How I Would Free My Younger Self From Stage Fright

I played the trumpet as a kid — from third grade all the way up through high school.

In my estimation, I was okay. I wasn’t insanely gifted, but by most metrics I was a solid member of the groups that I played in.

Except when the spotlight was on me. When I played a solo, or when there was no place to hide as a member of a small ensemble, I would get incredibly nervous. So nervous, in fact, that my throat would start to close up and my hands would start to shake uncontrollably.

It’s pretty much impossible to make a trumpet sound good in such a state. And as a result, I tanked pretty much every single solo that I had.

For years I dealt with this. And you’d have thought that after one or two experiences with such public humiliation, I’d do everything I could to avoid the spotlight — or even the instrument as a whole

But no. I repeatedly — and I mean repeatedly — put myself into situations where I would be unable to play due to nerves. Solo after solo, ensemble after ensemble, the amount of times that I faced down my fears and failed to rise above them is…concerning, from a psychological perspective.

I was determined to fix this weakness. And yet — I never did anything to try and actually deal with it.

I didn’t change how I practiced. I didn’t reach out to anyone for help. I didn’t do any research on performance anxiety or how to conquer it.

And I never beat back that fear.

It’s been a long time since I played the trumpet. But I’ve learned a lot about how to combat stage fright since then — some of it from experience, and some of it from Charles Duhigg’s excellent book The Power of Habit. And given a time machine and a five minute audience with my younger self, this is how I would advise him to work through his crippling fear of the spotlight he so desired:

Practice makes automatic

Most of these solos were pretty simple — nothing I couldn’t handle when I wasn’t under the pressure of performance. As a result, I didn’t spend a lot of time practicing them.

Now, I know that I should have.

Now, I would practice those solos over and over and over again. I would have them memorized up, down, and sideways. I would have them practiced to the point where you could wake me up in the middle of the night, give me a trumpet, and hear a perfect rendition of the musical segment from my half-conscious self without me even knowing where I was or what I was doing.

One of the things I learned from The Power of Habit is how useful it is to practice complex behaviors to the point where their execution is automatic. Duhigg’s example was an NFL coach whose precision in designing and assigning drills allowed his players to turn their practice into reflex, improving both reaction time and execution by removing thinking from the action.

With much of my brain being occupied with how nervous I was, off-loading the actual music part to reflex would have helped me immensely. Practicing to the point of physical memorization — where my body took over the execution rather than my conscious mind — would have undoubtedly helped with my nerves.

Learn how to deal with physical stress

“Just relax.”

This is probably the worst in-the-moment advice that you can give someone dealing with performance anxiety. It’s like telling a drowning man to stop inhaling water.

After all, if the person knew how to relax, don’t you think they’d already be doing it?

With that said — it’s entirely possible to practice physical relaxation techniques prior to moments of performance anxiety so that you can use those techniques during moments of stage fright — the same way you can have someone practice swimming prior to being in a drowning situation so that they know what to do while they’re dealing with it.

For example — I used to flirt a bit with meditation. It never progressed into a serious relationship — but there was one particular exercise that taught me how to relax during high-tension moments.

A few times a week, while trying to clear my mind, I would practice building and then releasing tension in my body. I would first clench my toes, hold for a moment, and then relax them, focusing on the feeling of how tight they were followed by how relaxed they felt. Then I would do the same thing with my calf muscles. Then I would continue onwards up my body, tightening and relaxing all of my joints and major muscle groups, right up through the muscles in my head.

This taught me both how to recognize physical tension and then force myself to release it — and it almost immediately had a real impact on my life.

At the time, I hated driving. I didn’t have a lot of on-the-road experience, I’d barely escaped a few serious accidents, and every time I found myself behind the wheel I couldn’t wait until the vehicle came to a stop.

But soon after starting that clench-hold-release-reflect exercise, I realized that I was incredibly physically tense while driving around. Oftentimes, my thigh muscles were clenched so hard that my legs were practically shaking — and the physical tension and the low-key anxiety I had around driving were feeding into each other in a vicious little loop that made the experience miserable for me.

But because I had been practicing how to “force” my muscles to relax, I started being able to do the same while behind the wheel. And after a little practice, my ability to remain physically relaxed while driving led to a massive reduction in the anxiety I experienced on the road. And now, although I don’t really love being behind the wheel, driving is now a neutral activity rather than one to dislike.

Doing this same sort of exercise back when I was playing the trumpet would have undoubtedly helped me to ease up some of the physical tension and shaking that I dealt with that led to such poor performances.

Don’t try to NOT think about things — especially outcomes

“Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.” — Fyodor Dostoevsky

So much of my time in the build-up to and during these failed trumpet solos was spent telling myself to not think about how nervous I was.

Like Dostoevsky’s white bear, this only made my anxiety more invasive and pervasive.

I found a somewhat similar sentiment echoed in The Power of Habit:

The Colts started the game strong, but before the first half ended, they began falling apart. Players were afraid of making mistakes or so eager to get past the final Super Bowl hurdle that they lost track of where they were supposed to be focusing. They stopped relying on their habits and started thinking too much.

Just as thoughts of success and failure overtook the players’ carefully practiced on-the-field responses, my obsession with my own anxiety and my hopes for overcoming it only added fuel to the nervous dumpster-fire I regularly reverted to beneath the heat of the spotlight.

Trying not to think about stage fright doesn’t help. And neither does trying not to think about possible good or bad outcomes of each individual moment.

Now, I would try to force myself to think — specifically, about the music itself, and about all of the time spent practicing that particular piece (see the first step above). The NFL players in Duhigg’s book were able to rediscover their success once they were reminded to focus on what they had practiced instead of the outcomes of the game — and applying the same thing to my younger self would have helped me deal with stage fright while in the moment.

Focus on the mundane

On the heels of this last item — having a whole list of other things to focus on — even if small — has helped me through other moments of performance anxiety over the years.

Playing with a musical group offered one big way to get my mind off of my own stage fright — and that was the sound of my fellow musicians. One thing I could have done was try to focus on the output of a single instrument, zeroing in on that sound in order to divert my thoughts away from the shakes and the failure that I feared.

I also could have focused on my breathing — although being told to “focus on breathing” wouldn’t have helped if I didn’t know what that meant. Now, I would pay close attention to the feel of the air as it went through my nasal passages — or the increasing tightness and then looseness of my chest as I inhaled to capacity and then exhaled.

Even drilling down to the feel of certain things like the weight of the instrument in my hands or the texture of my dress pants on my legs could be enough to distract me from anxiety. Focusing on the font of the sheet music, or on a particular ink blot or a stain on the paper could provide another similar diversion from the mounting stress of the approaching performance

The five senses — sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch — are great avenues for things to focus on instead of anxiety. These distractions, although small, can be of massive value.

I wish I had known all of these things fifteen to twenty years ago. At the same time, I’m glad that I learned them, even after the fact — because now I can pass them on! Stage fright, performance anxiety, whatever you want to call it, is very manageable — you just have to put in the time and the effort to combat it before it happens, so that you know how to deal with it in the moment.

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