Stage Fright & the Nervous System (Part 1)


Stage Fright & the Nervous System (Part 1)

Amelia Chan


Just a few thoughts on this huge topic. When it comes to stage fright, first of all I’d like to point out that what I personally find to be a key missing element from most discussions is the WHAT it is. All the following are valid elements in the cause of stage fright: needing approval or fearing disapproval, being sufficiently prepared in our material or not, physical comfort level, etc., etc.. But I find it impossible to get the full picture without acknowledging a central factor: nervous system dysregulation.


All of the elements I mentioned above could either the cause or the results of dysregulation. Not preparing and practicing in ways that facilitate natural music-making is a major cause of dysregulation as it creates and perpetuates dissonance between our natural rhythmical, physical, musical instincts with our playing. The accumulation of knowledge always has the risk of becoming clutter, and therefore hinders rather than helps understanding. This is why sometimes we sound even worse with more practicing. We’re basically adding more conflicts for the instinct and the body to fight against, and making them fight against each other, when we should be working on making things easier. To truly practice productively and intelligently, we need to distill what we learn to help create harmony between all the parts, and it takes understanding what music is at its core (subjectivity notwithstanding).


I had zero stage fright when I was a child-performing was as mundane as eating soup. (I was never excited about it either.) When I started having physical discomfort and technical difficulties that I couldn’t solve as a teenager, I began to experience performance anxiety, with a good dose of depression due to feeling hopeless about finding solutions. When I was in conservatory, I  had to take a leave of absence only after a year or so of school due to physical pain when playing. I still had no answers, but somehow being away from music made me realize that I wanted to pursue it. And when I came back, that was when my stage fright took on a whole new flavor. A whole new, desperate, flavor, that became crippling. I’d struggled with it for years, but have come to find some things to be of help.


I don’t believe that stage fright can be worked on by only looking at our professional selves. Everyone has a history of trauma to different extents. Trauma could include a whole host of things. Physical traumas like accidents or even surgeries; psychological ones like abuse – they all leave their marks on the nervous system. Understanding our own patterns of trauma and how our life experiences have affected us directly contribute to how we can work on our stage fright.


And in working with stage fright, what we’d like to create is resilience. Resilience is not gritting our teeth to push through. (My phone autocorrected stage “fright” to stage “fight” just now-and that is exactly what we don’t want!) Resilience makes something that used to be impossible possible; what was difficult easier. In resilience there’s ease. It’s finding the joy in the flow of any new-found ease. Its expanding one’s capacity. It’s not just some woo-woo mumbo jumbo. Again, real work on truly understanding what music is and what music-making entails will directly help in developing resilience. In other words, I believe that resilience is not just about character, as is often implied, but equally importantly, requires intelligence.


The idea of keeping the fire stoked has personally helped my stage fright a lot. While many things need methodical, organized repetitions in practice, I would not be able to perform well without always aiming for a new layer in anything that I’m preparing. It’s a balancing act. Finding new layers keeps things fresh, and it hones one’s focus in a way that leaves much less room for nervousness. But the newness also needs to be sufficiently incorporated into our playing so as not to distract. It takes time and experience to know where the line is between still having some new layers in your program the day before a concert, and how the body still having the comfort of a level of familiarity in how it’d have to move. My performances that have given me the most satisfaction-where I’d feel inspired and spontaneous on stage, more on fire than I’d felt in any rehearsal, where they were acts of liberation and letting go instead of strained adherences-have been ones where I was able to have the discipline and organization to prepare this way. When things don’t go as well as I like-I usually have a good sense now as to where in my preparation could have been better.


But then life isn’t perfect. Sometimes we simply don’t have the mental or physical energy, or time, to prepare in that ideal way that we’d like. Acceptance is an integral part of stage fright, but how to actually find it? It’s not a “mindset” that you can do breathing exercises or “stretches” into. Positive thinking will not get you there. It is a long game. It is the result of knowing how to practice efficiently and effectively and understanding your own reaction to concert stress. It comes from enough performance experience to have faith that you know the correspondence between your preparation level and confidence level on stage (Seek and create opportunities if they’re not being presented to you.). Being able to accept anything is a form of being at peace. As one learns to practice well, when practice actually yield results, it becomes easier to accept what improvement hadn’t happened yet. It also has everything to do with how organized we are with our preparation. There are things that are impossible to fix the day before a performance. With experience, you’ll know what they are. And if you’ve done the bulk of work sufficiently ahead of time, it becomes easier to accept that there would be no guarantee with the little bit that you had not been able to spend quite enough time on. To have acceptance is to have confidence. Confidence is not fake it till you make it, but that you can comfortably own what you present to the world at any given moment. The more you can own, the more confident you are.


(I hold different views on a concept like confidence from how it’s commonly defined. To me it is not even a quality that one needs to develop, but that it is a natural result of being on the right track of working on the right things. If you lack confidence, you don’t work on your confidence. By the same token, I find the ideas of self-esteem, even kindness to be kind of the same thing. They’re not things in and of themselves, and any work to “develop” those qualities would simply be false.)



To be continued in Part 2.

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