A Rising Teen Singer on Overcoming Onstage Anxiety
When I was seven—two years into guitar lessons and months deep into my Emmylou Harris phase—I wrote my first song. It was a joyful tale about a girl and her best friend, obviously self-reflective, through a simple 4-chord progression with that occasional 7th that I was just slightly too proud of. I learned a valuable lesson that day after I scribbled in my Hello Kitty notebook for an hour, then rushed into my father’s room to show him (a songwriter as well) what I had made: Songs were the only way I could really explain what was going on in my head.
Later that year I felt I was serious enough about my music to book a show. Before, I would perform my songs for friends in secret; or send a rough demo to my crush (which did not end well); or most of the time, strum to the audience of my pale blue walls, tapestried with Beatles posters. The idea of a gig was something exciting, but I was naïve to think it was going to be easy.
That humid springtime night a couple years ago, I stepped onstage in front of a packed room of friends, and friends of friends, and even faces I had never seen before. And as it always had in the past, my self-consciousness colored how I saw the crowd in front of me. “They don’t like it," “They’re bored,” and “You’re not good enough tonight” ran through my mind. I’d give myself pep talks on these anxious Saturday nights, staring into the mirror, wearing the outfit that took me ages to pick out. I told myself that I needed to try to have fun. But, as you've probably heard, everything is easier said than done, and my anxiety onstage became a cycle.
Self-image is a terrifyingly fragile concept. One person’s mixed gaze or another’s misunderstood comment can greatly impact how you see yourself. I drove myself crazy those first few shows, believing that every bored glance towards an illuminated phone screen or whispered comment reflected upon me. I was up there, singing my own words. It was all pieces of me, making the experience incredibly vulnerable. I had turned songwriting—a hobby I was so passionate about, and essentially my only way to communicate—into something that would be fun in the moment, but would drive me insane once I got home. Post-show, post-milkshake run, I would sit late-night/early morning (however you classify 2am) and pick apart every video captured from those 45 minutes. I’d pick apart my own memories of what went down in front of those glaring lights. Distorted memories, marred by my own self image.
Dozens of shows have taught me something invaluable about performing. Though it’s hard to shut out others’ opinions, it is vital. Lately I’ve learned to enjoy stage time, because when it comes down to it, it’s the songs themselves that I need to share. It’s the songs that send me running home from school so I can pick out the chords from something I jotted down during second period. It’s the songs that connect me to my friends and offer them a sense that there's someone who understands. And it’s the songs that have taught me to love playing on that stage. Because in the end, music is my way of communication, and that’s all that matters.
By Sofia Wolfson, 16