Deejay Mash has been in the entertainment industry for over 20 years. He is also an experienced event organizer and entertainment consult
The Number One Fear
A classic case of stage fright is captured in a scene from the 2002 movie ‘8 mile’ where Jimmy ‘B-Rabbit’ Smith (starring Eminem), an aspiring rapper, decides to take part in his first rap-battle. His mind goes blank, he starts sweating, mouth dries up and lyrics vanish. The impatient crowd sensing his anxiety, boo and jeer him off-stage; every public speaker’s and performing artist’s worst nightmare.
Most public speakers and performing artists have encountered stage fright at some point in their careers, especially when they were starting out. Stage fright is a fear or anxiety that grips an individual expected to perform/speak in public.
According to Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), public speaking is the greatest fear for 70-75% of American adults; approximately 22 million people. It surpasses the fear of flying, phobia of water bodies, bankruptcy, illness and even death! It is joked that most people prefer to be in the coffin rather than read the eulogy at the funeral.
Experts consider stage fright as a form of social anxiety disorder or social phobia.
Stage fright affects people in different ways. The most common signs include;
- Nervous apprehension just before a public appearance to speak or perform before a live audience or cameras
- A feeling of dread or panic
- A thin cold sweat on the forehead, back and sweaty cold hands
- Trembling voice, knees and lips
- Racing pulse and rapid breathing
- A dry mouth and throat
- Stomach butterflies and nausea
- Impaired vision
In extreme case scenarios, some may get overwhelmed and pass out.
Origins of stage fright
According to Psychologist Erik Erikson’s book, ‘The Eight Stages of Man’ (1950), stage fright can be traced right from infancy and through the different stages of human development. In later stages of growth, a craving for approval from parents and teachers determines how children feel about themselves. Those who face some form of rejection tend to develop low levels of confidence, and this is the group most prone to experience stage fright; compared to those who receive more approval.
It is these early experiences that shape the psychological development of kids and the repercussions, including stage fright, can extend into adulthood.
Therefore, it is important to be gentle with criticism on young minds to boost levels of confidence and self-belief. It is also advisable to discourage cut-throat competitive attitudes in kids especially those who start learning music early. Creating and playing music should be portrayed as a fun activity instead of a test or a matter of life and death, from the onset.
Stage fright remedies of early artists
In the 2012 documentary ‘Marley’, the last living member of the Wailers at the time, Bunny Wailer, narrated how their first manager, Joe Higgs, dealt with the group’s stage fright. The trio of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer were frog-marched in the evenings to perform in Kingston’s May Pen cemetery.
According to Higgs, who took up managerial duties of the Wailers as a project, singing to the cemetery ‘ghosts’ was meant to instill humility, and enable them to handle fame well in the future. Secondly, it was to overcome stage fright. His reasoning was - if the group could perform before ‘duppy dem’ (spirits) present in the cemetery, there was no way they would fear crowds.
These unusual cemetery performances lasted for two years, and on some days, went on all night.
The King of rock and roll, Elvis Presley, on the other hand, opted to pop prescription pills before performances to conquer stage fright, according to insiders. Described as a ‘walking chemist’, Elvis had pills for every activity; sleeping, eating, interviews, rehearsals, performing, socializing, and dating among many others.
For contemporary aspiring artists and public speakers, cemetery performances and pill popping are too extreme to combat stage fright today. Here are more effective and practical ways used by modern-day celebrities;
Adequate preparation boosts confidence. If you are a musician, rehearse with your band consistently for about a month before a performance. The continuous cycle of practice sessions enables band members to bond and create chemistry between them. It also provides an opportunity to improve various aspects of the performance.
For public speakers, practice your speech aloud in front of a mirror several times until you feel confident. Later, practice the speech or presentation before close friends and family. Ask for their honest opinion, and improve on suggested areas. Practice makes perfect.
Strive to possess the right mental frame for the performance at hand. A positive attitude overcomes doubts, fears, improves self-esteem and places you firmly on the driver’s seat. Take some time alone to reflect and visualize your performance. It strengthens your resolve and sets your mind on the right track.
Always remember you are the expert in your respective field, and the audience is the consumer. Focus solely on your performance and forget about the stakes involved. Whether you are before twenty or a thousand people, it is the same thing. Relax and enjoy what you do best. Every task always seems difficult, until it is done.
Make it a habit to arrive early at the venue before the event begins. Get a feel of the stage and carry out last minute checks. Double check everything. Take in the surroundings and feel the ambience. When you take to the stage later, you will be more comfortable and at ease. If possible, have a few rehearsal sessions at the venue days before the event.
Taking deep breathes just before hitting the stage has a calming effect and slows your heart rate as well. It is a therapeutic exercise and has shown to lower levels of anxiety, relax your body by easing tension and enable a resonant voice. Make it a pre-show ritual and say adios to those pesky jumpy nerves.
Never rush a speech or performance because you increase chances of tripping. Move at a steady, confident pace, have a timer if necessary to guide you and stick to your rehearsal script. Controlling your speed also helps your brain to function at a pace it can comfortably process issues.
It is normal to feel nervous, but do not allow it to affect your speech or performance. Maintain a one-track focus, and the anxiety slowly dissipates.
If anything goes wrong
Despite the best preparations something may still go wrong. Like a microphone or the speakers going off. Do not panic, raise your voice a little and continue, if it is a speech you are giving, and allow the technical crew to sort out the issue. If it is a music concert, you can always pause until the problem is rectified.
Notable artists who still battle stage fright
Adele in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine admitted she’s scared stiff of an audience; her solution? She summons all her courage to deliver her performance.
Despite being one of the most successful artists, Rihanna, still struggles with stage fright even today. She has developed a pre-stage ritual of sucking on soothers and throat relaxers. In addition, she takes a quick shot of her favorite liquor diluted with soda water or orange juice to calm her nerves.
During one of her performances, veteran musician Barbara Streisand forgot the lyrics to one of her songs and since then, she suffers from stage fright. She now uses a teleprompter during her shows that displays her song lyrics, and anything else she plans to say during her show.
‘Royals’ singer Lorde admitted in an interview that she gets severe bouts of stage fright that cause nausea and throwing up. She self-consoles by convincing herself everything will be fine, to fight the fear; and it works.
Katie Perry, Beyonce, Emma Watson, Hayden Panettiere, Emma Roberts and Jennifer Lawrence are just a few other celebrities who have also openly admitted experiencing stage fright frequently.
During a show, speech or presentation, concentrate on getting through the first five minutes. After that point, the nervousness disappears and self-confidence kicks in. You can also move around the stage; it eases any tension built-up in your body. Smile while you are at it, it warms the hearts of the audience.
Never attempt to be perfect, nobody has ever achieved that feat. Instead, try to be as natural as possible; be yourself.
Always remember it is okay to make mistakes; it is never that serious.