I’ve recently updated our third instalment of my Top Tips for Trad Musicians series, that has people talking (see comment below!).
I want to address an issue I mentioned briefly in my previous article that affects a surprising number of musicians. Nerves. Or, more importantly, how to overcome them.

I’ve encountered many people over the years whose nerves have simply gotten the better of them whenever it came time to perform in public – skilled musicians whose technical abilities were up to scratch, but whose stage fright prevented them from achieving the performance standard they were capable of. Now obviously performance isn’t for everyone, but it is a shame to see such potential hidden away, especially when it’s due to an issue that can be overcome.

Luckily for those who do struggle with the dreaded stage fright, traditional Irish music is extremely community oriented. People come together to play in groups at Irish music sessions, with the main focus being on playing and sharing music for the sheer enjoyment and camaraderie of it all. That does not mean however that the opportunity for solo performance does not present itself.

The Fleadh Cheoil for example – Ireland’s largest celebration of traditional Irish music – is after all a competition that takes place at county, provincial and national level, not just in Ireland but throughout the world. For those growing up through the ranks of the thousands of Comhaltas branches throughout Ireland, the UK and North America, competing at the Fleadh each year is an annual tradition that’s part and parcel of learning to play traditional Irish music.

Competition aside, there are also countless other performance opportunities that present themselves to Irish musicians – from concert tours to pub gigs, paid session work and even in its most basic form, just starting off a tune at a local session.

So if the thought of playing solo in public (or even as part of a duet, trio or small ensemble) makes your skin crawl, then keep reading to discover what you can do to tackle those nerves head on, and show them who’s boss.
 How to Overcome Nerves & Stagefright

The Symptoms of Stage Fright

If you’re one of the lucky few who’s never experience performance anxiety then let me fill you in on how these symptoms can manifest…

Essentially your body misinterprets your sense of fear as perception of a threat, triggering a sort of ‘fight or flight’ mode. This sudden surge of adrenaline can cause a host of physical symptoms including but not limited to:

  • Sweating (good luck holding on to your instrument with sweaty hands)
  • Palpitations (nigh on impossible to focus on playing music when it feels like you might have a heart attack at any moment)
  • Nausea
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Blurred vision
  • Rapid, shallow, laboured breathing
  • Dry mouth

Under these circumstances, naturally, your concentration levels plummet and it becomes almost impossible to focus on the task at hand. These physical symptoms can also place a huge toll on your mental health, completely dashing your confidence.

Obviously not everyone experiences all of these symptoms, but even one or more is enough to discourage a nervous musician. The good news is there are steps you can take to combat this affliction. Keep reading to find out more.

Irish Bodhrán player Rónán Ó Snodaigh who has recorded numerous albums with his band Kíla

Steps to Combat Stage Fright

Here are some simple steps you can take to help combat the physical manifestations of stage fright:

1 – Breathing

It may seem obvious but the quickest and easiest way to calm your body and your mind is to take long, slow, deep breaths. Make sure to relax your body as you do. Close your eyes, inhale for 5 seconds through your nose, hold that breath for 5 seconds, and then exhale for 5 seconds through your mouth. This effective method will slow your heart rate, and soothe those nerves.

2 – Gentle Stretching

To help rid yourself of nerves you want to release any tension in your body and a simple way to do this is with some gentle stretching.

Shake out your hands, arms and legs. Roll your shoulders back. Roll your neck slowly and gently. Massage your neck and shoulders. Any slow, gentle movement that will help you feel good and warm up those muscles and joints will help release that built up tension. 

3 – Liquid Courage

If you struggle with nerves then make sure to avoid caffeine – that includes coffee and energy drinks. Some musicians swear by them, as they give them the boost they feel they need to get through a performance, but if you already experience performance anxiety then it’s best to give them a miss. You don’t want to be even more jittery than you already are. Try some calming camomile tea instead, not too hot. 

Now, this next point may be a little contentious and I will say that it depends entirely on your own relationship with (and reaction to) alcohol. I have found in the past however that a small glass of whiskey – and I do mean small – can help to calm those nerves. A hot whiskey in particular does wonders.

