Conquering Life’s Stage Fright

Part 1: The Three C’s

by Mark Schulman

Imagine you’ve worked on your skillset for many hours throughout your life and you’ve developed what you perceive to be an accurate awareness of your abilities. Imagine having spent most waking hours since the age of five thinking about or listening to music. Imagine that your obsession with music has transformed into a tenacity that inspires you to stop at nothing to get your family to support you and buy you your first drumset at age nine.

Imagine many joyful and challenging hours developing your craft to the point where you can play in a band with other young musicians. Imagine playing professional gigs throughout your high school and college years, refining your skillset, and keeping your eye on the goal of becoming a famous world-class musician.

Then after years of playing in cover bands, original bands, and original bands playing covers to make money, you get the opportunity of a lifetime: to audition for a legendary, world-class band.

When you’re in that defining moment, jamming with this band for the first time, you’re so overtaken with stage fright that your heart is beating at a crazy tempo, your mouth is dry, your palms are too sweaty to hold your sticks, and you can’t control your internal meter. You feel like you’ve been pushed out of an airplane without a parachute. And eight minutes later you’re told that you can leave, knowing full well that this had been your defining moment—and you blew it.

That story represents my life and career, including my abysmal failure at an audition for Bad English. I imagine that you’ve also experienced stage fright at some point in your life. Over the course of the next few months, I’m going to give you some advice on how to transform those tenuous moments into confidence.

Three Steps to Top Performance

We’re all performers—like William Shakespeare wrote in As You Like It: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” What I want to share with you is my experience so that you’ll have the inspiration, guts, and tools to step up when you’re afraid or too intimidated to perform at your best.

Anxiety is an abnormal and overwhelming sense of apprehension and fear often marked by physiological signs like sweating, tension, and increased pulse, doubt concerning the reality and nature of the threat, and self-doubt about one’s capacity to cope with it. For most of us, performance anxiety means action anxiety—the fear of doing something. Performance anxiety differs from other fears in that it affects not only cognition (thought) and physiology (body) but also behavior (action). For most people, peak performance doesn’t occur from a completely calm state of mind. It comes from a balance between physical provocation and the brain’s interpretation of that excitement.

According to Dr. Andrew Steptoe of University College London, “Performance improves with increasing arousal up to an intermediate level, but deteriorates as arousal rises beyond the optimum.” Most people need a certain amount of nervousness or tension to perform at their best. So let’s say that performance anxiety is deleterious anxiety—the tipping point when physical manifestations become extreme or when thought processes impede or distort. These physical effects may include heart palpitations or rapid heart rate, muscle weakness and tension, fatigue, nausea, chest pain, shortness of breath, headaches, or stomach aches.

The Three C’s

There’s a consistent, similar path that applies to how top-class performers surpass anxiety and actualize their goals that can be summarized in three words: clarity, or the ability to identify a goal and determine the skills needed to get there; capability, or becoming proficient in those skills; and confidence, which is the result of success after applying your new skills.

Clarity is the first anxiety buster. I knew before I auditioned for Bad English that I lacked skill in some way. In that case, it was the ability to control my internal sense of time. I wasn’t prepared to be in a world-class band. My anxiety was appropriate—I was out of my league. But it wasn’t until I knew what I was missing that I could create the mindset to move forward. The moment you clarify your goal and understand where you stand relative to it, you’ll know what you need to do. There’s no mystery, and that diffuses the anxiety.

Capability comes after gaining the proper knowledge and developing the skills required to achieve your goals. I lacked some fundamentals in the area of meter. The way to develop those fundamentals was to get busy working with a metronome. If you’re capable, you’re accomplished, talented, proficient, skilled, and able to do a particular thing well. Paramount to reducing fear is having no doubt about your capability. Ask yourself if you can really do what you claim you can do. If you’re bluffing, then you need to continue developing your capability.

Confidence is the state of being certain. It’s the result of clarifying your goal and becoming capable. I’m now completely confident in my ability to control my internal sense of meter, because I focused on it intently in the practice room.

Keep the three C’s in mind once you’ve gained confidence in certain abilities, as they can be applied to other stress-inducing challenges along the way. If an upcoming performance is bringing you anxiety, then take a step back and clarify what you may be missing. Is there a new skill that you need to incorporate? Have the circumstances (such as size of venue) changed, or is there some new component of the performance that you need to address? Have you discovered a new weakness in your abilities that you need to overcome? The three C’s are potent and applicable to all stages of learning and development.

The ideas in this article are taken from my book Conquering Life’s Stage Fright: Three Steps to Top Performance.

Mark Schulman is a first-call drummer for various world-class artists, including Pink, Foreigner, Cher, Billy Idol, Sheryl Crow, and Stevie Nicks. For more information, go to