How to Deal With Stage Fright as a Worship Musician
I recently re-read this post on Musicademy in which Tim Bowdler wonderfully tells the story of how his stage fright – helped by a rather undiscerning bandleader – resulted in one of the most embarrassing gigs of his life.
And I can relate. I used to be full of fear when going on stage – so much that once my left leg shook so hard I thought I’d lose control over my HiHat.
But over the years I’ve developed a dependable method of dealing with stage fright. And since I’ve heard and read of many other people who are nervous or even anxious to give his / her all in front of a congregation of hundreds of people – I wanted to share my method.
What stage fright really is
It all begins with understanding what stage fright is. And in the sense that I mean it, this is easy enough. Underlying stage fright is some form of fear. Perhaps the of not living up to your or someone else’s expectations. But really, it doesn’t matter how you conceptualize that fear, because my way around it is precisely non-conceptual.
The first step
The first step is to merely accept that – for some reason or another – you’re afraid to go on stage in front of the congregation. In severe cases like mine (early on in my drumming) you might even notice physical symptoms like shaking, an increased heart rate or an accelerated breathing pattern. That is good. As long as you don’t try to ignore or work against it. Acceptance is the name of the game, and by applying it you’re practicing what lies at heart of Christianity.
So once you’re noticing any mental or physical signs of stage fright, show your body that you accept them by attending to them. Try to find a quiet place where you can comfortably sit down and close your eyes. In my experience this is easily possible before playing a service as most people would be more than willing to give you some space for prayer. And to me, what follows is essentially a form of prayer because you’re getting in touch with your inner life.
So sit down in a quiet space and close your eyes. Your ultimate aim is to concentrate on the sensation of fear in your body. For fear is an emotion and emotions consist of thoughts plus a bodily sensations. What we are trying to achieve now, however, is to separate the thoughts from the sensation and to concentrate only on the latter. Because without the thought of whatever horrible thing might happen if you don’t play your best or even mess up a song – without that, you’ll be able to feel the fear as it is without the mental horror scenarios. Once you’ve done this a few times, there won’t even be room for your mind to judge the feeling as something bad. By that point, the fear will only feel like a knot or some kind of blockage inside your body. And depending on how long you sit with it, it might even resolve into a surge of energy. Or it won’t. In any case, you’ll feel much better and much more prepared to play your best music afterwards.
So that’s the aim and here’s how you get there. Once you’ve sat down and closed your eyes, focus on your breathing as it goes in and out. Your breath is your anchor and is supposed to help to not get carried away by the thoughts that enter your mind. So you concentrate on your breathing and count each in- and out-breath. This is your indicator of where you’ve been carried away by thoughts. For if you’ve lost track of your counting, you know you’ve been carried away. And this does happen – especially when first practicing this method. So don’t be angry with yourself, don’t produce more thought, and, most importantly, don’t abort the practice. Just let the thought go and return to your breathing and counting.
Once you’ve done this for a couple of minutes, you will notice that your mind quiets down and you’re able to focus on the sensation in your body without being carried away. This sensation will be in a particular part of your body. And it is this part that you should now focus on. Again, the purpose is not to work against this sensation or to wish it away. In inner work, acceptance is key. So just give this sensation your undivided attention. And just keep it that way for a while.
It is certain that the feeling will dissolve after a while – but it might well be a long while and you might not have that time going into a service. In my life, it was actually quite rare that a feeling completely resolved in the 10 or so minutes I spent doing this before going into a gig. But without exception, this method enabled me to go on stage and sit behind my drum set feeling much better (because “feeling” was exactly what I allowed myself to do). And without exception, I was able to completely focus on the music as soon as the first note was played. Many of my students have had similar results.
I encourage you to try it out. It’s not only helpful in a worship or musical context. It helps with any upset in your daily life. But first and foremost I hope that it will enrich your music and your worship and that of everyone listening to you!
We tackle the issue of stage fright in many of our courses. It is particularly a challenge for drummers (for whom nerves can make them speed up before a fill), worship leaders and any musician, such as a guitarist or keys player who is expected to “carry” a lot of the sound. It all sounds great in practice but then in the live setting you forget to breathe properly, your hands shake as the adrenaline kicks in. You can learn more about how to overcome this by watching our courses – they are available on DVD but the best value is a subscription to all of them! You can watch some free lessons here.
About the author
Yannick Weiler has been drumming since 1998 and played in formations ranging from worship bands over classical orchestras to rock bands. Throughout his drumming journey has gone through a fair variety of lessons and drum gear and now writes about those with a focus on electronic drums at www.kickstartyourdrumming.com. You’re most welcome to get in touch with him over there!