Stage fright plagues all kinds of performers—actors, singers, public speakers, musicians, politicians, even teachers. It’s natural to be nervous. Stage fright is a side effect of any talent. It’s a fear of failure, because we care; because we know we have potential and we don’t want to let ourselves down. We want to do our talent justice, but it’s one thing to do something privately and it’s another to put yourself out there in public, at the mercy of your audience.
My musical fixation started during a dark time in my life. I spent a lot of time alone. I sang to comfort myself, to pass the time, to feel less lonely. My only audience consisted of myself, my two cats and my dog. Eventually, I began developing an inexorable need to be heard. I needed somebody to know, other than me. I needed validation. Recognition. But an equal if not stronger force inside me prevented me from letting anybody listen.
Stage fright kept my singing secret from my friends and family for many long, tormenting months. Ultimately, it was my laptop that bridged the gap between my audience and me. I began making recordings of myself, using the QuickTime application. Even singing for my laptop made me nervous at first because the prospect of a virtual audience is the closest I’d ever been to being heard. After a few takes of each song, my nerves slowly subsided, and I was finally able to capture the confidence I knew singing alone.
I sent a few recordings to a friend I’ve known since high school named Loui, who’s a drummer and guitarist in a band. At first I told him they were recordings of a friend of mine, a local artist who wanted to know if she was any good. He said she was. I worried if I told him it was me right off the bat, he would have been less honest. Eventually I told him it was me. His disbelief was reassuring for some reason. He was impressed. Impressing people is immensely satisfying and propelled me to seek any recognition I could get.
If you suffer from stage fright, take advantage of technology. Your laptop allows you to perform alone and still be heard. If you’re too nervous to connect with someone you know personally, like I did, post videos on YouTube. Keep your channel anonymous if you prefer. Keep your identity a mystery. Take baby steps. The first step is to find an audience from the privacy of somewhere you are comfortable performing privately. Once you bridge that barrier, the wall starts coming down.
I began compulsively sending recordings of me singing to Loui. Whenever we met in person, he begged me to sing for him, and I refused. I wasn’t ready. He tortured me with my recordings. He played them in front of me when I refused to sing in person. It was awful. But as unbearable as it was hearing my singing in the presence of another human being, it was an important step toward overcoming stage fright. This form of torture made it possible for my audience to be in the same room as me, listening to my performance, without me even having to perform. It desensitized me to my nerves a little bit, and brick by brick, the wall came down.
The next step was to actually sing in front of someone. This part wasn’t easy (not that any of it is). Naturally, the person that I chose was Loui. He’d come over, ask me to sing, and I’d say no, and that became our routine for quite some time. I wasn’t comfortable singing for him in my room. It wasn’t the right place. Finding the right place is important. Finally, we moved the operation to his music room, a room equipped with amplifiers, speakers, cables, microphones, drums, guitars and Guinness. I felt more qualified to sing because the purpose of the room was to make music. Having a microphone in front of me entitled me to sing.
The next step after that was to perform live for an audience. Technically, I’d already done this—Loui was an audience. But performing for a close friend and fellow musician is different than singing for a room full of strangers with the spotlight on me. Loui convinced me to accompany him at open mic one night, and I agreed. We chose three songs and practiced them religiously until they came as naturally as breathing. My nervousness in front of Loui disappeared once I had something even more terrifying to look forward to, and that was progress. I became comfortable singing in front of someone—something that would have seemed impossible for me just weeks before.
Finally, open mic arrived. Our name was the first one on the list. This wasn’t my decision—all the other spots were already filled. But ultimately, I think being first worked in my favor. The longer I waited, the more nervous I was. The fifteen minutes preceding our performance were the worst fifteen minutes of my life (so it seemed at the time). Every fiber in my body ached to escape, but ultimately I knew the short-term, fifteen-minute torture would be nothing compared to the long-term torment and regret if I didn’t go through with our performance. I didn’t care if it was perfect at that point—I just wanted it to be over. The sooner I got up there and did it, the sooner it would end.
Our name was called, and Loui and I took the stage. Loui started strumming and I started singing. It wasn’t good, although it could have been much worse. I was quiet and spent the whole time singing to my feet, but I got through it. I knew I could do better, but my goal wasn’t to do my best—it wasn’t even to do well—it was simply to do it. And I did. Whether or not the audience applauded, I have no recollection. All my senses were on mute. But now that I’ve done it and I lived to tell the tale, I know it won’t kill me—I’ll survive. It will be scary, sure, but I can do it, and next time, I’ll do it even better.
Loui performing with me was enormously important for two reasons. For one thing, I wasn’t alone, so the spotlight was on both of us and not just me. Secondly, he had invested time and energy in practicing with me. If I bailed on performing, I would have wasted Loui’s time. I would have let him down. On top of that, I had invited several friends to attend. I recommend you do this too, because the more people you have invested in your performance, the more obligated you are to go through with it.
If open mic is too intimidating and you’re not ready for a stage, why not the sidewalk? A bus stop? A train station? Street performing may be easier because you’re not the focus of your audience’s attention. Passers by can stop and listen or continue on their way. It’s casual. But the advantage of an event like open mic is it’s a set time and place you can commit to. Commitment and discipline are key.
The most important aspect of your first performance is your expectation. Expect mistakes and imperfections. You may stutter and your voice may crack. You will forget the chords or lyrics. Your voice and hands will shake because you’re nervous. Expect these things. You can be prepared and still be scared.
And don’t expect to overcome your stage fright in one shot. It’s part of you, and it will stay with you for life. All you can do is learn to manage it. Control it. Cope with it. Conquer it. You are a soldier, fighting a faceless enemy, a parasite that lives inside you. Strengthening yourself against it is a slow and painful process. It takes time, patience, and frustration.
Since all my practice slaughtering my stage fright with Loui, my musical comrade in arms, it’s become much easier for me to manage. I recently began a band, believe it or not, by accident. A friend of mine named Haley and I were out on an adventure, with no intention of starting a band, exploring the ruins of a bunker across the bay from where we live. We discovered an opening to a dark room, and by dark I mean pitch black. There was no telling where the room began or ended, or how low the floor was, or if there was one at all. We went inside and sat in darkness, facing each other, in an empty cement room.
Perfect acoustics, so we sang.
I had practice singing in front of people at this point, but Haley hadn’t. The complete and total darkness and the privacy of the abandoned ruins made it easier for her to let her guard down in front of me. She couldn’t even see me. For all she could tell, I wasn’t even there. I was nothing but an echo.
Since discovering the bunker, we’ve now claimed it as our territory. Our sense of ownership of “our spot” empowers us to overcome our nervousness. We don’t shy away from strangers passing through, we just keep singing. We’ve had a few successful recording sessions in our spot and started a channel for our band on YouTube. Young Ruins. Look us up.
The point is: it’s that easy. We did it, and so can you.
When it comes to conquering your nervousness, finding the right place and the right person is key. Surround yourself with people who share your passions and talents. Ultimately, your need to be discovered will conquer your nervousness. The prospect of never being heard is scarier than the risk of someone hearing. Make it happen. Find a place that’s suitable, somewhere you’re comfortable performing, and someone you’re comfortable performing with. Take it one step at a time. Seek out support. Make your own opportunities. There are no rules, and there’s nothing to lose. Consider your stage fright a challenge from yourself. Challenge accepted. Show us what you got—We dare you.