As They Eye Live Music's Return, Some Musicians See the Return of Stage Fright

Ludlow's Josh Kirby expects their stage fright to return with the return of live shows.
Ludlow's Josh Kirby expects their stage fright to return with the return of live shows.

When live music returns in full force, so will an uncomfortable phenomenon for some of the musicians presenting it: stage fright. Josh Kirby, a member of the Portland, Oregon-based band Ludlow, expects to be one of those anxious musicians. Ludlow blends punk and folk styles into “music about the realities people face in modern neoliberal society,” by the band’s own description. Its songs address subjects like police brutality, patriarchy and climate collapse, so, as Kirby noted, a bad case of nerves can impact a performance.

“With the type of content that I write, which tends to be pretty political,” Kirby said, “if you have this kind of anxiety onstage, it kind of removes the power behind the message. It kind of makes it sound like you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Kirby (who prefers “they/them” pronouns) learned to manage the pre-show stress; then, COVID came. While they’re looking forward to resuming live shows, they’re also already worrying about the anxiety to come.

“I think that the coronavirus has had a pretty detrimental effect on me, not socializing for so long, not performing for so long, not having that audience feedback,” Kirby said. “Without the audience, you feel like you’re on a soapbox, screaming out into the void some wingnut conspiracy theories about anti-capitalism or racism or something. When you have a crowd of people giving you the energy while you’re onstage, that’s so crucial, I think, for combatting stage fright and anxiety.”

Kirby’s dilemma is shared by artists everywhere, performers who’d mastered their performance anxiety and now must begin addressing it again after the long hiatus. Tom McKinney, of Tom McKinney Vocal Studios, is a 40-year music industry professional who has taught more than 7,000 singers in his career, including artists like Solange, Demi Lovato and Ray J. The Houston-area voice instructor and performance coach said preparation is key to managing these issues.

“A lot of our students are first-time-in-front-of-the-public performers, so we’re dealing with that from that standpoint and not necessarily as much with the seasoned performers that I also teach. But, one of the biggest issues is, look, if you absolutely know your material – in other words, you’ve rehearsed it until you’re ready to throw up because you have to sing that song again – that’s about when you’re ready to go on and perform,” McKinney said. “I have seen over and over and over again that the absolute connection to the material, in other words knowing it, is a very calming factor because by that time both emotional and muscle memory have taken over.”

McKinney is speaking not only as an instructor but from personal experience as a performer. As a young singer, his vocal coach believed he had the prowess to sing opera. The first time he performed his nerves were a wreck, he said. His instructor reminded him he’d prepared and was ready for the challenge. He performed, did well and gained confidence. He went on to sing with the Metropolitan Opera, starred in 25 operas and 60 musicals, and even shared the stage with Luciano Pavarotti.

“I thought I was going to have a heart attack just being onstage with that man,” McKinney recalled.

Kristal Cherelle said performing with a personal idol, Lauryn Hill, taught her to be prepared, but to also allow for the spontaneous, a key to managing stage fright, in her opinion. Cherelle’s a Houston-based singer/songwriter who also coaches fellow vocalists through the Indie Artist School, which is currently enrolling students for a group R&B class beginning March 13. She offers free advice on her podcast, The Singer’s Arsenal.

Cherelle once got the call to open for one of hip-hop’s biggest stars on the day of the show. She impulsively said yes, she admitted, and started constructing a set of the songs she knew best. After sound check, the doubts began to creep in and the anxiety began to well up. What if she let Hill down? If she bombed before 30,000 fans, would it ruin her career? She said she took a page from an old Tony Robbins lecture and struck a Superwoman pose behind the curtain ahead of her set. She took slow, deep breaths and reminded herself she’d prepared her whole life for the moment. But, she couldn’t anticipate what would happen next.

“When I got onstage I got the biggest crowd applause ever,” she recalled. “I was like, ‘Wow, for somebody they don’t know, they’re really excited.’ And then the lights came on and they didn’t know I wasn’t her. They were expecting Lauryn, so I got a Lauryn Hill welcome and the lights came on and everybody went, ‘Awww!’”

