How to sing on stage when you're 'bricking it'

You know the score — you're at a gig waiting to perform, shaking like a polaroid picture and wondering where you can find the nearest socially acceptable place to throw up. The act before you rocks up — a 12-year-old kid swaggering in with a bloody violin, owning the stage and basically doing a stand-up routine in between songs. The audience are loving the night, and you're like

"Oh my god i've got to follow that up with ten three chord songs about melancholia" 

But before you know it you're on, grasping the microphone and staring into the faces of strangers.

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After a long break from performing on stage, I found myself staring into the faces of said strangers, terrified to utter a note. I felt both confused and frustrated. By some miracle, I managed to get through the night, but I questioned afterwards whether there was any point in continuing if this was how difficult it was destined to be until the end of time. Our natural reaction to anxiety is to avoid the situation that triggered it in the future, after all.

I knew deep down that I wanted to continue, so with a bit of effort and a lot of practise, I managed to enjoy my performances again and eliminate the crippling fear that I once experienced. Seeing as this is another one of those things that other musicians just seem to mysteriously cope with, I thought i'd share some tips i've learnt on controlling my on-stage anxiety.

The two possible scenarios

1. You remember to prepare

If you know you struggle with anxiety in one of its many guises and you're having a particularly bad day, there's a chance you might be more than a little nervous for your performance. There is no quick fix, but one of the best ways to conquer fears gradually is by using a technique called desensitisation, which is essentially a fancy word for repeated exposure to a situation that scares you with the view of decreasing the level of anxiety you experience each time. It sounds awful, and to be honest with you, it's not great. But it does work. 

What if you haven't got time for that, and tonight's a particularly important gig that you can't mess up? When we are feeling anxious, one of the most important things we forget to do is view our situation from the outside, and ask ourselves the following questions:

"Why am I so anxious?"

"What do I fear may happen?"

"Is there any evidence that this has happened before?"

When you have an answer for those questions, it might help to visualise a time when you had a successful gig. If you've never performed live before, you could visualise yourself enjoying your time on stage and doing your best. Focus on the positives of your upcoming gig and allow them to overshadow everything that could go wrong. For example, I might replace my negative thoughts with 

"I'm so excited to be on stage again and share my music with new people."

I've learnt over this past year that positive thinking is a lot more powerful than you might think. It is said we are born with only two instinctive fears — the fear of falling and loud noises. Therefore, your brain has the ability to control all other anxiety. It is difficult, but possible with enough practise and determination.

On the day of the gig, you should keep smiling and look forward to your performance. Instead of panicking about your preparation, get annoying things like your outfit and travel arrangements sorted well in advance and spend the time before your gig relaxing and doing something that makes you happy. 

2. You forget to prepare

Sometimes you just can't predict the way you will feel when you get up on that stage. If you're like me, you have good times and not so good times and there's no guarantee that every performance will be a breeze. Or, you might have just been chucked on stage to replace someone else in a venue you've never played at before. 

With no preparation, it's possible that you might have some physical symptoms of anxiety. For me, this includes shaking, sweating and breathlessness. Not a good combo if you want to own the stage. If you are faced with a situation where these symptoms are occurring and they seem uncontrollable, the best thing to do is breathe with your diaphragm. Taking too much air in and rising your chest or shoulders will increase your anxiety levels. Ideally, you should breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. If you're worried about people noticing this, it's possible to perfect a way of doing this discreetly.  

The worst thing you could do in such a situation is worry about your physical symptoms, because they will just get worse. Simply acknowledging and accepting your feelings will help your brain to brush them off more easily as it won't consider them such a big deal that it has to fight against. It might help to repeat a few reassuring phrases in your head at this point, such as,

"I'm prepared for this"

"I can do this"

"I deserve to do this"

"I have practised enough for this"

Or anything else that you feel might help. You could even save these in your phone to refer to at any time!

If all else fails and the sh** is hitting the fan at a rapid pace, just remember that this stuff is in your bones and you'll get through it on autopilot — even if you can't remember a thing about it afterwards and need a long lie down.

My name's emzae and I write songs.