As the holiday season arrives, I find students are seizing extra opportunities to perform live – sometimes for the first time. Often, the last lesson preceding their event is spent discussing the finer points of stage presence, and its ability to boost a performance. Inexperienced performers are often overwhelmed by nerves leading up to and during a gig. Shaking hands, knees, racing heart, difficulty breathing: all typical signs of stage anxiety. Instead of enjoying their song, students will wear themselves out combatting the feelings of stress through the performance and will often make getting off stage as quickly as possible the focus of their efforts. What can be done to alleviate the nerves?
Try to perform often. The more a student gets out on stage, the less each individual event feels like The Most Important Performance Ever. If a student is only performing in recital once or twice a year, the pressure to do well feels more intense than if a student is performing monthly. Not every performance will be perfect; but small mistakes will be easier to move past if a student has another opportunity immediately on the horizon to prepare for.
Put performing in the Correct Perspective. Writing from the perspective of a vocalist and vocal instructor, I have first-hand experience getting caught up in the emotional message a song. Time and again I have found myself or my students putting their feelings about a piece before accurate musical interpretation, using correct breathing technique, or beauty of tone, etc. Often the performance becomes so singer-focused that it’s easy to forget why the audience is even present. When musicians make the performance all about themselves without taking the audience into consideration, both parties come away less satisfied. Being emotionally invested is not a bad thing – I consider it integral to a sincere performance – but being self-absorbed is a hindrance. I encourage students to remember that the audience’s enjoyment is their primary focus of any performance. Consider the performance a gift you would like to share with the audience and that the effort put into learning and perfecting a piece is in their honor.
Work on your stage presence early. There is a lot of physical coordination that goes into singing in tune, breathing at appropriate times, and controlling the quality of the sound. Often stage presence and gesturing are shunted to the side as something to consider “if there’s time.” I will never forget the student who decided as she walked on stage that she should try adding gestures to enliven her performance. After reviewing a recording, we agreed that her last-minute addition was awkward and distracting for the audience. Instead, any sort of characterization should be introduced early and practiced as soon as the song is learned well enough for the student to look away from their sheet music. That may mean choosing a song earlier, or preparing a slightly easier song that allows for faster memorization. Additionally, the characterization that is presented during a song should be balanced by the stage presence a student exhibits before and after their performance while they are still in front of the audience. Working on confident stance, refraining from nervous fidgeting, graciously accepting applause, and acknowledging the accompanist are all gestures that can, and should, be rehearsed. Students who adopt the posture and behavior of confidence will often find that they end up feeling more poised than they anticipated. More importantly, confidence puts the audience at ease. Stand up tall, take a deep breath, and smile to let the audience know you are excited to be there.
Be prepared. This should go without saying, but the suggestions above are worthless if a student hasn’t put in the practice required to successfully perform. There is a definite difference between the jitters before a performance and the panic that a performer feels when they know they have not done what they should have. The only surefire way to avoid pre-performance panic is to practice diligently over time. Cramming the day before a performance will never give you the peace of mind gained from choosing to put in effort daily. Give future-you the gift of an excellent performance: practice the way you should.