stage fright

stage fright

Hello,
So I did my first performance in three years, in front of a live audience. The stage fright killed me. I never remember this happening before. Previously in my performances I remember enjoying them, and how peforming somehow pushed me to my limit and I did my very best. In this performance, where I was accompaning on fiddle for one of my friends while she clogged, I litereally disconnected myself from my playing. My fingers got numb and I could barely move them. My dynamics went to #$@! and I rushed like crazy. I also had no facial expression. Actually I had expression, but I looked like someone had died. I dont understand. I used to enjoy playing in front of a crowd so much, now its the last thing I want to do, and I feel crazy for ever thinking it was fun. I honestly just want to stay at home and play for my own enjoyment, and never venture into the performing world. Can anyone explain this transformation or wether I should do something about it. Or does anyone have any stories about there performing experiences.

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Hmmmm, well I guess it all depends on the situation and where your performing as well as what kind of audience you’re performing for. I hardly get the motivation to fiddle in front of my friends because that’s not the way they swing, but oh well.. If I ever do, I usually don’t play very well… Not as well as I do at sessions or in my Celtic Arts Club [Which I CURRENTLY DESPISE]. Yes.

Don’t worry, others are in the same boat!

Cheers,
Armand

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Well, I’ve been performing off and on for about forty-five years and I still have to deal with it, but the more frequently I perform, the less trouble it is. There are some practical things to do that really help and I’m sure we’ll get some of them cataloged here, but right now I gotta go to bed.

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the other day, on a mandolin discussion board, a professional hypnotist claimed that curing stage fright is a very easy thing to do. it only takes one or 2 sessions to cure. it might be worth trying.

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Anna, how old were you during those earlier, fun performing experiences? Kids often are less self-conscious than teenagers or adults. That’s one of the downsides to growing up is that it’s harder to forget yourself, especially in front of an audience. For one thing, there’s more "you"—more facets to your personality—than there used to be. And body chemistry can also play a role—hormones have a lot to answer for.

Before you give up on playing in public entirely, you might want to give it a try in a lower pressure environment—a low key session, or playing as part of a group at a ceili, or even a regular concert, but with other musicians sharing the lead role.

And bear in mind that nearly everyone goes through this, even experienced, world class performers. Martin Hayes once told a story about someone hiring him to play at a private dinner party for their house guests. They agreed to pay his usual concert fee (for just him, without Dennis Cahill, it was something like $5k). And then he realized that for that kind of money, he’d better be "on" that night. He was worried about giving them their money’s worth.

And Beverly Sills, the opera singer, used to throw up before every performance. Some people perform in spite of near crippling anxiety—Tommy Peoples is known and well-loved for being the nervous type, but he manages to get the job done.

Myself, I go back and forth. I can break out in an instant sweat just introducing a new tune among friends at my local session, but play an hour straight in front of a big audience without a care. And the next time it will work the other way around. The most nervous I’ve ever been with a fiddle in my hands was in front of one person—auditioning with a new teacher. And the most relaxed I’ve ever been (well, not counting the big single malt night at the Cody session last year :o) ) has been on stage in front of hundreds and hundreds of die hard Irish trad fans. I was as surprised as anyone.

It helps to realize that most people can’t tell when you’re nervous even though you feel like the seismographs on the Mars rover must be picking up your heart thumping away. And like Bob says, the more you do it, the easier it gets.

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It’s so unpredictable, sometimes the adrenaline you need, you only get if you are frightened, it’s controlling the feeling that’s important, not trying to get rid of it, I think that makes the panic worse. There are some homoeopathic remedies which seem to do the trick, as well as tried an tested allopathic remedies,(see your GP about these.
Just as some of the greatest seamen are seasick, so some performers have stage fright. Maybe as you become an even better musician, you realise that there is so much more to learn, and that is worrying!
If i manage to get through singing in public, I’m just grateful, if it’s a reasonable performance, that’s better still, and if the audience like it, well that’s the icing on the cake.

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I’ve been playing in front of audiences for yonks and still get that buzz of the butterflies in the stomach [sounds like a good name for a tune]. The trick is to make it work for you. That adrenailne coursing through your viens is nature’s way of helping. Just focus on the tune and try to clear your head of all the worry. If playing for dancers then home in on their feet and that should help to keep you sane!

