My slot in the program was #10. Four performers had gone up already and there were five more to come before it would be my turn. I was waiting to get up on stage and perform one of my original songs in a concert at a songwriting retreat. 

I was nervous. The middle fingernail on my right hand had started giving me trouble in my last-minute practice. A dent had formed in the smooth edge that I need for clean guitar fingerpicking. I had filed the nail, but hadn’t managed to fix the problem. 

As the performers got up – one after the other – pouring their hearts out on stage, I sat in the audience wondering if I’d be able to play at all. Now it was too late to make any further adjustments to my nail without totally reshaping it. Would I be the first one to get up there and be unable to finish my song?

My anxiety was like a wall, separating me from the performers on stage and preventing me from experiencing the magic they were making.

As concerts go, this was one of the most impassioned, unique, and wonderful concerts I had attended all year. But I was missing out on the goodness. I wasn’t tuning into the music because I was so worried about the possibility of my upcoming failure.

So I asked myself, “What is the single best thing that I could do to prepare for my performance as I sit in my chair right now?”

There were only two options:

ONE: I could keep thinking over my song, fretting about possible errors, planning what I’d do if my nail proved to be unworkable – all while ignoring the performers on stage.

TWO: I could put all my attention on the other performers, letting them reach my heart, letting myself be moved by their passion, and keeping my own piece out of my mind for the time being.

The next five musicians would take around thirty minutes to finish their songs. I could spend that half-hour thinking about myself and my own problems or I could spend it listening to the other musicians and appreciating their music.

What does it take to perform a song well?

It takes sensitivity, connectedness, and presence. 

As I sat in the audience, the better option was clear as day. I realized that I could cultivate the qualities that would help me perform well – sensitivity, connectedness and presence – by manifesting them right now as a listener, by tuning into the other performers and letting them carry me on journeys with their songs. 

The more I gave of myself as a listener, the more I concentrated on the performers on stage, the better I’d do when it was my time to perform. By listening with my full self, I’d put myself in the right mood to make music of my own. By cheering for the other musicians – rather than being intimidated by their success – I’d cultivate the same supportive attitude that would help me support myself when I was on stage.

So I made it my goal as the fifth, the sixth, the seventh, the eighth, the ninth performer got up on stage to give them as much of my attention as I possibly could. And when it was my time to get up, I did really well.

Now, this wasn’t easy for me. I was still nervous as I waited to get up on stage and I had to keep reminding myself to stop thinking about my nail. But I did have some success at turning away from my anxiety and turning towards the performers, listening as closely as I could – and I’m sure it helped me later on. Not to mention, it gave me a much better experience as an audience member.

So here’s the tip: once you’ve done all your practice and you’re waiting to go up on stage, the best thing you can do to help yourself perform is to open your ear now – and your heart – to other performers, let them move you, let them inspire you, let them carry you away, right until it’s your turn. To cure stage fright, be the best listener you can be.

Even if you’re the first person to perform, or it’s a solo concert, or maybe you’re making a recording in the privacy of your own home or a studio, there’s still a way to apply this. Prepare for your own performance by listening to someone else’s music that you admire, and let it move you. Connect with someone else’s creativity – or someone else’s courage – that inspires you, then show yours. ■

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