“I was like, ‘Okay girl, this is your time,’ so I cracked a joke. I said ‘Yeah, sometimes I say ‘Aww,’ too when I realize I’m not Lauryn.’ And they all laughed, it cut that tension off. I don’t know where that joke came from but I’m glad that it made me be a little more relaxed. And they were more relaxed and way more receptive. It was really one of the best shows I ever did.”

Cherelle is so familiar with this subject, it was the focus of The Singer’s Arsenal's first episode. She’s since done a follow-up episode on singing with confidence. Both segments include pointers like knowing your material, being receptive to feedback, knowing why you’re performing and practicing positive self-affirmations. She said now is a great time to rehearse those tenets since shows are, for the most part, on hold. She also noted it’s important to practice performance skills during this time when many artists are focusing on recording new music.

“I think one of the reasons we get a little anxious is because we’re out of practice. I’m not saying everybody’s stopped, but a lot of time what I’m noticing is a lot of artists are recording right now, they’re not performing and those are two different skill sets," she said.

“The studio gets you really hypercritical of each phrase, you have the option to go back and punch back in and in turn what you’ve done is you’ve practiced stopping and restarting and analyzing,” she continued. “That’s really awesome for the studio and production and getting the best recording you can get out, but it sucks for live performance because you don’t really want to be hard on yourself when you’re performing live. First of all, because you’re out of the moment, you’re not attached, you’re not connected to your audience when you over-analyze.”

Livestream shows do provide a way to connect with and get feedback from audiences and McKinney sees some value in the burgeoning technology. He’s been using, a low-latency, high fidelity web site for music instruction, which he said is a much better option than platforms like Zoom, which weren't built to deliver music. But overall he believes the trend in streaming shows can be helpful in quelling nerves.

“They’re not in front of a living, breathing, staring-at-you audience. They have a shield between them and the platform they’re on, so they know that they can hear and see them but they’re not right there,” McKinney said of the artist/virtual audience relationship. “They’re not necessarily watching like they would from a stage and assuming that someone was frowning or not paying attention. And that’s especially true of the younger artists that are breaking into the business. It does give them a sense of protection but they’re still getting an opportunity to perform for potential fans for the future.”

“I feel like the livestream is a lot less nerve-wracking, but there’s no audience there, so there’s no real energy in the music,” Kirby countered. “It’s kind of weird. You’re playing to a lens instead of a bunch of your friends or people that relate to you in some way.”

Cherelle, McKinney and Kirby all agreed that audiences will play a key role in calming the nerves of anxious performers at post-pandemic live shows.

“I think one of the things that comforts me about performing is if they know that you’ve messed up in a song or in your performance at all, that means that they already listen to your music and they already enjoy you,” Kirby said of Ludlow’s crowds. “The people that don’t necessarily know who your band is or what your content is like, they’re not going to hear every single detail. They’re not going to know if you messed up or if the chord was played wrong, they won’t know if the transition was off time.”

McKinney likened post-pandemic audiences to the soldiers he performed for in Vietnam as a trumpet player in President Kennedy’s Navy Band. He said he learned how to perform without being overly-judged on those shows.

“I was lucky enough to know those guys were deeply appreciative of something that looked like home coming to them on the battlefield,” he said. “That played a large measure in me not worrying whether I was going to be able to hold my own.”

“Now, obviously I can’t see the future, but I do think that things are probably a little bit forever changed," Cherelle remarked. "I have a feeling that the way shows are done are going to be a little bit different. You could be performing in masks for who knows how long, you won’t be able to see an audience member smile and a lot of artists, we lean on validation. It’s such a weird thing but when we don’t know we tend to lean on the negative side, when the truth is the people in the audience couldn’t be happier than to go out and see a show. You have to remember they miss it too.

“We’ve just got to learn how to get back on our feet, changing our perspective of what the audience is, who you are in that scope – you’re not just a performer,” she said. “In this time, I think entertainment is more like therapy, for not only the artist but for audience members.”