Or look around the audience to find the pair of feet tapping in time to your playing - once you realsie that your music has made a connection with someone all will be well.

Go into the light - go into the light!

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The situation of being the lone fiddler (if I have interpreted your post correctly) for a dancer might be the problem. I’ve never had a problem playing on stage in a group, but I freeze and stumble frequently when playing a tune in front of other musicians at a session or any room , especially if I notice people actually listening. Even when I know them and the tune very well.

Perhaps if you just think of it as doing a job, like a taxi driver taking your friend somewhere. She is the one performing and you are just driving it. The focus is on her but she can’t do it without you. You are playing for her rather than the audience.

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Things to try:

1) Bach Flower Remedy "Rescue Remedy" Homeopathic

2) Eat a banana (potassium helps with nerves)

3) Beta-blockers. Well, this is what a lot of the classical flute players seem to do for performances. I don’t really recommend it, as it changes your consciousness somewhat (as well as affecting/lowering your blood pressure). Other side effects, as well.

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Or a wee smoke to relax the muscles!!

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I’ll tell you what get’s me: playing on stage in front of a crowd loaded with musicians that know what’s going on with the music. I can play in front of hundreds of average Iriish music consumers. Put a good fiddler or 2 out there and the pressures on.

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Anna, the worst gig I’ve taken stage-fright-wise was a lobster dinner for East Coasters living in Calgary. I was playing alone and wandering from table to table. Good money, but AWFUL playing and terrible insecurity. The MC introduced me as "A great fiddler from Cape Breton" which, as far as I can tell, he just plucked out of the air in the heat of the moment, and which is also a blatant lie on at least two counts. Heaps of these folks WERE from Cape Breton and had first-hand knowledge of what "a great fiddler from Cape Breton" was supposed to sound like.

And then there was the wandering - imposing myself on one table after another despite the fact that my playing was getting progressively worse every time I made a mistake or crashed halfway through a tune.

Still, at the end of the night a tonne of people came up to tell me I did a great job (although one person glared at me suspiciously while I was eating my dinner and said "You’re not from Cape Breton" - I don’t know if this was because of my playing, my accent, or the fact that I had no idea how to eat a lobster) and the organizers paid me extra. Which leads me to conclude that no matter how terribly you play, the vast majority of your audience is half deaf anyway, so you might as well just give-er.

Anyway, I’ve learned from that (and a subsequent roving gig at a restaurant where the management expected me to come up with exciting one liners between the tunes to "animate" the crowd - in medieval French :-o ) that roving gigs for people eating dinner make me feel icky.

But I still love performing, and hardly ever suffer any attack of nerves that can’t be contained with a pint and a bit of fresh air. For me it helps not to spend any time thinking about what is going to happen on stage before I get there. I don’t do set lists unless I’m playing with somebody else. If it’s a long gig, I usually write a list of what songs I know just in case my mind goes blank, then I choose them at random. It really helps me to be very prepared before hand, then forget about it completely. That lobster thing I played for two hours a day for a week and a half trying to get myself in shape.

It’s definitely worth getting over. If you used to love it, you’ll love it again. It’s just a wild guess here, but if your performances three years ago were classical concerts and your first ever gig as a "fiddler" was playing solo for a dancer I can completely understand why your nerves would fail you.

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Although I can’t offer any solutions I can sympathize since I went through the same thing. After about 6 months of playing my instructor wanted me to perform a simple piece for a recital. I practiced the piece at least a hundred times and felt like I knew it backwards and fowards until the day of the performance. During a practice session with the piano accompanist I started forgetting some of the notes. Things only got worse when I was called upon to play during the actual recital (in front of about 80 people, mostly kids and their parents) when about half-way through my fingers refused to work. I ended up not being able to play most of the second half until the last note came which I played with emphasis. After taking my bow I left in disgrace. The funny thing about all this was that I didn’t think I was nervous.

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I’m so self conscious I can’t even play well in front of my girl-friend.

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Performance anxiety, Pete?

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Its bad for us singers as well and I think I was worse as a kid, just wanted to completely disappear. I still tend to shake badly in new places but at least I’m remembering to breath now.

