How do you get rid of stage fright? Well, you may never be rid of it 100% — a small amount of stage fright is actually not a bad thing!
Well into his 60s, the renowned Duke Ellington used to say he enjoys a happy jolt of stage fright every evening.
That being said, Duke Ellington’s stage confidence surely stood 10 feet taller than his stage fright, and that’s the goal of this article; be bigger than your stage fright with these three tips!
By embracing the strategies of unbeatable preparation, acceptance of mistakes that may come your way, and seeking opportunities to get on stage more often, you’ll steadily become so accustomed to performance that you may surprise yourself!
In fact, after a while of practicing the steps below, the stage may be your favorite spot in the world.
Get those reps in...
One evening in 1956, Miles Davis — perhaps out of his own amusement as much as his artistry — decided to mix two of the burgeoning trailblazers of the saxophone together; John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. During that evening on-stage, the more experienced Sonny Rollins blew Coltrane out of the water, Miles remembered. A few years later that result would change.
With this story, you’ll see that with practice — by overpreparing yourself — your fear of the stage will get quelled. Oftentimes, stage-fright gets stoked from procrastination and lack of practice. By putting in plenty of hours before showtime, you might even be excited for the stage.
Returning to the story, Miles hired the disheveled Coltrane full-time to his band, continuing to test his stage readiness with similar challenging situations. Around that time, Miles lamented that Coltrane began to practice so much he hardly got to know him personally. On each stop during an American or European tour, Coltrane would sit in his hotel room and practice until he fell asleep, often with his saxophone still slung across his shoulder.
In fact, during shows, renowned for his boundless energy, even during intermissions, Coltrane could often be found in the venue’s bathroom, kitchen, or dressing room, continuing to play through the break.
Circling back, a few years later, there was a reunion of Rollins and Coltrane on-stage — this time with Coltrane having notched an inordinate amount of hours of preparation. This time it was Coltrane’s turn to take the helm, and his prowess shocked Rollins so much that Rollins stopped playing publicly for several years, spending time on Brooklyn Bridge to match those hours of practice.
Translating that to your own practice and performance, set yourself a routine you can stick with — and stick with it! Use that consistent practice as your knife sharpener so that by the time your performance rolls around, none of your anxiety is due to procrastination — however, your performance goes is the best you’ve got, and you can be proud and excited by it!
Are your mistakes really mistakes?
Another ingredient of stage-fright is the fear that you’ll fumble notes for all to see. However, your ideas of mistakes may be worth challenging. If you can embrace your mistakes, possibly not even regarding them as mistakes, and continue moving forward, you’ll squash this element of stage-fright like a bug.
One more time, let’s use the example of Miles Davis. Famously, Miles said, “do not fear mistakes — there are none.” He went on to add that there’s no such thing as a wrong note; the notes which come afterward can make the wrong note “right.”
In fact, sometimes mistakes can act as doorways to discoveries, opening your mind to realizing that what you thought was incorrect could be correct from another point of view. Watch this example of Herbie Hancock, where he talks about how Miles lived his maxims of ‘no wrong notes.’
As you can tell, Herbie was struck with fear and anxiety on-stage, thinking he had made an error. Instead, Miles pushed him to believe in himself and keep moving forward.
Now, not everyone has the improvisational intuition of Miles to transform mistakes into magic, but know that all master musicians from Itzak Perlman to Oscar Peterson have fumbled notes. If you can, see if you can be like Miles and correct yourself with the next note. At the very least, embrace what you feel is an error in stride and keep going!
Make your way to the stage with baby steps
Sure enough, one of the most sensible ways to quell stage fright is by getting on the stage more and more. If the next time you get on-stage is the 1,000th time you’ve performed, you’ll probably have much more confidence compared to if it’s the 10th time you’ve performed. Set a goal to increase your “count” of how many times you’ve been on-stage, and you’ll be in great shape to rock your next performance.
For example, there used to be what was called the Chitlin’ Circuit. It was a popular touring route for African American musicians throughout the United States, known for being a testing ground for great stage performance.
BB King, one of the great fathers of the modern guitar, noted these testing grounds were where you’d “pay your dues”. In fact, in 1956 BB King played an astonishing 342 one-night stands, playing these small cafes, theaters, dance halls, and roadside joints.
Sure, once he’d paid his dues, BB King would play to tens of thousands of adoring fans at festivals, but he wouldn’t have had the confidence to do that without his experience. Since he’d gotten on stage a remarkable amount early in his career — surely experiencing a plethora of gaffes along the way — those baby steps paved the way so he had more confidence with every show.
Seek to emulate that path; challenge yourself to get on-stage more often. First, try performing in front of your dog — a full song, from beginning to end. Then, promise a performance after the dinner of your next family gathering — again, a full song from beginning to end. Keep progressing with your own baby steps — go to open mics, local jam sessions, ask to play on a local radio station, book a restaurant gig, etc. The more you put yourself through the act itself and “pay your dues”, the more you’ll shatter your fear of getting on-stage as if it was nothing but a fragile pane of glass.
All in all...
Thus, you now have three pieces of homework!
- Set up your practice routine so you’ll be beyond prepared, and thus will almost welcome the performance as a chance to show your achievement.
- Next, don’t fear your mistakes — instead, welcome them as opportunities for self-discovery and betterment.
- Finally, quell your fear of performing on stage by doing it lots! The more you do it, the easier it will be.
With continued grit, your stage confidence will consume your fright, and you may be touring around the country soon enough!
Mitchell Park is a Western Canadian-based guitar player & teacher. Currently studying under jazz guitarist Dan Wilson, Mitchell's musical interests focus on niche, acoustic blues guitar as well as bebop-inspired jazz. On the note pedagogy, he is the only educator you may find who comprehensively teaches the blues music of musicians such as King Solomon Hill, Robert Pete Williams, Peg Leg Howell, and others.