Thursday, March 6, 2014

Expert Advice with Martin Ng: Stage Fright

So I've been thinking of reviving my Expert Advice column, and while chatting with Martin on some work projects I sort of broached it to him. Martin was very keen to get started, provided that I include the usual caveat that he doesn't consider himself an expert by any means.

Nonetheless, having spent many years living and performing in Italy, Singapore and starting a burgeoning career in Taiwan, I'm sure he has some experiences to share that most of us will find useful. Think of the conversation below as a chat between two performers, one working on a international scale and another on a mostly regional one (me!)

Martin's performance season this year includes performing Dr. Bartolo in The Barber of Sevile at the Teatro Comunale Ruggero Ruggeri di Guastalla in April, performing a role in the Taiwan Philharmonic's Salome in July and an appearance in Singapore.

Stage fright is a topic that is close to my heart, having the personality of a nervous nature. But Martin, while admitting to feeling some pre-show jitters as well, is made of stronger stuff. His advice is generally down-to-earth: practice and perform often enough, you will soon accumulate sufficient experience so that it doesn't get the better of you. Agree? Why not chip in your two cents in the comments section? Here's what we discussed:

The Mad Scene: Hi Martin! Let's talk about stage fright, or nerves. Any advice for coping with them before a performance?

Martin: mmmm I still get it before I get on stage...

The Mad Scene: It seems to be an unavoidable of performing huh?

Martin: but I guess always tell yourself that you have something to communicate, and it doesn't help if you let your nerves get the better of you.

The Mad Scene: Have you ever had a situation where the nerves did overcome you?
How did you feel then, and what lessons did you learn from it?

Martin: well I have some vague memories, but nothing distinct. I remember not being able to execute the piece the way I wanted to, and I felt bad about it.

The Mad Scene: what advice would you give to a young singer on how to deal with nerves, someone who might be a great performer otherwise if not for the stage fright?

Martin: Perform and perform and perform until you are so good at it, that nothing can affect you.

The Mad Scene: How about when you are performing the material for the first time?

Martin: Rehearse and rehearse and rehearse. Try performing things for the first time in smaller venues and then move on to other important venues.

The Mad Scene: What do you think are the causes of stage fright?

Martin: Insecurity. I think that's the major cause.

The Mad Scene: and therefore it helps to be prepared by taking rehearsal seriously I suppose.

Martin: absolutely, its very important.

The Mad Scene: have you gleaned any experience about this subject from observing others? Maybe from your classmates, professionals in Europe or in Asia?

Martin: not really.... because every individual is different. Honestly a true professional will be able to conceal stage fright.

The Mad Scene: I guess that's the keyword then, concealment? Not letting others know how nervous you are?

Martin: Yes, or conversion. Converting stage fright into strength.

The Mad Scene: what do you mean?

Martin: Fear gives us the strength to do things we never imagine ourselves doing

The Mad Scene: So its daring yourself to go further to avoid being scared?

Martin: You can say it that way, I'm sure it can be explained scientifically.

The Mad Scene: "It was much better in rehearsal" is a term that is often used by performers, from singers to theatre actors to instrumentalists, is this a line that rings true to you? What do you think is the cause of that?

Martin: I think its nerves... we should try not to let the nerves get the better of you

The Mad Scene: Do you find yourself saying this after performances?

Martin: Not really.

The Mad Scene: Wow you really have nerves of steel!

Martin: I don't say that ... because we learn from every performance. I do get freaked out but as performers we have to deal with it. Its part of the job.

The Mad Scene: For me, I have had quite serious stage fright from my first concerts and still do get them now, but I accept that its part of performing. I tell myself that I've prepared enough in rehearsals, now its time to enjoy the work process and share my music with the audience. Because the only way the audience will enjoy my performance is that I myself enjoy it. So I do that, to the point of forcing myself to have fun if I have to.

Martin: Yes exactly, and the more you perform the better it gets. But you shouldn't force yourself to have fun. It should come naturally.

The Mad Scene: Yeah but if nerves prevent me from having fun, then the thing to do is to have fun in spite of it. Because I can't control how nervous I feel, otherwise I wouldn't be nervous at all. For me, its about overcoming it, through experience and just telling myself that the show must go on nevertheless.

Martin: So perform, perform and perform.

The Mad Scene: Yes. But in situations like Singapore's where we don't have the luxury of repeating performances, it is then important to take rehearsals seriously. Work hard but enjoy the process nonetheless. Only then will I be sure of what am I doing onstage, even if my body and mind are distracted from nerves.

Martin: As singers we use our body to sing. If your body is too rigid from fright, you lose half the actual volume to sing.

The Mad Scene: Yeah, but fright is not something that you can control at a given moment, so how do you deal at that point in time? I guess you are seasoned enough that nerves don't really get the better of you. But even when you were a student backstage at Victoria Concert Hall, do you ever get worried about what might happen onstage with 1,000 people looking at you?

Martin: well yes... I mean even now I do suffer from stage fright. But you have got to manage it, otherwise you don't sing.

The Mad Scene: and by managing it, we talked about rehearsing and performing often.

Martin: but I have heard some great voices that cannot perform because of stage fright, which is a pity. So its really a mental thing. You might have the greatest voice, but if one suffers from too much stage fright then maybe performing is not for him or her.

The Mad Scene: So no particular strategies for you then. Some people like to eat bananas as it calms nerves, Pavarotti had to find a bent nail before going onstage, even in recital where there are no sets for nails to be lying around; his managers just threw one on the floor for him to find.

Martin: no.... I don't think there is a standard strategy. One just finds the best way for oneself.

The Mad Scene: Its a trial and error process I suppose, and it get's better with practice and experience. Thanks for your time Martin, I'm sure folks that out there will find your advice will be useful.

Martin: You're welcome, its my pleasure!

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