**This Lesson is part of the January series “30 Pitch Lessons – 30 Days.” Pitch University Pitchfest weeks and Expert-In-Residence weeks kick off the 1st full week in February.**
Pitch U again welcomes Kathryn Lorenzen, a singer/songwriter who’s been actively performing and recording, on her own and with others, since... Well, never mind.
Her solo work is available on iTunesand at www.cdbaby.com, and a new CD is forthcoming in 2011.
The 1970s recordings of the band Millionaire at Midnight, referenced here, have been re-released by The Numero Group on Titan: It’s All Pop!, a collection which landed on several critics’ Top 10 lists for 2009, and for which she actually receives royalty checks!
After finally getting off the road, Kathryn had a successful career in advertising, and she now coaches creatives of all types on career and creativity challenges, especially writers, who are the most gifted people on the planet.
Favorite quote, from a twenty-something overheard recently at a club where Kathryn was playing with a rockabilly band, “Dude, look, that old lady’s gonna play the guitar.” Hell, yeah!
Live and In Person
Imagine this scene I’m about to describe. It really happened to me.
The year is 1978, and my rock band Millionaire at Midnight is about to open for Blue Oyster Cult at a sold-out indoor arena in Kansas City. They’ve recently had several #1 hits (“Don’t Fear the Reaper” and “Godzilla”), so there are almost 10,000 screaming, excited fans in the house.
The lights have just gone down, so they’re shouting, whistling, raising their Bic lighters (no cell phones yet!), going crazy for the show to start.
The roadies dash backstage to guide us to the stage with flashlights in the dark, up the stairs at the side of the giant, raised platform.
I’m wearing my Fender guitar, along with two of the guys, and behind us are the keyboard player and drummer. We can’t believe we’re here! The noise is deafening. I can barely breathe.
As I plug in my Telecaster to the amp, I neglect to loop the cord through my strap, and as I cross to the microphone, I step on the cord and feel the plug slip out of my guitar – I’m unplugged! It’s the worst klutz move I could possibly make – When the lights come up, the audience will see that I’m the only one that doesn’t have her act together, and there will be no sound from my guitar when I hit the first notes.
I experience waves of panic, I break out in a sudden sweat, and I feel my heartbeat race even faster. My throat is so tight I can’t make a sound, let alone sing.
I am frozen.
Stage Fright Happens
This, my friends, was my crowning moment of stage fright. It’s been an ongoing challenge, to varying degrees, during my whole career, and even intruding into my daily life.
Musicians, dancers, actors, speakers, and even writers can suffer from stage fright. That moment I had on stage, the wave of panic, is what it can feel like to pitch your book to just one real-live agent or editor, at a little table during a pitch appointment. Even before that, you can have anticipatory nervousness that’s just as debilitating.
For some, stage fright is crippling, for some it’s just a phase, for a precious few it becomes immortalized…
Most of us know that the physical sensations of stage fright – the rapid heartbeat, the shortness of breath, the tightened throat, the sweating, the feeling of panic – are the primitive fight-or-flight response to the erroneous message our brain has received, that we are in danger.
Even when we intellectually understand otherwise, it’s too late.
Our brain has already sent out the chemical message which the body has received and the whole little pageant is playing out right as we need to have our act together.
So, let me share some real-world solutions that have worked for me and can work for you, too.
Let’s rewind to before we went onstage.
That evening, we each had our little before-the-gig rituals going in the dressing room.
Brent, the lead guitar player, was always the most prepared, warming up his fingers and practicing his solos as his paced up and down the length of the room. I was vocalizing, chewing gum, and running in place.
Karl and Mike both did stretching and breathing, and Mike even shouted intermittently, alternating with honking loud notes on his sax. And Larry the drummer, the most relaxed of the bunch, just sat with his feet up on a chair, drinking lots of water and chortling at an issue of National Lampoon.
We all stayed away from the buffet table, as the last thing you want to do is burp in the middle of a song.
I was plenty nervous, for sure, but anticipatory nervousness works in my favor most times. There’s an upside – it can raise your energy level, bring heightened color to your cheeks and a brightness to your eyes, and make you stand up straighter. All good things for connecting with the audience you’re pitching to.
How to Avoid Stage Fright
Here, then, I offer some hard-won lessons and suggestions about preparation, to avoid the stage fright and head it off. They’re learned from almost forty years of performing, thirty years of speaking in front of audiences large and small, and fifteen years of coaching others to do the same.
