- Suzanne Harper
Stage Fright: Get Your Butterflies to Fly in Formation
I stood just behind the curtain in the safety of the shadow it was casting on the worn, black stage floor. It was my turn next. As I waited for my name to be called, the butterflies in my stomach weren’t just flying anymore. They were like a thousand miniature fighter jets all in catastrophic tail-spins. Someone asked if I was ready, but I didn’t respond. My mouth was so dry, my answer caught on the back of my throat, and my tongue felt like a hand towel straight out of the dryer. The microphone in my hands was suddenly, disgustingly slippery from my own nervous sweat. I was deer-in-the-headlights frozen. Then they called my name.
Does this sound familiar? Stage fright has different names (like nerves, anxiety, butterflies, etc.) and can present differently for each person, but it is a common issue we face as performers.
Long ago, right before a big competition, I talked to my vocal coach about my issues with stage fright. I’ll never forget the words she said to me: “Sweetheart, you just need to get your butterflies to fly in formation.” She didn’t invent that phrase, but it was the first time I’d heard it and it has helped me at many a competition and audition since.
As I described to her the fluttering feeling in my stomach, my loss of breath control, my sweaty palms, and my inability to smile without looking like a ventriloquist dummy any time I was nervous on stage, she gave me a few ideas on how to whip those butterflies into shape and get them to work for me instead of against me. Here are a few tricks I’ve learned over the years and share with my voice lesson students to help them do just that:
Wear ‘em out. The most helpful thing for me to do when I’m nervous is expend some extra physical energy. Those butterflies can’t fly forever! Run up and down some stairs, do some push-ups, or fold into your favorite yoga position. When your body releases that extra adrenaline into your muscles, it will lessen the severity of your butterflies. When they calm down to just a flutter, you can use that extra butterfly-power to elevate your performance without losing control. That little bit of extra adrenaline will give you an edge!
Deep breaths with positive-pressure exhales. Breathe in through your nose, then out slowly through pursed lips. This improves the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your blood, which will slow your butterflies down and keep you from getting dizzy. It will also force you to be mindful of your body and be present in the moment, helping reduce your anxiety. It will also help lessen your loss of breath control. If you are a vocalist, or if you play a wind or brass instrument, this is especially important. Don’t let those butterflies steal that long high note from you!
Pep talk. Many of us struggle to believe in our own abilities. Find a simple mantra you can begin repeating to yourself before every performance. “I am talented, I am enough, and I am ready.” Your actual brain patterns will change over time using a simple meditation, allowing the rest of your body to follow suit and relax into the joy of performing while still being able to channel that extra energy.
Tag team. Everyone performer experiences stage fright differently, so ask your peers if they have any secrets for overcoming theirs. Never forget - you’re not the only one that gets butterflies! Finding a supportive community of fellow creatives, musicians, and performers can offer us not only a broader scope of resources to combat our fear, but it also reminds us that we are not alone in them; and that can give us the confidence to not only face our fear but to use it to our advantage.
These things have helped me immensely over the years, but there are lots more tips and tricks out there! They’re your butterflies, so find your own way to teach them to fly in formation and carry you to new heights in your performances!
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