How to Conquer Stage Fright
By Jean McClelland
According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that seem right? That means to the average person, if you have to go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.
— Jerry Seinfeld
It doesn’t matter if we are performing in front of thousands of people or standing up and saying our name at a local PTA meeting, we know the sensations that accompany being “looked at.” We might experience a racing heart, nausea, cold hands, trembling or a dry mouth.
Very few people are exempt from experiencing stage fright. Pavarotti famously said, “I go to die” before every performance, and prior to going onstage, the great tenor Enrico Caruso could be heard yelling at his “little self” to get out of the way so that his “big self” could come through. Ball players “choke,” and golfers get “the yips.” Olympic skaters find that their legs get heavy and they lose their timing. Singers and public speakers go “dry.”
You don’t need to spend years in psychoanalysis trying to unravel your fear of public speaking. You can actually learn not to be paralyzed by these sensations, with a few tools that should be practiced consistently so they’re integrated into your life.
Being Present with Fear
Shortly after I finished college, I went to study with a great voice teacher, the Russian soprano Olga Averino. Mme. Averino was acclaimed for her artistry and demanded nothing but the very best from her students, no matter their degree of talent. I adored the discipline that Olga instilled in me, and I felt honored that she respected my musicality and talent.
We got on well, so I felt comfortable unburdening myself to her about my almost-paralyzing stage fright. Instead of offering comforting words to assuage my anxieties about performing, she simply said in her imperious and indisputable way, “If you are focused on the music, you have no stage fright.”
Olga was right, of course, but very few of us can be that focused when we start out. Staying present with stage fright is what shifts our anxiety, but no beginning performer, public speaker or athlete can be sensitive enough to attain that degree of awareness. That takes a long time and lots of practice. Most of the time our feelings are so unpleasant that we just want to stop them. Professional performers, athletes and the best public speakers have learned how to allow themselves to experience all the vulnerability and feelings of exposure that accompany performance. We all “go to die.”
Using Panoramic Vision
What has helped me enormously in working though my own stage fright is how I use my eyes. When we are in a state of “fight or flight” (which is what stage fright is), our pupils dilate and our vision narrows. We cannot see peripherally. It’s akin to the portrait mode on an iPhone. What shifts us out of fight or flight is to see panoramically, which stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system. Your eyes will soften and become receptive; you will see more, and you will see peripherally.
Perhaps the best way to understand panoramic vision is to look at a night sky. In order to see the faintest star, we have to soften our vision and let the stars come to us. We do that intuitively.
Notice how calm, centered and in the moment that makes you feel. Practice shifting to a narrow focus by trying to “look at” the furthest star. Do you notice how that tightens your whole body? You are straining to see, and it’s uncomfortable. Shift back and forth between the two ways of seeing so that panoramic vision becomes a skill that you can call upon at any time.
When I walk onstage or stand in front of a group, my eyes soften and I make contact with my audience as if I’m saying to them, “I'm glad we are both here.” The audience responds immediately because I’ve invited them to share something with me. The focus is no longer on me, but on the music I’m performing or the material I’m presenting. I feel centered and alive, and my audience does too.
Jean McClelland is on the faculty of the Columbia University School of the Arts. She’ll offer more tools to conquer stage fright at a Zoom workshop on performance anxiety, sponsored by JazzVoice.com, on May 29 at 3 p.m. For more information or to register, visit JeanMcClellandVoice.com.