Help for Stage Fright

Judy Rodman

Judy Rodman

By Judy Rodman

Stage fright, performance anxiety, show jitters or nervousness … whatever you call ‘it’… hits everyone who steps on stage at one time or another. There are levels of this phenomenon, from mild anxiety (butterflies – actually can be a great thing) to incapacitating conditions that cause show cancellations and stop careers in their tracks.[private_member]

It’s not just newbies who get this. Veteran performers are sometimes plagued with it. Carly Simon once passed out in the middle of a concert. George Jones famously anesthetized his with alcohol. Barbara Streisand forgot the lyrics to a song once and then dealt with incapacitating stage fright for three decades. Fortunately, such severe cases are not the norm. And the sooner one deals with performance anxiety, the less likely severe stage fright will set in.

I am not prone to stage fright. This doesn’t mean I’m strong or special, because I have other issues such as absolutely no-sense-of-direction! But three times I really did have stage fright: The first time I sang on the Grand Old Opry and stood on that ancient circle of wood, the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and Farm Aid, where they forgot to introduce me and I had to introduce myself in front of thousands of people. When I played these places again, I didn’t experience nearly as much anxiety. It is truly possible to defeat this condition if we understand how it hits us.

Conquer Stinking Thinking

I believe the biggest contribution nervousness in performance is the subtle and not-so-subtle messages we get (and deeply accept as true) from society and most definitely from the music business such as:

  • You better be better than everyone else, or you are a loser.
  • You are being compared to everyone else, and you probably won’t measure up.
  • You better get everything right, and you better look right, and you better move right, and you better be perfect.
  • The audience is judging you. If you aren’t perfect, they will think you suck.
  • If you suck at performance, you will or should die because you are worthless. (American Idol/Gladiator, etc!)
  • You are a failure unless you win the part/award/contest.
  • It’s all about the high notes. It’s all about the long notes. It’s all about the vocal licks. It’s all about the strong notes. It’s all about YOU!

Whew… these are powerfully negative, voice-freezing thoughts to have. What do any of the above things have to do giving someone a message [communicating]? Not a thing. And if you buy into any of the above, you will have stage fright to one degree or other. Why?

The voice runs on instinct. We must train ourselves to instinctively use correct technique, that’s true, but in practical application, we perform instinctively, based on habitual thinking and on actions of the automatic nervous system. Change your thinking and you can change the automatic nervous system response.

Let’s take a pop quiz (check your answers against mine):

Q. Why do we have voices?

Good Answer: To communicate messages TO someone. Period.

Q. To whom can we direct our communication?

Good Answers:

  • To the one heart of the audience physically present in your venue,
  • To people-not-physically present (those who will in future hear the cd)
  • To fictional people (but you must make them real for yourself to do this)
  • To the living camera eye,
  • To a character we’re talking to in a play,
  • To our own hearts (sounding our voices so our own ears can hear the message).

Q. To whom should we not direct our voices?

Good Answers:

  • To more than one person at time (writer Michael Clark once told me that if you sing like you’re singing to thousands, you can’t really move anyone; sing like you’re singing to one person, you can move thousands.
  • To someone you can’t make real for yourself.
  • To no one in particular. This is completely unfocused and is NOT communication. It’s thinking about communicating, but it’s not the act of doing so.

Q. What messages can we communicate?

Good Answers: Happiness, relief, humor, pain, anger, sadness, hope, warning, love, an understanding, a request to be understood, a story, specific information, whatever the lyric is really about.

Q. Where are the hardest places to authentically communicate?

Good Answers:

  • In auditions. Why? Because it’s the most artificial circumstance to be communicating. They, after all, really ARE judging you. You must consciously choose people, either present or not, real or fictional, to deliver the message to, and mentally ignore and block “judging” as motivation for your delivery.
  • Also… in the vocal booth, again because it feels artificial.