The worse one was last year at a beer festival. I had only just begun sining with this group of musicians in pub sessions so I didn’t really know them very well. Assumed we were talking just a small school hall type of thing. Go there, went through several throning halls and ended up in this massive , very cold tent. That along with the fact that I had only used a microphone once before and the support band were warming up and they had a very good, very confident singer. Quite a stressful evening but the beer was excellent !

I’m currently having kittens over the fact that I’ve agreed to do something in my own right - my name in the program, no musicians to hide behind. I’ve got a fortnight to get mya ct together. help !

J

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Singing not ‘Sining’ with these musicians. Don’t know them that well yet!

J

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and its thronging halls - I think there’s something wrong with the g on my keyboard.

J

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When I played GHB and had solo "gigs" I had to deal with the nerves question in a big way. I would usually try to ease myself into a performance with a piece known dead cold that I could play in my sleep. And then start in on that newish tune that i loved and still posed a few challenges. Getting yerself to enjoy the music as you play it helps.

Weirdly, I don’t recall ever getting "nervous" before a solo competition… I’d be a lot more concerned with remembering the tune and breathing and all that, but it wasn;t really "stage fright." It was anxiety, but not really stage fright, if that makes any sense.

After a while playing befoe "muggles" really didn’t cause any concern…I don’t believe the general public can really consciously tell good piping from mediocre.

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No worries J, most of us here routinely sin with other musicians. :oD

A couple of things jump out at me on this thread. One is Kerri’s (not to pick on her) notion of really preparing for an upcoming performance, which is a great idea. But only 2 hours a day? I would try to find more time to really get into every piece I planned to perform. I might spend an hour on just one tune before moving on to the next. But it’s important to approach this work as fun, not drudgery or stress-building (like cramming for an exam only to heighten your anxiety about it). The idea is to become not just familiar but intimate with the music, with every note, and to discover what you love about it so that you can focus on that when you play, both in practice and performance. There’s a parallel here with most of the music students I’ve had over the years. They tend to think of practicing between lessons as something they "have" to do to satisfy the teacher. So they play that week’s tune two or three times through, every other day, and call it good. But to really take advantage of the lesson, they should play the tune as many times as it takes, every day, working on the specifics I’ve brought up in the lesson, until it becomes effortless. Damn few students ever do this, despite being cajoled about it. And then they wonder why they can’t make it look as easy as when the teacher plays it.

One way into the "effortless" mind set is to play a tune three times through concentrating 90 percent on the bare bones melody (and not worrying too much about tone, timing, etc.). Then keep it going, but the nextt hree times through focus on your overall rhythm, making it as steady as possible. The next three go rounds, get nuanced with the timing, giving the tune a sense of lift and pulse, and tinkering around with different ways to articulate the timing of individual phrases. The next three times through the tune, laser in on the tone quality of every note, making the melody sing. Now you’ve got three more repititions to pay attention to your intonation—where it could be more accurate, and where you might vary intonation through slides, smears, altered notes, etc., to add interest.

You can play this little game forever. If you’re on flute or whistle, do three rounds of the tune to focus on breathing. On fiddle, think about bowing—where to slur, bow speed, length of bow stroke, dynamics, etc.

Not only will this give you confidence in playing the tune (you’ll know both it *and* your own playing inside and out), but it also gives you something good and specific and calming to focus on if you feel a flock of butterflies take off before or during the performance.

The other thing that jumps out at me from previous posts is the notion of being caught off guard by the conditions of a performance. Sometimes it’s okay to walk into a strange situation with no expectations—that can take the pressure off. But over the years I find I’m more relaxed if I know what to expect. It helps tremendously, for example, to know that a particular hall is always cold and drafty—I’ll dress in warm layers and take precautions to keep my hands warm so they’ll function when needed. The particular stressors are probably different for everybody, but some common ones (in no set order) include:

Sound system or unplugged?
Opportunity to do sound check or no?
Monitors or no?
Sitting or standing?
Large crowd or small?
Paying customers or no (captive or free-range audience)?
Mingled with the audience or distanced (on stage, etc.) from them?
Some ambient noise or dead silence (are you background music or the center of all attention?
Indoors or outside (think both weather and acoustics)?
Solo or ensemble?
Short set or hours on stage?
Paid or freebie?
Main act or just a small piece of the night’s line up?
Dancers or no?
Formal wear or jeans and t-shirt?
Talking (in medieval French) expected or no?

