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Stage craft and how to manage Performance Anxiety

Stage craft

I’ve been thinking about the importance of stage craft for musicians recently and how little time is given to this in music education. It’s hard to know how to manage the stage, particularly when you’re a teenager and are probably feeling very self-conscious. That self-consciousness can also continue into student days and sometimes well into the profession, and from my experience self-consciousness has a lot to do with nerves.

I remember going to Banff Centre of Fine Arts, Canada, when I was still a student and a group of us were given a whole workshop about how to walk on and off the stage, how to smile, how to bow and generally how to feel comfortable on the stage. It was an eye-opener. I had had no idea until then, that I looked so awkward and uncomfortable, and I learned some key principles that have stood me in good stead ever since. And I have to say that, despite this, it took many years before I felt relaxed on stage in any way whatsoever.

Putting the audience at their ease

Nervous audience

Talking as well as performing music? Something else that helps break down the invisible barrier between performer and audience is talking about the music. It can enable the audience to see the performer more as an ordinary person which can help them relate more to the music. But, this comes with a warning: when it’s done badly it can make it worse for the audience. The musician has to practise speaking, make sure the content is good, short and interesting and that they’re not hesitating or stumbling over their words. It’s a different skill and needs to be practised. When you’re not used to speaking in public, it needs to be practised far more than you think. I would suggest daily for a week before the performance. And then, because you use a different part of your brain speaking, compared to playing an instrument, going from one to the other also needs to be practised.

Nervous cellist

Practise it! Stage craft in general needs to be practised, until it’s really comfortable and normal. Here are a few things to think about - teenagers and students particularly need these:

  • Walking on stage, smiling and bowing: how do you come across? Can you look and feel better?

  • Breathe: a long, slow deep breath when you’re waiting to go on, another one when you’re waiting to start, and of course, breathing all the way through the music, is a fantastic way to calm nerves. But it’s easy to forget, so it needs to be practised.

  • Take time: our perception of time expands and contracts according to our fear arousal. In other words, if you’re nervous, you might start playing too early or rush during your playing. A good way of managing this is to count to three (or more) before you start playing so you don’t fall into it when neither you nor the audience is ready.

Desperately nervous cellist

All this needs practice, and until it’s familiar, it will need as much practising as learning the music. And finally...all credit to the cartoonist, Mike Pearse, who I commissioned to create these wonderful cartoons for my online courses and talks.


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