Episode 16: How To Scare Away Stage Fright
You’ve been practicing diligently, and are pleased with your progress.
Tunes that once seemed almost insurmountable are falling under your fingers.
Yes, the time has come to share your music with others.
Yet, when it comes time to do so, things fall apart. Someone else has decided to inhabit your body, just to remind you what public humiliation feels like.
How is this possible, you wonder. You’d had dozens of perfect rehearsals. How on earth could you play so well by your lonesome, and so badly when others are within earshot?
If the above scenario is at all familiar to you, I’ve got news for you: you’re a human.
I don’t think there’s a musician on the planet, no matter how accomplished, who hasn’t encountered stage fright in one form or another at some point in their career. Conquering it, at least in part, is critical to any professional musician’s success.
If you’ve experienced it, whether playing for friends, family, an instructor, or a gig, it can be both frustrating and demoralizing. Sometimes the disparity between what you’re able to play in the privacy of your home and in public is so great you wonder if you’re delusional – are you just listening with rose colored hearing aids when nobody’s around?
So what to do? Do you just accept this is an inevitable part of your nature? Are you doomed for your best playing to fall on no ears but your own for all your days?
Or is there something you can do about it?
The answer, fortunately, is yes (otherwise this would make for quite a boring piece).
And it turns out the answer has to do with releasing your inner zombie.
Who’s Driving the Bus?
Imagine for a moment you’re driving down the highway in the left lane, and you need to move over to the right. Now, with your imaginary steering wheel in front of you, go ahead and make the required motions of your arms to change lanes.
If you drive a car with any regularity, then this is likely a maneuver you’ve performed successfully countless times.
Yet, if you’re like everyone else, you turned your imaginary wheel to the right a bit, then straightened it back out. If so, then you’re imaginary car just ran off the road.
It turns out that when you change lanes, what you ACTUALLY do is turn the wheel to the right a bit, move it back to the center, then turn it to the LEFT by an equal amount, and then you straighten it out (pay attention next time you’re in the car to verify this for yourself).
In his book Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, neuroscientist David Eagleman presents the above steering wheel vignette to illustrate the point that virtually all of the learned behaviors we’ve amassed over the years, and the neural networks that produce them, aren’t actually controlled by or integrated with our conscious mind.
Once fully learned, the conscious mind no longer even has access to those networks. They’re hermetically sealed off from the conscious mind circuits, and the two no longer “talk” to each other, which is why only your subconscious now knows how to change lanes.
It’s also how you can perform so many of your everyday behaviors “automatically,” while your conscious mind is engaged in something else entirely (your smartphone, perhaps?!).
Eagleman refers to these circuits as “Zombie Subroutines.” Meaning that once we’ve mastered a particular behavior, we can perform the routine even if our conscious mind is completely offline, like a zombie.
Indeed, the very goal of our learning is to create these circuits (Brainjo law #2).
The vast majority of our everyday behaviors we owe to these Zombie Subroutines: walking, talking, driving, seat belt fastening, dressing, showering, and so on. It’s their very existence that allows us to coast through our days on “autopilot” if we wish, provided the demands of that day are similar to those of the previous ones.
But just what does this have to do with stage fright?
Free the Zombie!
The process of mastering a musical instrument, as discussed in this series, requires the creation of neural networks of increasing sophistication – networks who’s output results in the behaviors of musical performance.
And how do we know when we’ve created a well formed network and can move to the next phase of learning?
By testing for automaticity. That is, by testing whether the learned behavior can be performed while our conscious mind is directed elsewhere.
Pass this test, and we know we’ve created a solid Zombie Subroutine.
Put another way, then, the process of mastering a musical instrument is about the development of Zombie Subroutines of increasing sophistication. Yes, the conscious mind assists in the process of creating them, through practice, but, like a parent sending their child off to college, gets out of the way once those subroutines have reached maturity.
And once they’ve reached maturity, not only is the conscious mind no longer needed, it can actually get in their way.
Alone in your bedroom playing your well rehearsed material, material that relies on well formed Zombie Subroutines, your conscious mind is still.
The problem arises when, in the presence of other ears, your conscious mind REALLY wants you to do well. So it figures it’ll just add a helping hand just to MAKE SURE you get things right.
Yet, your conscious mind, as illustrated by the steering wheel example, not only interferes with the execution of your Zombie Subroutine circuits, it doesn’t even understand what to do (or worse, has the WRONG idea of what to do).
Many of the best works on overcoming musical performance anxiety focus squarely on how to remove interference from the conscious mind. Though strategies may vary, the fundamental goal is to learn how to turn the conscious mind off while playing (or get it to attend to anything BESIDES the mechanics of playing).
Now, shutting off the conscious mind, as you probably know, is no easy feat. And it’s one reason why many a professional musician has turned to ingesting conscious-mind-suppressing chemicals as a means to that end. That obnoxious inner voice that’s used to chattering away incessantly, narrating every second of your waking life, doesn’t leave without a fight.
But the good news is there are a number of proven, time-honored ways you can make it so that it no longer sabotages your performance efforts.
Here are some strategies for letting your Zombie out:
DESENSITIZE. Repetitions help. A lot. The less novel playing in front of others becomes, the less your conscious mind will care about it.
VISUALIZE. You can also reap the benefits of desensitization without the [real] threat of humiliation. Simply play while imagining a captive audience in front of you. Or record yourself on video – for many, the blinking red light of doom is more intimidating than a hundred faces staring at them. Press record, and play. There’s always the delete button.
MINDFULNESS. As mentioned, many of the books on overcoming performance anxiety focus on learning how to lessen the grip of the conscious mind over you. There are many techniques for doing so, some of which involve some sort of meditative practice (for those with smartphones, the HeadSpace app is a simple way to get started). Fundamentally, mindfulness meditation is about learning how to weaken the power of your thoughts over your physiology.
FOCUS ON THE MUSIC. Remember, we’re all selfish creatures. Meaning, the people out there listening aren’t paying nearly as much attention to you as you think they are. If you’re playing music for them, they want to be entertained, not impressed. They’re going to be focusing on the music itself. So your main purpose is to make good music.
Focus on the sounds you’re making, not the person making them (i.e. you). Or focus on the musicians you’re playing with, if that’s the case. Or the artwork on the wall. Just focus on anything but yourself.
The ultimate irony here, which you’ve likely recognized, is that the very fact that we care about sounding our best in front of others is also the very reason we so often don’t sound at our best in front of others. And so learning not to care so much, so that the conscious mind is quiet and the Zombie Subroutines can do their thing, is the key to performing at our best.
Brainjo Law #17: Release your inner zombie to play at your best in front of others.