It’s important to note however that there is a huge difference between having a few small calming sips of your drink of choice and knocking back a few pints before you start to play. The second option will do nothing for your nerves or your music making, I promise you that.

4 – Finding Your Motivation

Remind yourself why you play in the first place. Why do you want to perform for people? Does playing music make you feel a certain way? Do you want to share that experience with others?

Traditional Irish music is all about a shared love of our rich cultural heritage, so remember that any audience you find yourself playing for likely already shares your infatuation with this enchanting musical form and try to enjoy yourself.

5 – Focus on the Music

It may sound a little harsh, but it’s not all about you at the end of the day. When we play we are vessels for the music that flow through us. It’s a magical experience and you shouldn’t let fear hold you back.

It’s also important to remember that the audience too is focusing on the music, and not on you.

It may surprise you to learn how little any folk in the audience, even in a paid concert setting, are actually paying attention. They’re most likely thinking about their day, perhaps even planning the grocery shopping for the week. There’s a number of thoughts floating around in their heads that mean you are not their sole focus. 

You’ll notice when you watch great musicians perform that they are frequently lost in the music themselves, with not a care in the world:

6 – Make Your Audience Laugh

The audience is 100% on your side. Remember, people are overwhelmingly good, and a musical audience will absolutely want you to succeed.

If you’re in a setting where it’s appropriate, a joke to break the ice will help an audience warm to you even more. If you can make them laugh, they will be rooting for you from start to finish. 

7 – Positive Thinking

Our brains are funny things – they’re easily fooled. Tell yourself it will be fine, and it will.

Try not to overthink or hyper focus either. If you focus your thoughts on a section of a tune with tricky ornamentation, or a phrase that sometimes trips you up for example, you are setting yourself up for failure. Think instead of how happy you will feel once the performance is over. 

8 – Reward Yourself

Reward yourself with a small treat before and after you perform. This will trick your brain into releasing endorphins, helping you to relax. You’ll also begin to associate the idea of performing with these positive emotions rather than the negative associations of stage fright. 

9 – Practice Does Not Make Perfect

Now some may disagree with me but I don’t think there’s such a thing as a perfect performance. Don’t set yourself unattainable goals by striving for perfection when you perform. Remember, it should be about creating beautiful music that you love to play, and that an audience loves to hear. Nothing has to be perfect.

Once you come to terms with the fact that mistakes are only human, I think you’ll be an awful lot happier with your own music making. Also, it’s worth noting that even the greatest musicians in the world still make mistakes when performing live. 

In his recent memoir Bono recalls the opening night of the U2 PopMart tour in 1997: ‘everyone turns up for our big opening night, and we can’t quite play our new songs’. The band lost their timing on the song “Staring at the Sun”, stopped playing partway through, and then had to start over. It can happen to the best of us!

conquering stage fright

Where To Go From Here?

While I wish I had a magical cure for nerves and stage fright, unfortunately overcoming these issues takes time and perseverance. I do highly recommend powering through however. Over the years I’ve witnessed shy, uncomfortable musicians transform into confident, happy performers who are at home in front of an audience. Change is possible!

And remember, one of the most appealing elements of traditional Irish music however is playing together with other musicians. You don’t want to miss out on the best part of this wonderful musical tradition, so if you are someone who finds the idea of playing in public nerve-wracking, I promise you, working to overcome your fears will be time well spent. 

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[Images by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash and Calum MacAulay on Unsplash]

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  1. Another aspect of stage fright for me is forgetting how to start the tune — or some other critical part. Just can't find the notes. Once the tune has begun muscle and brain memory take over but, darn, those starts can be tough.

    1. Steve, it really is a case of practice makes perfect. Could you try replicating the performance conditions in some way and then practising the very start of the tune, over and over? For example, announce the title of the tune out loud to yourself, then give yourself a few seconds, and then play the intro.

  2. All this is absolutely right.
    I discovered those 'tricks' by myself, little by little.
    If someone could have told me….I would have gained a lot.

    We should not say that, but a little alcohol drink helps to relax,
    don't get drank, it will deserve you.
    Sweating is probably the worse. You can reduce it using talc.

