On Stage Fright
by Amanda Pollak
I was 16 when I decided I’d had enough of being shy.
Growing up, attention was a nerve-wracking imposition. As a child in school, I refrained from raising my hand in class even when I knew the answer just to avoid making myself known to others. I was very content playing alone in my room for hours, letting the world’s gaze pass me by.
In high school,; I began to resent my bashfulness and saw it fit to amend this aspect of my personality. I meditated on what scared me most: being on stage, hot lights blinding, everyone watching. So into drama class I enrolled.
It came easy for everyone else. I stood in awe of the Theater Kids™ who effortlessly flourished in the spotlight, who were funny without trying, who were loud without remorse. I coveted their ability to unapologetically exist. I was always so sorry for the space I took up.
My first play was held in my high school’s cafeteria. We were in the round, people on all sides of me. I knew my lines backwards and forwards after spending weeks in my room learning them before my shifts at the Dairy Queen. My armpits were the sweatiest they’ve ever been. I remember zipping through the crowd to get to my place on stage in my stiff dress, hoping no one noticed said armpits. I had a minor role. I didn’t mess up, yay! Probably not the most riveting performance, but the parents clapped nonetheless.
That summer I attended an acting program in New York City, and a year later I left for college 700 miles away from home where I knew no one. This forced me to Put Myself Out There and eventually my shyness began to erode. While in college I joined an improv comedy troupe and started working at a local news station where I regularly approached strangers and convinced them to be on TV. The remaining scraps of shyness receded.
Until I became a musician.
The first time I played publicly, a year after beginning lessons, was at one of Freeway Music’s student showcases at the Music Farm; this particular one was especially massive given that it had morphed into an all-day music festival of sorts. As much as I loved music and was eager to experience performing, this environment was a literal nightmare actualized.
I wish I could impose upon you, dear reader, the all-consuming, unrelenting anxiety that descended upon me before the performance, because I lack the parlance to fully convey it; in fact, I’m getting nervous all over again just recounting it. I practiced one song for weeks, yammering on to anyone who would listen about just how nervous I was, and did they think I was ready to do this? WHAT IF I MESSED UP? On the day of this blessed event I refused all food and drink. I couldn’t stop pacing the unforgiving concrete floors of Music Farm, feeling the state of my armpits worsen by the minute. All the confidence I’d amassed in the years prior was, for some reason, not applicable here.
I envisioned every way in which this could go wrong, even though I had spent countless hours practicing, even though I had been listening to this particular song for years and even though making a mistake actually isn’t the worst possible offense in the universe. I had arrived super early meaning I had to wait for several hours before I was slated to play. Honestly, it was sort of miserable–like perpetually climbing up the initial hill of a roller coaster, wondering when the bottom would drop out. I ran my hands over my sticks. I tapped the beat on my thighs while I watched the others. I prayed.
Finally it was my turn. I remember walking up the stairs to the stage and approaching the drum set, but here’s where things get a bit fuzzy–you see, I was so monumentally nervous that I don’t actually remember playing–I must have functioned on autopilot for those few moments. But I know I did it because a friend (thanks, Sara!) took a video of me playing, flub-free and on beat. My memory resumes after the song is finished and I headed over to my friends and more or less collapsed.
I am relieved to report that since that fateful afternoon, it has become much, much easier to perform live. While some environments still intimidate me (ahem, Speakeasy), as time passes and I grow more confident and skilled, the stage feels more like home, and I feel worthy of being on it.
I write this not to evoke pity or sympathy, but rather to highlight the evolution I believe we are all capable of, even the most withdrawn among us, and to encourage anyone who feels inclined to music but reticent to perform that perhaps a push towards the spotlight would do you some good. I once believed that the immense turmoil I experienced before performing meant I somehow wasn’t cut out for music–especially when I’d see kids a quarter of my age gleefully belt out a song without hint of hesitation.
But for musicians, and for all of us, really–each journey is unique. Each of us will master a skill that our neighbor might painstakingly fumble through, and our neighbor might breeze past us in other ways. Managing nerves is merely another proficiency, like running through scales or playing with a metronome. Preparation is the antidote for performance anxiety.
So if you have the chance to take the stage, go for it. You’ll survive. You’ll be better for it. Just bring some good deodorant.
Music Farm, 2014: Nope, I actually don’t remember this.