Can we get rid of our stage fright as singers?
For me, I started in a bad place. I couldn't make a single singing sound if I knew anyone was listening. Now I am a professional singer and I love performing - so yes. You can overcome performance anxiety as a singer.
However, looking back it took me a lot of trial and error. Big chunks of my progress were slow or stagnant. Since, I have found out we can speed up this process. There is a system to everything, even getting over stage fright! So I created an entire online course on singing on stage, earned through my own in blood, sweat and tears.
This article is the gist of how to overcome stage fright while singing, the way I teach it in the course.
To deal with stage fright we have to:
- Understand what stage fright is.
- Find what exercises work for you to 'alleviate the pain' after trying all of them over some time. Reprogram your responses, and practice that on the stage.
- Make a practice plan: zoom in on the most productive ones and repeat those.
Step 1. Understand what stage fright is
In my own words: stage fright is in essence a fight-or-flight feeling we get when we're about to sing, and mostly also before that.
I do believe this is evolutionary, a survival mechanism from the times when social judgment could mean a death sentence.
But we all know standing in front of people, talking, dancing or singing: that’s not going to lead us to a death sentence.
So why does our body behave like it does?
The part of your brain which triggers the fight or flight mode has had a lot more practice than you. Over hundreds of generations of people being trained that being the center of attention can potentially put you in a very precarious situation. It has often been safer to hide in the herd.
Right now your brain perceives the stage as a threatening situation. You CAN teach it to change this perspective, and realize it’s not life threatening, but it’s not going to happen over night.
That’s why I say the process of overcoming stage fright and performing better overall needs to be twofold:
- Changing your mindset: it’s not enough to just practice. you need a mental change.
- Practicing that change: And that new mindset needs practice. On stage 🙂
My stage fright journey pt 1: self-conscious kid
I was 7 when my mom told me to sing in front of my grandpa. I would still sing at home sometimes at that point, but I was starting to get self-conscious. People notice, I'm on display. So I declined performing at my mom’s request.
About 4 years later I was singing to myself in my room, then looked over my shoulder and realized my mom had been listening. That did it. Dad was already long excluded from hearing me sing – now mom would be punished as well.
When I was 12 I started attending a professional high school of the arts, in the music department, as a pianist. I joined the school choir and the comments at home immediately began coming: why don’t you sing solo? You have such a lovely voice. Well, dear dad, you just made sure it will NEVER happen. Etcetera etcetera...
As long as there were people listening, I would not sing...
Step 2. Reprogram negative thoughts on stage: pick a 'mantra'
When confronting stage fright as singers, we can either reinforce the fight-or-flight mode by returning to the situation without doing anything. Or we can attempt to make a switch in our thinking while we are in the situation, so the brain will perceive it differently.
So I would like to aim for that second option: the switch.
That’s right. We will work with the body and mind, physical behavior and thoughts, to change how you feel about your feelings, then eventually shift your feelings.
Sounds far-fetched, right? But if you think of it this way, it makes more sense:
If you just go back to the stage and feel all of those symptoms of fight-or-flight without knowing what to do with them, then you’ll stay in the fight-or-flight mode. Because your thoughts and feelings confirm the bad interpretation.
Your thoughts will be something like: “I can’t do this, I won’t make it. I am going to fail. Everyone will think I’m terrible. It’s going to be humiliating. God I wish I could be anywhere else and do literally anything else”
In other words: this situation is impossible to handle. It’s too much for me. A modern version of the ancient evolutionary feeling of a death threat.
If on the other hand you give yourself other messages while you are feeling these horrible symptoms, two things will happen:
- Your brain will in time start to believe this is not the end of the world.
- Also the body will start to believe it and you’ll get those symptoms less and less. Because instead of trying to avoid these feelings, you allow yourself to feel them.
Then the body will figure out that, physically speaking, nothing bad has actually happened. 'Here I am being all anxious like I’m going to be attacked, but I am not being attacked. So maybe this is not what I thought it was.'
What 'mantra' works for you?
Whether you have stage fright or insecurity of any kind around your singing, there are phrases out there that will do the trick for you and counter your standard unproductive thoughts. These phrases will be one part of your 'medication'. It's what you tell yourself -not something fake but something you believe!
But not every thought suits everybody. Different mantras will work for different people. So it’s up to you to choose yours.
