How to overcome stage fright

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Illustration by Estefania B. Alonso

Professor and student share tips for calming the anxiety of performing or public speaking.

By Maritza Ramirez

Stage fright can occur in many situations — from giving a speech to acting in a play to taking a test.

Fine arts chair Jeff Hunt said the only time he gets stage fright is when he’s not 100 percent prepared.

“Winging it” almost always increases anxiety.

“The one time I was really nervous was when I was performing for one of the Halloween concerts we used to do as faculty, a faculty fall concert,” said Hunt, who oversees the art, dance, theater, speech and music programs.

“They were having me sing a piece that I did not know very well,” he said of “Getting Married Today” by Stephen Sondheim from the musical “Company.”

“The music was incredibly fast, with a lot of lyrics that I had to spit out right away,” Hunt said.

Hunt said he knew the music but had a mind block and couldn’t recall all of the words.

“I think that me not being prepared, me also telling myself I wasn’t prepared and that I didn’t really want to do this, I sabotaged myself,” he said, adding that he had to make up some of the lyrics on the spot.

Luckily, most people didn’t know the song so they didn’t know the difference, but Hunt said he was not very proud of himself that day.

Hunt said as a speech teacher, he sees anxiety all the time in students required to take the class.

“We would rather die than give a speech,” Hunt said.

Hunt said there isn’t a “magic pill to overcome the fear and anxiety,” but he does recommend five steps to calm those jitters.

  1. Acknowledge your nerves.

The best way to handle stage fright is to own it and accept it, Hunt said.

“It’s important to recognize the triggers, the nervousness, your adrenaline — and some people sweat,” he said.

  1. Channel adrenaline into fuel for success.

Hunt said to use nervous energy in a positive way. Let that energy elevate your performance, he said.

“Instead of being afraid of that fearful feeling, use that energy and let it pump you up,” he said.

  1. Always be prepared.

“Practice, practice, practice,” Hunt said. “The biggest thing you can do is practice.”

But don’t practice in front of stuffed animals. Practice in front of friends and family, he said. Hunt said it’s a way to get feedback from people. The scariest thing is how people are going to respond, he said.

“We see people laughing at us,” Hunt said.

Music sophomore Florian Love recalled freezing on stage during a performance lab where he was preparing a violin piece for a university audition. Love said he knew the piece backward and forward by memory. But as soon as he stepped on stage, “my fingers stopped working,” he said.

“They froze up,” Love said.

“I could not place them on the strings,” he said.

Love said it was about 30 seconds into the piece. He was embarrassed and still had to bow and say thank you and walk off with dignity, which was hard. Love said his hands were shaking, and he couldn’t compose words correctly.

Love said it surprised him because he can give a speech just fine. He said when it comes to playing music, it can be intimidating in a roomful of people that know what they’re doing.

“You have this internal voice that tells you, ‘Why are you here? You don’t belong here,’” Love said.

“Stuff that has nothing to do with your playing; all that noise in your head can stop you from accomplishing your goal,” he said.

  1. Avoid negative self-talk. It can paralyze a performer.

Encourage yourself with positive self-talk.

“We often tell ourselves negative things, which creates a negative self-fulfilling prophecy,” he said.

“I’m going to be bad,” Hunt said as an example.

That negative inner monologue is a self-fulfilling prophecy, he said. Performers sabotage themselves that way. Instead, they should tell themselves good thoughts.

For example, “I know what I’m talking about and I’m awesome,” Hunt said.

After the nightmare performance, Love’s professor said, “Don’t say the “n” word, don’t say nervous,” Love said.

His professor recommended changing the word to something positive. Love said that little bit of positive substitution can psych your mind out and works.

“If you can’t say nervous, it’s less likely that you will be nervous,” he said.

Students presenting a speech or performance should think about the root of the word: “present.” They are literally giving a present to the audience. Love suggested being excited about the performance, play or speech because you’re giving a gift to someone.

“When you keep in mind that you have something special to say, you will be able to say it instead of focusing on the noise,” Love said.

The audience might not even notice when a performer messes up.

“They didn’t know, the other people didn’t know; you may know you messed up, but don’t let them see that,” Love said.

Love said none of that matters because you’re giving them a gift.

“Recognize that you’re giving a gift and give it all you got; don’t be selfish,” he said.

  1. Visualize success.

Picture yourself doing well and acing the performance, presentation or audition, Hunt said.

“Tell yourself positive things; see yourself succeeding,” he said.

Hunt said if he were to give last-minute advice to someone before a speech, he would tell them to “breathe and keep up your confidence and trust your preparation and talent.”


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