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Oh, and I should add that I’m a self-taught expert on self-consciousness. :o) In certain circumstances, I forget to breathe, suffer right-hand vibrato and left-hand paralysis, and my left eye twitches like a piranha in a dead capybara. Which is when the tune usually disembarks my brain, replaced by a wicked train of thought: "I think I can’t, I think I can’t, I know I can’t…."

The breathing bit can work in your favor. When I try to play flute in front of an audience (not often), the fact that you can’t play without breathing gets me over that hurdle. And the deep belly breathing seems to put the butterflies to sleep. Now if I could just sustain an embouchure for more than 14 bars….

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In my guitar-playing days I always found the trick was to only plan on playing tunes that you know so well that you’re confident they’ll work despite the stage jitters. I had two rules of thumb:

— Only tunes I could play through at home ten times straight without making a mistake.

or

— Tunes I could record it in one take without messing up. I find my tape recorder fright level is close to my stage fright level.

Of course, I didn’t always follow my own advice. For a two-hour dinner party bookings I just didn’t have enough tunes that met those criteria. Luckily, people were concentrating more on their food than on the background music.

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When I get nervous about playing (not often, just when I feel like I’m being judged) I hyperventilate, and that is not good when the flute is your instrument. It’s really hard to play when you feel like you can’t breathe.

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That’s a good point about "just when I feel like I’m being judged". I completely suck when I get that feeling, no matter how prepared I am or how much breathing I do. It does my head in completely. I trained myself carefully to have faith that nobody is *really* judging me, that it’s all in my head, and that I have nothing to worry about because everybody was where I am at one point (except for those who aren’t there yet of course) and of course they remember it like it was yesterday, therefore feel nothing but warm encouragment and sympathy.

Then I found out, yes, they really ARE judging me. Some of them anyway. But there’s nothing I can do about that. I spend as much time as I possibly can with people with whom I feel comfortable enough to play at my best, and those times give me all the strength I need to deal with the times I can feel dirty looks boring into the back of my head.

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Grego - I’m not sure I have *any* tunes that fit those criteria - and I’ve been playing mandolin for about 10 years and one kind of music or another since childhood. Nevertheless, I play fairly regular gigs with a ceili band. The set-up is very informal, and the audiences are predominantly not trad-initiated, so there is little pressure to be note perfect. Bum notes get passed off as variations, and there are a few of us playing melody, so we can play off each other, which dispels any nerves (but then, you have to be relaxed to start with to do that).
Even playing the odd solo is not usually a problem for me - it usually feels as if nobody is paying much attention anyway.

But what I cannot do is speak to an audience. Even uttering a single word into a mike would send my pulse up to 160 and bring me out in a sweat.

I actually find that I get more nervous playing solo in a session than in front of an audience - probably bcause I am aware of the fact that most people present at a session will be either musicians themselves or avid listeners.

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Yes, playing off each other is why playing with a reasonable-sized group seems much more relaxing for me than playing solo. At a session, whenever I’ve chosen something to play that no-one is familiar with (or interested in playing) the old stress returns instantly.

I also find it’s much more stressfull playing without a good guitar or zouk backer. I guess I’m much more keenly aware of the notes I’m producing (or mis-producing.)

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There’s a book out on overcoming self doubt by a man, Wyatt Webb, who runs a place where people come to learn to care for and train horses. His idea is that horses are sensitive to people’s moods and self-image, so working with them compels people to face their fears and work through them. Of course, many folks are afraid of the horse and tend to blame the horse when the horse doesn’t want to cooperate.

Hence the title of Mr. Webb’s book: "It’s Not About the Horse." In fact, he says, it’s *never* about the horse.

Yep, it’s always about our own fears and insecurities. Kevin Burke told me a story about a friend who complained that his playing had gone downhill. "I’m a mess—I sound terrible!" the friend complained. Giving him honest reassurance, Kevin said, "No, you sound fine, it’s all in your head." And the friend bleated, "Can you think of a worse place for it to be?!"

