Stage fright afflicts almost every performer, the seasoned and the neophytes alike. It torments not only magicians but also stage actors, singers, musicians and other performing artists. It even vexes athletes.
You are probably familiar with the symptoms: heavy breathing, heart thumping in the chest, cold palms, knocking knees, butterflies in the stomach, unfocused mind.
Stage fright usually happens while the performer is waiting for his turn to perform. It disappears quickly, though, a few moments after the show starts.
While I now love the feeling of pre-show fright (it keeps me on my toes), others feel uncomfortable, even sick, with it.
In my early days of performing, pre-show nervousness also made me sick—in the stomach, in the kidneys, in the heart, in the lungs, heck, all over my body.
I didn’t even consider it stage fright then. I called it stage terror, for that’s exactly how it felt. While waiting for my turn to perform, I felt numbness in my fingers. I imagined I was close to incontinence, so I stood near the door of the men’s toilet. I wanted to vomit. How I wished I would faint, so I’d have a good reason to chicken out from the performance.
Experts believe that one’s anxiety over the possibility of under-performance and what people may think are the leading causes of pre-show stage fright.
For some reasons, magicians think they are more susceptible to stage jitters than other performing artists. This is because magic is difficult to perform. Many things can go wrong in a magical performance no matter how hard the performer tries to anticipate all possible problems that may arise in a show. In addition, magicians stake a lot of themselves into their performances. They not only perform but also script, routine, direct themselves. As a result, there’s no one else to blame but themselves when the performance flops.
This being the case, pre-show performance anxiety is usually a confidence issue that can be cured with some deliberate actions. Here are some ways:
1. Know your material so well you can do it in your sleep
You have to have complete mastery of your act. You must know how to perform it inside out.
That’s where the hoary advice, “Practice, practice, practice” will help make your stage wait comfortable instead of nerve racking. If you know you can do what you will do on stage with facility, then you will gather enough confidence to silence the negative thoughts that are tormenting you.
2. Perform a Strong Opening Number
Long, hard practice sessions to perfect your act are not enough. The material you are going to perform should also matter. It must be strong—confidence-booster strong.
You will have a confidence issue if you open with the 21-Card Trick as opposed to a dazzling manipulation act that you can do perfectly. Believe me, the apathy you will receive on the first 10 seconds you are on stage will rattle you. You will feel your energy and confidence disappear if you get no reaction after your first 10 seconds onstage. That is why it is important to have a strong opening number that gets quick and strong audience reactions after just a few seconds. An applause early in the opening act is a strong confidence builder.
Spend lots of time, then, building, practicing, and perfecting a strong opening act that guarantees early audience reaction.
3. Take a Walk
While waiting for the MC to call you on stage, spend your time back stage walking around, in straight line, back and forth.
For me, this is the best way to get the circulation flowing efficiently into my extremities and get rid of those tingling sensations. By the time I’ve gotten on stage, I have walked a mile just pacing back and forth backstage. Walking not only calms you down but also gives you a good exercise.
If you feel like cotton is stuffed in your throat, a glass of water will take care of the dryness in your mouth.
5. Do Some Breathing Exercises
Inhale…and don’t forget to exhale and inhale and exhale again. Do this a few times until you feel a calming effect in your body.
6. Use Visualization Techniques
If you believe in visualization, this is a good time to practice it. Visualize a calm place, a beach in a small island in the middle of the sea. It can calm down jittery nerves, as some artists claim.
Athletes do a lot of it just before they play. Performing artists like us should also do the same.
Limbering can help you loosen up tight muscles. Limber not only your arms, shoulders, and legs, but also your jaws. If you think you have lost fluency in your speech, limber your tongue, too, by saying something gibberish or reciting a paragraph of your favorite poem.
8. Warm up by doing Close-up magic
Warm up your fingers by doing card tricks to the wait staff or close-up magic to the other performers backstage.
When performing for big birthday parties, I usually perform close-up to the early birds at their tables to while away my waiting time. Doing so drives away my nervousness. It also helps me win the audience over to my side even before my show starts. By the time I walk up on stage later in the program, I already have several fans in the audience rooting for me during my performance.
Alcohol or drugs before the show to calm the nerves are not a good idea. While they my calm you down, medicine (say, a beta blocker) or a bottle of beer will slow down your reflexes. If you do a manipulative act or use sleight-of-hand in your show, this may be more of a hindrance than a help.
Athletes are banned from their sports when they are discovered to have taken drugs. No such ban is imposed in the magic profession, so magicians should voluntarily steer away from drugs if only to avoid developing a performance crutch.