And as I said before the goal here is self persuasion, which is a very powerful thing, so it is bound to work. And, as said, you don't tell yourself things you don't believe in. Your mantra will not be: 'I'm a great singer' if you don't believe that to be true. That would only backfire.
When to use the mantras
Start in your routine practice, and use them also in your backstage preparation (more guidance on that later). And on the stage itself.
Examples of mantras
"I can be who I am and that is good enough. I do not have to be perfect."
"It is okay that I am anxious. I can still perform, even when I feel anxious."
"I am a vessel for this message/music. People want to hear the music or the message. It’s not about me as a success/failure, I’m just the vessel."
My stage fright journey pt 2 - singing in empty bus stations
I wanted to sing. Badly. My dad was right. And my mom did nothing wrong, of course. All they wanted was to encourage me doing the most natural thing in the world – to sing – and also pointed out that I did it well.
I ended up singing in empty bus stations, where I knew I was alone. Later still, in the army, I felt freer to sing: they were military reserve, and they would go home after a couple of weeks.
After moving out of my parents home, I took voice lessons. Just for fun, no one has to know..
After the third lesson I found myself running to the bus station - very unusual for me at the time to be so sportive. An extreme feeling went through me, but it was strangely familiar. When did I feel like that before? Right, it was when I kissed the guy I had been in love with for months. So, this is love? I suppose it was, all those years, and now it was finally mine.
I knew I was destined to keep singing. My parents would find out – but there was no going back. I needed to get over my anxieties.
Step 3. Do stage fright exercises
A few exercises that offer you alternatives to the stage fright panic. This is yet another spoonful of medicine. These exercises are meant for the time before you go in front of the audience.
You can practice these also without the audience waiting, but then there might not be the fear factor that we actually need in this case. Without the fear we won’t know what helps to distract from it.
1. Distraction: Look around the room
That’s simply distraction. You are in a room, or backstage, somewhere you can wait before going on the stage. You find an object somewhere around the room and describe it to yourself. How does it look, what's it made of, what's the colour and texture, etcetera.
Then, and that’s critical - you move on to the next object. I’m saying that because I had a student in one of my performance workshops who kept looking at an orange book backstage. She tried to do the exercise and ended up repeating frantically: the book is orange, the book is orange! Not sure if that lowered her level of anxiety.
2. Breathing exercises
These are good especially if your breath is different before a show, heavy, panting, dry throat, or if you feel your heart race.
There is more than one breathing technique, and I don’t claim authority on breathing exercises.
But I’ll tell you: the two main points which make an exercise helpful for these situations are:
- Militant consistency and
- A longer exhale
If you have a breathing pattern you follow which involves an exhale longer than the inhale - it can be a good one for you, so test it out.
Here is my pattern for you, do this with me:
- Have one hand on your chest and one on your upper belly. You want the chest hand to stay put and the belly hand to move out and in with your breath.
- Start by exhaling all your air. Then release and let air come in. Now exhale and count how long that is. When you inhale you will probably see that happened faster. Count it. Now you make it your mission to count while you breathe in and out and make the exhale twice as long as your inhale. So if you see your inhale is on the count of 2, you exhale on the count of 4, etcetera.
- After a few times doing that, keep doing the breathing and remove your hands from the chest and belly.
- Move your fingers and your toes, if you can. Then move your hands and feet. Then arms and legs.
IMPORTANT: This exercise might at first have the opposite effect from what we want. Because breathing in deeper and more fully might make you feel the anxiety more. But don’t freak out. It is essential if you want an option to show the body that it can survive the situation. So it will feel worse at first, but will get used to it with time.
My stage fright journey pt 3 - my coming out
Then one day it was time for my coming out. I went to my parents’ house. Of course I didn’t simply show up and started singing - are you insane? This was a big deal, I had to sit them down and break it to them that I started to take voice lessons.
I built it up for a long minute, making them raise all kinds of speculations, assuming the worst: I am gay, I am becoming an orthodox Jew, I am terminally ill…. Imagine their relief: voice lessons! That’s fine – we don’t care! Exactly the reaction I was looking for.
I started forcing myself to deal with embarrassing or scary situations.
Step 4. Determine your level of fear of singing in front of an audience
I am going to describe five scenarios to you. See which one describes you most accurately.
Based on your level of fear we will come up with a plan for you to step down to lower levels of fear - and out of this mess.
Our levels range from 1 to 5. 5 being the highest level of fear, 1 the lowest.
