New World Library. (Available also as a CD.)


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