You’ve worked your butt off to get to where you are, and now there’s that gigantic platform gawking at you. Your hands are clammy, and your throat is parched. The podium is impatiently waiting to introduce you to a staring audience.
Stage fright hits.
The Teach Yourself book was a dear friend for weeks.
You’ve devoted 30 minutes a day for the past month studying Spanish and reading the dialogues.
Lesson 32 is planned for tomorrow.
One of your friends thought it would be a great idea to introduce you to her friend Isabel from Spain. You heard that Isabel might even bring a few others along from Columbia and Mexico.
What if she laughs? What if she doesn’t understand? 😧 The thought just makes your lip quiver!
Regardless on where you stand on the language field of progress, one thing is for certain: we all at one point or another experience stage fright.
🌺 This post is by polyglot musician Fiel Sahir, author of the blog Between 3 Worlds. 🌺
What exactly is stage fright?
It’s that horrible feeling you have whenever you have to perform a task in front of others. When your nerves get the best of you and you can’t think straight.
Stage fright loves to strike when you have to give a presentation, play a concert, or act in a play 🙈 Common symptoms include: forgetting your lines, nervously looking about, stalling with “umms”, missing notes on the keyboard… You get the picture. If you’re wondering why it happens, it has to do with our fight or flight response.
Maybe it has happened to you too?
Whether you are Yo-Yo Ma or Joe Schmoe, it’s not about whether or not you have stage fright. What ensures your confidence is how you deal with it. Whether it be talking to someone in a native speaker or performing on stage, Do it like a boss.
For example: before you get to the bar and talk to Isabel, stop for a moment. Go over the dialogue in your head and take a deep breath.
In this post I’m going to explain how to put an end to stage fright 💪
We all want to get rid of stage fright without going on stage. But it doesn’t work that way. You’re probably sick of hearing it, but the only solution is:
Get up on stage and show them who’s boss. Again, and again, and again.
Let’s kill stage fright. 🤘
Stop fantasising and practice
Remember the first time your parents bought you a bicycle? You’d thought riding it would be as easy as cake. All the neighbourhood kids seemed fine, but then you saw your older brother fall a couple times…
So instead, you wanted to be “smart” and avoid injury. You opted to have training wheels on your bike so you could be “cool” without falling off.
Yeah, that was me. Except, it was also me who was the older brother.
You realised that with the training wheels there was no way you were going to be as cool as the other neighbourhood kids. You ask your dad to take them off, but after having fallen a few times, you realise bruises suck.
The fear of getting another injury overrules your fear of biking without training wheels. You deliberately spend time everyday on the bicycle trying to achieve your goal. After a couple more days of deliberate practice you’re flying down the street like nobody’s business 😎
Whenever you learn something new, it doesn’t matter how much you know about the subject in theory...
Knowing is not enough.
You can observe people all day, but unless you take off your training wheels, it’s not really riding a bike.
Practicing speaking by yourself with a book isn’t the real thing. Get out there, find some natives and show them what you’re made of.
What does that mean?
I’m currently (very sparingly 😬) studying Dutch. I’ve always liked the sound of the language, and I have Dutch cousins whom I visit pretty often.
You may think that being a native English speaker and fluent in German would make learning Dutch easier — after all these three languages share so many common features!
It is definitely easier to learn Dutch with some prior knowledge of English and German, but that doesn’t mean I don’t need to practice... ☝️
When I’m at home my accent sounds pretty great or at least I think so... Yet, last time when I arrived in the Netherlands for Christmas even a simple question I asked came out with a strong American accent. I used the words incorrectly. It felt embarrassing. But, I got the job done!
When I speak with my cousins they laugh and giggle. It’s funny to see someone struggle with something so natural to you. I join them because I do sound funny! They kindly correct my strange mix of German words in an American accent, and suggest the words I need. Ultimately even though the “UI” diphthong still tickles their ears, I keep going and improvement comes along.
Make sure to “perform” each acquired skill in new, and different contexts.
The skill of communicating in a foreign language can be practiced in a variety of ways, for example by speaking in a classroom, talking with your teacher on italki, or sitting at a bar with a bunch of natives.
It would have been easy for me to get upset after making mistakes when speaking Dutch in the Netherlands. The truth is, I simply didn’t yet have much experience speaking the language!
Basic truths about practice
A lot of musicians, myself included, love to fantasise that hitting every note in the practice rooms will allow us to progress 😍 Once we’ve had enough practice to call it a day, we leave feeling great about ourselves.
But, when faced with a live audience, suddenly our knees knock. We play, but will often feel disappointed with our performance and make a multitude of excuses to justify our failure. Trust me, that doesn’t help.
"Everything starts out as a motor skill. When learning motor skills, we’re trying to teach our bodies something we’ve never done before. Nine times out of 10, our bodies object! You have to persist until it does." - Tommy Emmanuel, Australian Fingerstyle Guitarist
In order to kill stage fright, you need to look for it in every situation that bothers you.