    For starting to play in a session, gig, concert…play a tune you really enjoy and you master,
    not too sophisticated, simple. The audience and other musicians will like it and then your confidence will arise.
    Also, a dip and slow breathing before starting and think about slowing down the speed you usually play. The stage fright increases the bit rates of the tune ! A fall could become a disaster for your confidence.

  3. I would add – it's normal, essentially everyone feels it, but the more you force your way through it the easier it becomes to get over. You probably practice your instrument, but if you want to play on stages – you also need to practice playing on a stage.

    Many people turn inward and try to shrink themselves when playing on a stage. That's a normal reaction, but it will increase your stage fright and become a crutch. Someone smarter than me once told me "don't practice anything you don't want to get better at".

    One way to practice playing on a stage is to "perform for a single audience member the same as you would perform for a thousand".
    You simply pretend to be performing to an audience. Imagine they are there, and not just a small audience – but a huge arena with thousands of people. Emulate the actions you see others do when they perform. Watch your favorite musicians and what they do with their bodies and faces while they are playing. Don't copy them exactly, but use it for inspiration. The audience wants to see you move, and visually express the music you're playing. Try to make sure you're standing in a open position, facing the audience. Be aware of where the audience is, and try not to turn your back on them. Perform with your eyes closed at first if necessary, but remember to at least occasionally look around at the whole audience, whether imaginary or real. Smile! Remember the audience want to see you have fun and succeed! Practice your in-between song banter as if you were on a stage. All of this will feel silly and uncomfortable at first, but the more you do it the more natural it will feel.
    Then, even when you're in a small place with a small (or even non-existent) audience, you'll be prepared to perform as if there were thousands, and if you're lucky enough to play for thousands – you'll be prepared for that too.

  4. The tidbits offered are certainly a viable roadway to creating a great sense of accomplishment as well as a memorable experience for the audience. I've learned that at times, a deliberate faux pax that you call attention to will engage the crowd & release your own tension!
    Most of the folks are not critics or judges looking for mistakes…I call it poetic license but just want to have a good time!

  5. Lots of excellent advice here. Thank you.
    I’ve also found that starting out small, like playing for family or a few friends, then at the old folks home ( a wonderful audience!). Then progress to a pub, or other small public setting. These small steps build confidence. My biggest gig was playing solo at a museum with an audience of 100 people. Talk about nervous!
    Now when I play out somewhere, I feel more at ease since I’ve built up confidence over time in different settings.
    Also, I totally agree with adding jokes and short stories about the tunes. It helps to connect with folks and loosen up.

  6. Very insightful and helpful article on stage fright. I like to play in front of people and do well in a noisy room but in an exceedingly quiet room, it can be rough.
    I tend to think about what people might be thinking of my playing instead of concentrating on the music.

    Perhaps people play better than they think they might. If people come up afterwards with a compliment,(especially those not your relatives!) that will help the confidence with the next performance anxiousness.

    Will take the useful advice from the article and the good replies. Thanks

  7. Wow! I couldn’t believe it when I saw the title of this blog post, it’s very timely!
    I was at our Wednesday evening session where I play my cajon, it’s not an Irish session, but some people come occasionally who play Irish music. I had my wild whistle in my bag but I never dare get it out. Last Wednesday I managed to get it out and started to play Si Beag Si Mor with a friend on guitar. I managed the first part twice but then got total stage fright and brain freeze and couldn’t play! Everyone was so nice, understanding and supportive and complemented me on the first half of the tune. I was very embarrassed haha. I’d had a couple of pints of Guinness so next time I’m on the soft drinks and I’m going to try again.
    I don’t drink tea or coffee but I agree, I definitely can’t play with alcohol!
    Thanks for the advice

    1. Hi Denise, I'm delighted to hear you mustered the courage to join in on the session with your whistle, and that you plan on going back again despite the small hiccup. I'm sure next time will go great!

  8. This is a very helpful and insightful post. Thanks for sharing these tips. I get stage fright when I feel like I haven't practiced enough but also know that you can over practice. Sometimes good enough is all we have time for and you have to make the best of it.

    I enjoy laughing at myself and finding myself saying, on occasion: "oh well that could have gone better but at least I'm still alive and can try to do better the next time".

