10/20/2010 12:00 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

'Dance, Monkey, Dance!': How to Deal With Stage Fright

Last night at Banjo Jim's I had the fight-or-flight response when I got on stage. My heart started throbbing in my chest, my throat got tight, and I felt like I had to pee, even though I had just peed several times. I was looking forward to being back home in NYC, and playing in front of people I know and love. I was bummed that the next fifty minutes might turn out total crap. Performing is my favorite thing to do when I'm doing it well, and the opposite when I'm dying a slow death out there.

In the front of three rows were Abeline and Lucas who had both taken my "Sing Better in A Day" class earlier in the day. We had just talked about stagefright. I discussed a number of tools for dealing with stagefright, and there I was with a loud hum going off in my brain and shaky hands. All I could do was say what I remembered Joie Blaney telling me - you're not nervous, you're excited to play - and say, "Apparently, I'm very excited to see you guys. I'm really glad you're here."

A tool came to my head and I started to visualize a tiny sun in the middle of my chest. (Lucas called the tiny sun technique "hippy-ish, but useful.") I let the sun grow until it surrounded my body, then until it filled the room. I could open my eyes, and see everyone in the room in my sun. This gave me focus.

After the first song, I took my time while I tuned the guitar and I held my breath, counting slowly backwards from ten in my mind, twice. This stilled my diaphragm and stopped my voice from shaking. My concentration grew.

I was able to think through the story of the next song, hear the sounds of the piano, and then like magic, I felt like I was swimming, instead of sinking. I had the room and I hadn't pissed myself. I became so at home on stage that when I sang the wrong words to "This Can't Be My Life," it became the part of the show everyone felt the most connected to. There are no mistakes in a live show -- only improvisation.

My friend Steven told me this morning, he appreciates stage fright, although he'd rather have it not happen.

He said that when he first went on stage he was very, very scared, like most people. And though he has a fairly expressionless face and monotone voice anyway, he was so scared that he had no expression whatsoever and his voice was entirely monotone. He was concentrating so hard on remembering his jokes and saying them correctly in the right order. "You might think of it as a negative, but for me it's a positive, because it influenced what people called my character."

Without stage fright one of the greatest comedians who ever lived might not have been the same character.

It isn't that I'm afraid of being judged, laughed at or forgetting the words. It is a physical response for me that seems to happen at random. Sometimes when the stakes seem high, sometimes when there are no stakes at all. It's cellular; I feel like I'm going to get eaten. My mind goes, "Dance, monkey, dance or you're going to die." It could happen anytime, unpredictably, but I love to play, so I keep risking it.

Lucas asked me for a list of tools that I use in when I have stage fright. These are a few (sometimes just one does the job):

  • I tell myself I'm not nervous; I'm excited.
  • I remember, no matter what, I'll be able to sleep in my bed later.
  • I hold my breath. This works better than deep breathing, because it stills the diaphragm. Don't blow out hard. Let go gently.
  • I put myself in a place that feels big and beautiful: the top of a mountain, the ocean, or the woods. I create the whole space in my imagination and bring everyone into it.
  • I build a tiny sun.
  • I think through the thoughts of the song as if they are occurring to me for the first time. I follow the story.
  • I imagine the spirits of particular people and sometimes dead pets that ease my mind, and place their faces in various places in the room.
  • I listen to the music. If I'm fortunate enough to be playing with others, I listen to them playing.
  • I have an inner mantra which is "every note I sing is beautiful," instead of "that sucked, that sucked, I'm sucking."
  • I am grateful to people for listening.
  • I talk as if I were speaking to one friend. I sing as if I were singing to one person.