- Practice until you are able to be effortless. Run your pitch like lines from a play. It’s incredibly unlikely you will sound wooden or rote – this is YOUR story and the odds are that you will always animate it with your desire to tell it.
- Join Toastmasters. If you are serious about conquering this part of your skillset, so that you can truly be a self-marketer, there’s no better method for getting over fear of public speaking. It’s tried and true, and also great fun for writers! If you’re not a joiner, you can find a coach to work with you privately.
- Engage in some positive self-talk about your situation. We’re NOT talking affirmations here. We’re talking about reminding yourself that the world is basically a friendly place, and that your audience-of-one likely wants you to do well. A quite-famous singer handled her stage fright by re-framing it for herself and deciding that she’s merely uncomfortable in the spotlight. Develop your own “pre-show” ritual for how you will center yourself.
- It’s not recommended to eat a heavy meal on the day you must present or perform. When your digestive tract is overloaded, it can intensify your feelings of discomfort. Eat light, then celebrate afterwards.
- Drink plenty of fluids before your pitch, but don’t overdo it. Also, really try to avoid caffeine beforehand, if you possibly can, and definitely avoid alcohol. Have water handy so that you can sip immediately before you pitch. It not only wets your whistle but actually relaxes your jaw. Chewing gum right before you pitch does the same thing – just don’t forget to spit it out. (My roadie used to hold his hand out right before I went onstage so I could spit out my gum – now THAT was devotion.)
- Take a few quiet moments to focus and breathe deeply and rhythmically before you go into your pitch situation. You may very well be in the middle of a crowd, but you can still do this. Deep breathing is the foundation of preventing and gaining control over your physical symptoms, whether it’s simple nervousness or full-blown panic. A regular breathing practice, whether alone or in combination with meditation, is recommended for all artists.
It’s Too Late! (What to do when stage fright grips you.)
So what happens if, like happened to me on Blue Oyster Cult night, you find yourself sliding quickly into a physical panic response? What if, when you’re already “on stage,” mid-pitch, and you unplug your own cord, forget your words, realize you might be failing right NOW?
Emergency tactics to the rescue…
- Yes, again with the breathing. Remind yourself that you are safe, even as the heart pounds and the breathing gets shallow. Willfully slow down your breathing and relax your diaphragm (your gut) so that your breath goes all the way down to your belly button. Let out the breath through loose lips so that you can hear the sound, and do this several times.
If you are standing, sit down, and if you are sitting, stand up. The change of position will allow you to change your breathing. You MUST do this first, above all else, or you will not recover your composure.
- Pick a point in the room on which to focus your gaze. Make this your anchor, and this is your key relationship for the next few moments. Everything is all right, because you can see that flag/chair/whatever, and it is there for you to see. Continue your deep breathing. You will feel your heart begin to slow.
- If you are actually in front of someone (your audience) as you are having the panic symptoms, acknowledge this. Tell them straight out that you are having some momentary nerves, and ask permission to take just a moment to center yourself. In most instances, your listener will be sympathetic and understanding, and your honesty can create a connection.
- Take sips of water if you can. The immediate hydration and swallowing will help with your physical calming.
And here’s a suggestion on handling your stage fright in front of an agent or editor – with whom we very much want to connect! We can remove some of our own nervousness by focusing on the other person.
If you shift your attention for just a moment into perceiving what that other person is experiencing – a long, tedious day listening to author after author; possibly a slight headache; tired of sitting in this uncomfortable chair in this crummy ballroom – you may have a tiny window into having a mutually empathetic conversation.
In a pitch situation, you could be having a passing, one-time exchange, or you could be establishing a meaningful relationship that could change your life. Do yourself a favor and be fully present. Don’t miss the moment.
So… What happened in my own moment of panic back in 1978?
Well, what happened then is the best possible thing. There I was, standing in front of 10,000 people with no sound from my guitar when I was supposed to be counting off the opening song.
As the lights came up, Karl was the first to see the look of horror on my face and the unplugged cord halfway across the stage. Fortunately he and my other bandmates thought it was hilarious and burst into laughter. Nothing beats having your friends around you when you’re in trouble.
Their laughter jolted me back into the moment, and in less than three seconds, I had plugged myself back in and hit the first power chord of the night.
In moments the situation rose from dire to triumphant.
I was the only girl in that rock band, the only girl on that record label, and the only girl on that tour bus.
Before today’s abundant generation of female rockers, I was so proud to help pave the way.
People get scared. People have moments of stage fright. But those same people can go on to kick ass.