    As a public speaker (as well as amateur musician) I always keep in mind that it's not about me, it's about the audience, it's about their experience and what they get out of it and that's why it is called a performance. If I make it about me, I go bonkers with nerves, but somehow wanting to do my best for them shifts focus and helps keep the jitters at bay.

    1. Hi Diane, thank you for the kind words. I couldn't agree with you more. Sometimes you just have to say "Ah well" when you make mistakes on stage. As you said, it's about the audience at the end of the day and all we can do is have fun!

  9. Some great advice. I've found that the surest way to be relaxed is to be adequately prepared. Mistakes still happen, but it's okay. I agree that practice does not make perfect, but be careful as it can make permanent. So it's very important to practice properly. Paraic has posted much about good practice habits.

    As for making your audience laugh, well, one group that I play with likes to remind those present that the bar is open, because "The more you drink, the better we sound!"

    1. Thanks, Bob! Very true, it's important to do the right kind of practice that works for you.

      Also, I might just have to use that line myself the next time I'm playing for an audience!

  10. This was a very useful article; I have to say the section on 'liquid courage' made me chuckle. When I first started playing at my college folk club (dare I tell you it was 50 years ago?) I found that a pint of a certain Irish stout fortified my courage. But, as is the way of things, 1 pint became 2, became 3 and so on. One night I staggered onto the stage and was not only unable to play the guitar, I couldn't remember what I was supposed to be playing. I was so discouraged I didn't play again in public for 30 years and stopped playing completely for 10 of those 30. Now I play regularly in jam sessions for an audience at my local bar here in SW France. So have I conquered my nerves? Not entirely; a finger picked tune that I can play faultlessly at home nearly always goes to pieces in public. But I soldier on and little by little I get better. And the good news? I'm still drinking G*#+~ss!

    1. Thanks, Chris. I'm glad to hear you got back on the horse and that you are still enjoying one of our finest exports!

  11. Great article. This is what I've learnt going from a complete beginner nervous wreck to being happy on stage and enjoying myself:

    More than half the audience won't notice the bum notes – so don't sweat it.

    Don't expert to play every tune/song perfectly (why set yourself up to fail?). Start with an easier one, builds confidence.

    If/when you do make a mistake, large or small, you'll still wake up the next day living and breathing – keep a sense of proportion.

    Don't draw attention to your mistakes (severe face/shaking head/lie on floor kicking and screaming/ etc.). If it's completely obvious, laugh it off. The audience might even think you've done it deliberately for a laugh (I've had that). A lot of the audience probably won't even notice so it won't ruin their night.

    If you have trouble remembering the first few bars, have them written in front of you. I do this as I can still get rabbit -in-the-headlights, but once
    I start, all the practice kicks in and I'm away!

    Believe and don't give up – keep doing it and you'll get better/get used to it – honest, you will! If I can, you can.

    p.s. First time I was in front of a big audience (couple of thousand as opposed to couple of hundred) I stared getting really nervous, like a beginner again. Then I thought don't be daft, just do what you normally do, it's no different. Done it before, so do it again. Worked for me!

    Hope that helps – good luck and enjoy yourself!

  12. This is great information! I just played with a classical guitar ensemble. We performed to a very small audience in Taos, New Mexico last Saturday and I was extremely nervous. After practicing my quartet part 1000 times I was still making mistakes. I think I just accepted that everyone makes mistakes and the important thing was to know where we were at and keep going. We did ok and the audience seemed to really enjoy it. I will try your suggestions next time! Thanks!

  13. Thank you for the practical suggestions and the encouragement. I have also found that being well prepared then practicing mindfulness up to and through the performance helps to banish the nerves and gives a chance to fully enjoy the music.

  14. This is very sound and wise advice. We all suffer from nerves especially in the lead up to a performance. The first time I had a solo to play in my band I was worrying about it for a week beforehand and did not think I would pull it off however as I played the first notes all the nerves faded away as I lost myself in the music and the thrill of playing live to an audience. Practice does indeed make perfect and if you make a mistake and just carry on as if nothing has happened most people won’t notice!
    That was 30 years ago and experience does help a lot but I still get a bit anxious before a performance and in a way I think that not a bad thing.

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