Practice the skill of speaking in each of the different contexts mentioned above. Think of it as working out. Exercising only your legs won’t make the whole of your body fit. The whole body needs a workout.
The filtration stages of fright
Coffee. Café. Kopi. Whatever language you speak, coffee is a popular drink, but you would never just go to a field, pick a bean and expect it to taste like coffee!
Our language skills are like coffee beans. There’s a long process before a bean becomes a delicious cappuccino at a café!
Each bean has to get picked, cleaned, sorted, ground, filtered, and finally: voilà!
Similarly, there are various “linguistic filtrations” we must go through before we are ready to use the language. Here is my recipe for the best preparation process:
- Study by yourself ✍️
- Record yourself 🎤
- Talk with a teacher 👩🏫
- Speak with friends 🗣
- Engage strangers 👋
- Journey through the target country 🌍
In order to improve our language skills, we need to constantly be challenged.
This means not stopping where we are, but continuously "graduating — moving from one stage to the next.
You might be fine having lessons with a teacher, but not be brave to speak with friends.
This is NORMAL.
I’m not saying that you must go through each and every one of these stages. But, bearing them in mind serves as a good set of guidelines to help you navigate through your growth process.
Musicians attack problems differently. We go for what needs to be tackled strategically and with different approaches, for example using a technique called chunking. Chunking helps us focus and prioritise what is most important in the now.
Here is a brief introduction to this method:
Now, here is some practical advice you can implement next time you are faced with a new situation that causes language stage fright.
Visualise yourself having an awesome time conversing with Isabel and her friends. See yourself on stage moving your audience to laughter and tears.
Remind yourself that mistakes are nothing but learning opportunities. 🌸 Write down your mistakes and have them corrected. You won’t improve if you don’t remember when, and how you went wrong.
If you want to kill stage fright, here’s a truth to drill into our heads:
Learning opportunities like to disguise themselves as mistakes.
Words of Wisdom
Me and Eliot Fisk
My experience learning Dutch reminds me of an important concept I’ve heard for years from my guitar teacher Eliot Fisk (who is also a polyglot).
I want you to go and perform your repertoire for your friends four days in a row.
By the time you perform at the concert, it will be the fifth time. There will be hardly any mistakes that could surprise you then. Can you really promise me to do that?
People do that all the time! You need get used to bringing your guitar to parties and playing it. You never know who might be sitting around. You’ve gotta get out of your shell and be as social as possible.
The best thing to start off your career is going to parties. There are people who sit in their practice rooms all day. When they have to play for someone they say: “I don’t know why I’m so nervous!” 😱
Playing for people is a skill like any other. And, like anything else, you’ve got to practice it. The more you play for people, the more mistakes you eliminate. Pay attention to what went well and what wasn’t so good!
Practicing performance is totally underrated. Every time you feel nervous consider: maybe it’s because you play for others only once a year? 🤔
If you want to become more comfortable with it you have to play for people all the time!
Let that sink in for a second.
There couldn’t be truer words!
One of the most famous polyglot personalities, Benny the Irish Polyglot always says, “You only get better at what you do.” Reading a ton of French grammar books won’t mean you’ll wake up tomorrow morning speaking the language. In order to speak French better you have to… practice speaking French!
Practicing by yourself doesn’t ensure success on stage, you have to learn to perform on the stage.
Have you killed stage fright?
“Have you personally gotten rid of stage fright?”
That’s a great question I often get.
The answer was revealed to me during my Junior year at the New England Conservatory. Since I enrolled, I made a point to play in front of people, especially at Eliot’s urging.
One month in 2014 I overbooked myself. Through the outreach program at my school I was given the opportunity to perform at parties and other events, and I had at least one, and sometimes two, performances each week 🙉
Whether it’s 30 minutes of music or a full concert performing is extremely tiring for the mind. But I was doing what I was supposed to: performing. As a result, my stage fright didn’t bother me anymore. I got used to performing.
What to do now?
Be proactive and seek out opportunities to practice your target language.
Your goal is to make speaking to other people feel more natural than brushing your teeth. Maybe your neighbourhood has a lot of Latinos and they have salsa dance classes once a week? 💃 Join!
Put yourself in a place where you have to use your target language.
Each time you learn a new language, phrase, or musical piece, using it in public the first time will bring a bit of nervousness. The more you use the new things you’ve learned, the sooner you forget it’s new in your system.
When you publicly try out new things, your confidence level afterwards will shoot through the roof. Stage fright leaves and you’ll hear a resounding, “I did it!” 🏆
You’re now on that stage again. This time, the hard work has shot your confidence through the roof.
You smile to yourself and think about all the improvement your efforts have brought. The platform feels welcoming and the podium is ready.
Want more tips on language learning from a musical perspective? Be sure to check out Fiel’s presentation at the Polyglot Gathering in 2016.