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Will, while I agree with you as far as dealing with horses is concerned, I can’t say the same about dealing with people. With people, some of it is also about THEIR fears and insecurites, and the fact that they will instinctively dislike you right off the bat if yours aren’t the same as theirs.

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Right Kerri, there’s a theory of relationships that says the good ones are usually based not on compatible strengths but on compatible insecurities.

Still, I think the horse analogy makes sense. How you react to another person’s fears and insecurities makes all the difference, and your reaction comes from you alone. People and horses aren’t that different, except that horses are more perceptive. :o)

The whole point is to think and act based on your own emotions and attitudes, and not be provoked by someone else’s. Easier said than done, and no doubt a never-ending quest, but I’ve known people who were there more often than not, and even had glimpses of it myself, so it is possible, even when surrounded by raging angry stallions, sneaky biting mares, or spoiled cocky colts.

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I once had to deal with a horse that just wouldn’t move at all. Just stood there while I kicked and kicked at him. He hadn’t been ridden for years and his owner wanted him re-trained for trail rides. Apparently this same horse had bolted and jumped a fence with a terrified little kid on his back a few days earlier, but he seemed to know I would have enjoyed that type of excitement, so instead I got a long boring afternoon perched on his back doing everything I could to persuade him to take a step. Anyway, as it turns out, I was more stubborn than the horse - which ended up perfectly behaved after a few weeks of daily abuse. For me, anyway. I think the cowboy I was working for gave up on the trail riding idea though.

I don’t really have a point, here. I was trying to tie it all together, but instead I just got nostalgic. There are hardly any cowboys in Montreal. The point I’m trying to make here is: I really like horses.

Hey, did you know Jack’s great-great uncle was good friends with Mark Twain?

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From what I’ve seen in the news this past few months, there are a *lot* of cowboys in Montreal.

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banana

Sometimes before ski races, you will see the competitors moving their bodies as though skiing the course. They’re visualizing the obstacles and programming into themselves their responses. Some performers, public speakers and workers do this too. In the days preceding an encounter or performance, some performers program certain cues into themselves to keep on track. For instance, a performer can tell herself, "When I hear my name, I will smile and nod an acknowledgment toward the speaker. When the house lights are lowered I will take a deep breath and be calm. When I draw the first note from my instrument I am doing what I want to do and happy to be able to do it. If a large spider walks down my nose I will stop, brush it off then turn to the audience and ask, ‘Anyone collect spiders? There’s a beauty up here. Check with me after the show and we’ll see if we can find it.’ Then I will pick up wherever I want to and finish the show." People can do this kind of internal programming before facing any stressful event and often it will result in a more relaxed state and a satisfying outcome.

Mastering fear can become a welcome part of the excitement of performing music, just like it can be in public speaking, rock climbing, steeplejacking, logging, lawyering—whenever you’re putting your success and outccmes at risk. As has been mentioned previously, your age, physical condition and previous experience all enter into the mix. You can learn to control your responses, and it’s as exciting a challenge as playing music well.

"The Art of Practicing—A Guide to Making Music from the Heart " by Madeline Bruser has several examples of experienced players having emotional or technical difficulties surrounding performance and how they responded to the experience. The book is filled with insights into the body mechanics involved with playing, and the many physical and emotional components of learning and performing tunes.

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"I once had to deal with a horse that just wouldn’t move at all. Just stood there while I kicked and kicked at him."

Was the problem the horse, or your expectations of the horse?

Anna, have you got a cheapass fiddle? Oh, wait, that was a different thread. Well, we can make it work here. Next nice day take your cheapass fiddle to the park. Just sit on a bench and play for your own amusment. You’re in public, but you aren’t "in public."

You may find that doing that a few times changes everything.

Oh, and keep all your clothes on for this exercise.

In the meantime listen to Will and Kerri, they’re both doing real good with this, read "The Inner Game of Music" and maybe "Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind" and/or "The Book" by Alan Watts.

Come to think of it you might also want to read Richard Feynman’s "What do you care what people think?", as stage fright is always an issue of caring about what other people think in the negative sense (not that the book has a whole lot to do with that, but it’s a really good book).