Level 5 stage fright
'I'm afraid of making any sound, as I cannot stand the feeling of my own voice.'
I think it’s really bad and I’m afraid to actually make any sound. So:
- I almost never sing.
- If I do, I immediately stop.
- If I sing for any length of time, I feel terrible about it, and about myself.
Level 4 stage fright
I can sing only when I am by myself. The idea of singing in front of other people, or even them hearing me, feels impossible. So:
- I avoid singing if I’m not completely isolated.
- I avoid opportunities to perform.
- I rarely go on stage, and if I do I suffer the entire time.
Level 3 stage fright
I don’t mind singing at home or casually in front of friends, but the minute I know I am supposed to perform, I start having anxiety: days, even weeks in advance. So:
- I avoid opportunities to perform.
- I go on stage very rarely, but I hate that feeling around it.
- Or I just do it anyway but I suffer the whole time.
Level 2 stage fright
I feel ok about my performance up until the last moments before the stage or until I’m on stage. It hits me suddenly, like a truck, and I can’t function normally. So:
- I’m never happy about my performances, to say the least.
- I am discouraged from going back on stage: I feel I am not good at it.
Level 1 stage fright
I don’t really experience fear around the performance, but while I’m on stage I can’t seem to achieve what I planned.
- I feel bad about the performance while I am on stage and afterwards.
Which one of those levels describes you the best? Write it down for yourself, or in the comments, and proceed to the next lesson, where we'll make our plan.
My stage fright journey pt 4 - music academy
Because I wasn’t advanced enough to get a degree in classical singing, which is what I wanted, I decided to enrol into the Jerusalem Music Academy as a composer.
During my year as a composer, I joined the choir and got friendly with all the singers. I went to the weekly concerts of the department to see them perform. By that time I felt a bit better about letting people hear me. I worked hard all year and was admitted.
As a freshman at the vocal department of music academy I was at least able to sing in front of different teachers and colleagues. Going on stage was something I was able to bring myself to do, not so much functioning as a performer, just yet. I could go on those department concerts whenever I wanted, and I did my best every time, getting better and better at controlling my voice (and knees).
Seeing the smiley, friendly faces in the audience definitely helped. I would concentrate on how someone is listening and watching, on that communication. Maybe they feel how I feel about his piece of music, about this dramatic moment. Sometimes I would make it my mission to find the people in the audience not so involved, and direct the singing to them, trying to get their attention (inspiration I got from my teacher at the time, Robin Weisel-Capsouto). That made it more like a game, or an experiment. Much easier to deal with.
I sang in group classes, and looked for any possibility to step in front of people and sing. I had to get a grip somehow. And eventually be able to sing anything in front of anyone. I took an opportunity to audition for an alto solo part (no, I am not an alto, but I had no high notes at the time, so I worked with what I had), and got it.
Step 5. Make a plan, depending on fear level
I've made a plan for each level of stage fright.
For example, level 5.
Your plan for level 5 - 'The thought of singing is scary, can't tolerate your own voice'
- Practice 4-6 times a week. The frequency is important here, not the length of the session. You can try to just make sounds for only a few minutes on some days, for all I care, it’s better than not doing it.
- But of course it’s better to have some time for the exercises and mantras as well.
- In the first week, experiment with all stage fright exercises. Choose the mantras that you relate to, preferably the ones which tell you it’s ok to sound bad, to make a mistake and not be perfect.
- Then make some sounds: it could be anything from a vocal warm-up to phrases from songs or entire songs. Doesn’t matter at this point.
- After a week you choose your favorite exercises and do those. You can do it less often now, but I advise you to keep the 4-6 a week habit.
- Keep assessing your anxiety level every few sessions and see if there is an improvement.
In my experience, after a couple of weeks you should be able to tolerate your own sound enough to do it for longer periods of time, and actually sing whole verses, even whole songs. After a few sessions of that you can promote yourself to level 4.
Your plan for Level 4 'It's scary when people can hear you.
... Ok I'll have to bite off my tongue here. In my stage fright course Singwell on stage you'll get the plans for each level.
My stage fright journey pt. 5 - getting an audience
A short solo, only 5 minutes, but it was with the academy choir and orchestra. So I invited my family to the concert. That was 2 years after I decided I will sing no matter what. And what a closure it was!
About a year after that I was finally able to control what I did vocally on stage. I could play around with my expression, with the timing, dynamics and interpretation.