Q. If we accept the communication of messages as the primary conscious motivation to perform, how does it change things?

Good Answers:

  • We will assume a different posture and body language, which will affect your breath and the openness of your throat.
  • Our automatic nervous system’s flight-or-fight response will be calmed, once again affecting breath and throat.
  • Our self-consciousness will dissolve quickly into other-consciousness
  • “Stage fright” will turn into “stage presence”.

Other tips for beating low to mid-level stage fright:

Don’t tell anyone you’re nervous unless you know they won’t play into it with you. If some well-meaning clueless person asks if you are nervous, (like RIGHT BEFORE YOU GO ONSTAGE, ARGHH!!), dismiss them as quickly and kindly as possible and later, tell them never to ask you that again! And certainly, don’t do it to anyone else.

Perform as much and in front of as diverse audiences as possible. Your listeners can include complete strangers, supportive family, friends, pets, your mirror, etc. The more you do it, the more natural it feels to your automatic nervous system. And don’t self-talk yourself into believing the second time will be as hard. It’s usually not because your subconscious mind has already successfully navigated that situation.

Deal with stage fright as soon as you know you have it. It’s like depression… don’t ignore chronic conditions; they may grow out of control.

When severe Stage fright is a truly debilitating condition.

Sometimes knowing that your thinking stinks is not enough to conquer it. People with severe stage fright have true panic attacks going on stage. Physical sickness can be triggered from nausea, heart palpitations, diarrhea, even complete laryngitis where the person can’t even talk. There is, for some reason, a brain chemistry imbalance that defies logic.

A student of mine had such bad stage fright she manifested symptoms like vascular knots in her neck and vocal cords that were partially paralyzed. With time, training and trust, she did heal and now sings live and in the studio and helps others do the same.

Sometimes people try to anesthetize stage fright with substance abuse. Besides the obvious health issues involved, there is also this: If the substance momentarily does cause anxiety to abate and courage to artificially (and many times arrogantly) increase, you become terrified to sing, play or write WITHOUT the drink or drug. Not a merry-go-round you want to be on. Here, instead, are two other solutions for severe conditions:


Self- medicating can backfire. It’s always best to get control of stage anxiety without meds, but if you need them, get professional help. I asked James Hubbard M.D., M.P.H for his opinion. He says:

“The prescription medicine most commonly used is a beta-blocker such as propranolol. It peaks within a few hours and slows the heart rate down along with decreasing a tremor. Also the SSRI antidepressants such ac paxil have been approved for “social anxiety” of which stage fright is a type. These are usually tolerated well in most healthy adults but, as in all medications, there are potential side effects that your doctor should go over with you.”


In Nashville, there is a master hypnotherapist named Steve Roehm, MHt. Among many other kinds of issues, he has successfully cured many cases of stage fright- and has even helped hundreds quit smoking! Contact him at

Carly Simon and Barbara Streisand both have managed to conquer extreme stage fright and get back to the stage as a joyful experience. Many other people have done so as well. If one thing doesn’t work for you, don’t give up… try another approach.

Final thoughts on stage fright:

The very act of singing can help in the healing of stage fright. Sound vibrations cause physical and biochemical changes in the brain. Just the music itself (humming, singing in nonsense syllables or languages you don’t understand, etc) can have power to heal.

Encourage, but don’t MAKE people, especially children, sing! Making children perform can lead to deep seated stage fright. Just let them know their voices are important to you and to others, and then them sing as they feel the authentic urge to do so, of course given the appropriate opportunity. Also, teach them to listen and to affirm others’ voices. This will help them believe in the importance and validity of their own voices.

We should indeed “FEEL” something – Numbness does not communicate. Butterflies just add to the excitement of performance. But when the butterflies turn into battering rams, we need to talk to someone and find help.

Keep vocal ability in perspective. There is an old man in our little Presbyterian congregation who is a recovering alchoholic. Every year, with fear and trembling, he sings a solo as his gift of gratitude to God for his healing. Technically, he has one of the worst voices I’ve ever heard. But when he sings, there are tears in the eyes of most everyone, including me, at the beauty of his communication. His performance is wildly successful, and we can’t wait til next year when he does it again!

For more vocal information, log onto or contact Judy at

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