KFG

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I second the recommendation of the Bruser book, though it talks mostly about piano. The mind set is the same for any instrument.

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Give me an audience, any audience, even if it’s just horses, I crave an audience.
Mind you I get nervous playing at home in the kitchen.

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"Was the problem the horse, or your expectations of the horse?"

There was no problem. Just a mission. The horse turned out to be a lovely ride. (Um, hang on - Irish people might not take that the right way…) A lovely *horse.* A very sensitive horse with a keen mind who wasn’t willing to trot around the training ring for just any old cowgirl. He warmed up to the idea of my company quite a bit once he realized co-operation meant lovely long walks to the sweet, green grass by the seaside instead of being cooped up in the same dreary 5 acres of poopy land-locked pasture day after day.

As far as the trail riding was concerned, the problem was that the proprietor of the dude ranch didn’t seem to have the heart (or courage, or maybe stupidity) to impose city slickers on his cold-backed horses.

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"There was no problem."

Then why on earth were you kicking the poor bastard?

KFG

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Apparently Johnny Cunningham also had some pretty bad stage fright. I just heard a story about a show he did with Kevin Burke. They each did a solo set and then a set together. Kevin went first, while Johnny was pacing in the green room. When they passed on the way to/from the stage, Johnny asked nervously, "How did it go?" Kevin said, "They loved me, but they’re going to hate you!"

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I don’t get stage fright - even with a tv camera poked up the nose - but the best advice I was ever given was from my singing teacher.
It works for instrumentalists as well -
1) lick your lips before you go on stage - your mouth will probably be dried out.
2) as soon as you get on stage, look around the audience and give them a big smile - get them on your side - It might stop you begining too fast as well.

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Geoffwright,
did you see my post ?
It didn’t come up but you made ref to TV camera.
M???

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I’ve played quite a few gigs as a member of various bands, established as well as one-off efforts.
I don’t think I’ve ever suffered from stage fright. I had to sit and think about why that was. Eventually I remembered the probable reason. About thirty members of the Clonard Traditional Music Club did a concert in the Ulster hall, along with Sean Maguire and Stockton’s Wing.

Francie McPeake used to organise these regularly and we would share the bill with people like the Dubliners, the Clancys, The Fureys, Paddy Keenan and so on. Being very young (between 9 and 16 or so) we were more excited than nervous about being on stage.

Anyway, at this particular concert, out of the blue, Francie announced to the audience that one of us was going to sing a song. We all looked around to see who was the surprise act until Francie announced my name!

Things went from bad to worse when he revealed I was going to sing "Mama will you buy me a banana?" For a 12 year old who was still learning the rudiments of "how to be cool" this was the kiss of death. I did the song, but the whole time I was thinking about how I’d love to strangle the rascal rather than how the song sounded or what the audience thought.

I was with my peers and there were some pretty girls in the club who I liked to impress. No mission after that!

However, to this day I am eternally grateful for that opportunity as I have never been nervous on stage since.

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"Then why on earth were you kicking the poor bastard?"

For the same reason he was refusing to walk. Battle of wills. If he’d just happily trotted off with a little bit of clucking and leaning forward (as he was after a couple of weeks) no kicking would have been required.

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Probably the poor horse was just nervous. I mean, I don’t forget to breath, I forget to blink, until I suddenly think, ‘ow my eyes hurt, my eyes hurt’, then my fingers get into a real tangle while I concentrate on blinking. I reckon the poor horse forgets to walk.

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Thanks for all the comments. They were helpful

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"If he’d just happily trotted off…"

And so we come around to your expectations of the horse.

KFG

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Well, the horse also had some expectations of me. As in "If I refuse to co-operate, she’ll just give up."

Anyway, I have to work for a living. Why shouldn’t a horse?

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I cant explain why you should suddenly change from being confident to amazingly scared but I have never been comfortable playing in front of an audience but yet when it goes right their reaction breeds a wonderful confidence - until the next time! I have found that I can play much better on a stage when I cant see the audience, for example if the lights are so bright that it puts them in shadow. Playing with other musicians where no one cares if you play a bum note also helps.

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Conán, that’s a great story, but has it occurred to you that maybe one of the girls put Francie up to it?
:o)

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