Of course I still had a very long way to go – but don’t we all, always. Artists are doomed to never be satisfied with their own art – a major exaggeration, but kinda true – we live for the few, rare moments of grace, when everything falls into place. The more times I stepped on stage, or sang in front of people, the more control I had in my performances and the more moments of grace I got.
Conclusion: it's not about NOT having stage fright
If you are asking yourself whether you will ever get over your stage fright while singing, let me tell you: you will and you won’t.
The fact that I flourish and enjoy myself on stage now, does not mean I don’t get nervous. I still feel the symptoms, my heart racing, the panting. But I know these sensations better now, and I know the show will be fine. I know what to focus on, which is the experience I will give my audience.
I go up there all shaky, but in a good way – because I learned it is NOT about NOT having the stage fright. It’s about having it, and singing with it, letting it take you to a surprising place, maybe a better place as a performer.
Now, this is easier said than done. In the earlier years my body wanted to shut down in the surge of adrenaline. My body before the show said: don't go up there, go home. Even though it was the solo I wanted so much and was so excited when I got it. Even though I am literally living my dream. Why would I want to go home??
It took me a while to learn that this rush of adrenaline is simply an oddity: my body is not used to it, so it interpreted it as a bad thing. But I realized I can interpret these nerves differently: I'm human, and I am nervous before going on stage, it’s understandable. And it's good, because I’m about to do what I worked so hard for!
When you don't try to run away from the fright, control it and feel less nervous, you accept: this is my moment and that's what I want and therefore I feel like this. Cool.
Experiences overcoming stage fright while singing: Emiliya and Vincent
SingWell Karaoke Show #5
From Scared to Addicted
1:40 Emiliya's fearful starting point
5:05 Starting to discover the voice
7:32 the craziest singing moment for Emiliya
9:40 finding different dimensions in your singing
12:33 Getting over the fear of being heard
15:43 Achievement in Emiliya's voice, translating to life
17:19 Emiliya's "before" singing
21:42 Interview conclusion: what made the change possible?
25:57 Letter of the day
29:30 Emiliya's "after" singing: Beauty and the Beast
SingWell Karaoke Show #6
From Singing Demons to Singing Joy
3:31 Vincent: singing did not start easy (Vincent Janse is a band leader (Vinnie's Vice), blues guitarist and founder of Vinnies Gittar School.)
7:36 the process to change
10:42 shifting from a guitarist to a singer, on stage
15:03 new attitude towards oneself
18:32 Vincent's "then" performance
20:46 Vincent's "now" performance
27:42 Loving the process
31:53 best compliment ever after a performance
37:47 Letter of the day
My stage fright journey pt 6 - Cold showers & Happy ending
In the summer of 2022 - I am all grown up and kicking ass on stage, I thought I'd made it. I am teaching about stage fright, I have a whole course, I am now the expert. Little did I know that there was yet another level of upgrade waiting for me.
Someone talked about cold showers, and how they help dealing with the fight or flight response. But hey! That's stage fright! I had to try and see what that did.
You can learn in depth on how sold showers help overcome stage fright in this episode of my show:
After almost a year of going on and off the cold showers (no, I am not Wim Hoff Level discipline, and probably never will be) - I have made this incredible transformation where not only do I not mind the nerves - they take me on the craziest ride.
In the photo above you see me with my choir - the Merry Poppins. In January 2023 we went on stage in the largest venues in the Netherlands: Paradiso. I was sooooo nervous. This is my choir, my arrangements, my name on this performance. I didn't even need to sing any solos to feel that hysteria - it was there.
How did I deal? The cold showers taught me that it's not necessary to be in control. I was walking around saying out loud: I'm super nervous - in a good way! Yeah, I have decided to say it in the hope it will be true.
I made no attempts to diminish my symptoms, slow my heart dow, relax, none of that. I just took the back seat, the nerves took the drivers seat. On stage it was wild. I have never done drugs - but i am guessing it feels something like that. I was someone else, I was somewhere else.
And here's the funny thing: this is not new, it happens every time I perform. I am not inside myself. But I feel negatively about it: I should be in control, or, I think this is not going well. not this time. This time I had a good feeling about the whole thing. I have no idea what's going on - but i think it's good. Lol.
Full circle. I have not conquered, or got rid of, or overcame stage fright. I have made it my roller-coaster ride. And I let go. Boy, that was fun.