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QuaranTunes artists give advice on coping with stage anxiety

Updated: Aug 21, 2023

Left: Michael Ross jamming out on the electric guitar at the Marin Academy in December 2019.

Middle: Julia Segal singing at the Stanford on Shuffle music festival in April 2022.

Right: Krystal Curtiss singing along with her choir at the California Theatre during the Christmas concert in 2019.

Performers know the cues for showtime. Maybe the curtains open. Or the applause for the person before you in the recital winds down. But the sudden attention can cause some people to experience stage anxiety. This phenomenon is a common occurrence for performing musicians. Everyone wants to show the audience their best colors. However, the fear of messing up, humiliation, or critique can ruin a moment where a person is supposed to enjoy sharing their music.

KRYSTAL CURTISS is a QuaranTunes teacher and college student majoring in Musical Education. She has performed both as a piano solo and a choir.

“[Usually], in choir, I don't get that nervous because … you're in a group,” Curtiss said. “If you mess up, no one's going to hear. Usually, the excitement drowns out the nervousness. But for piano, it's a different story. I have always messed up whenever I've done a recital.”

Curtiss has an optimistic view of feeling nervous before a performance.

“Our nervousness is caused by how we expect our performance to be received,” Curtiss said. “So we might anticipate disappointing ourselves or disappointing others, or we might be worried about being judged by others or failing. [It’s] not intrinsically bad to be nervous, because you're never going to completely eradicate nervousness. It shows that you care and that you want to do well and you want to please your audience.”

"[Being nervous] shows that you care and that you want to do well and you want to please your audience"

Despite the inevitable feeling of stage anxiety, Curtiss believes that the most effective way to quell its effects is preparation.

“Sometimes I am a little bit lazy before a performance and then I want to last-minute practice it,” Curtiss said. “[But unlike writing] an essay the night before, you can't learn your songs the night before. So that helps you be motivated to work beforehand.”

Curtiss has found a lot of joy singing with her choir and gained many new experiences while touring Europe and performing at Carnegie Hall. Her favorite experience was when her choir attended an international choir competition in Sweden during the summer of 2019.

“Even though we were being judged for what we were doing and we had put in a lot of work beforehand, it was really exciting to see how well we did and … musicians from other countries,” Curtiss said.

The singer has always loved music, but QuaranTunes played a significant role in her decision to pursue Music Education.

“I realized that I don't just love making music,” Curtiss said. “I love teaching it too and even though I might have a really squirmy five-year-old or a sassy tween, it's so much fun and it gives me a lot of joy when I'm able to teach them well. That was something that I want to do for the rest of my life.”

MICHAEL ROSS is an incoming freshman at Syracuse University who plans to minor in Music. He has taken guitar lessons at the Blue Bear School of Music since he was seven years old and became a lead guitarist in the All Star Band at the Blue Bear School of Music and in the Advanced Band at Marin Academy. Ross has dabbled in many genres like blues and jazz, but his favorite is rock.

“[There’s a] super awesome song [called] “Iron Man” by Black Sabbath,” Ross said. “I was just totally captivated. [I listen] to all different kinds of rock music and watching YouTube videos. I just really wanted to be able to perform like [those people].”

One of his most memorable performances occurred in his sophomore year when someone dared him to play the guitar behind his head during a performance.

“[I was] about halfway through [my solo] and I just decided on the spot,” Ross said. “It ended up going quite well. I figured out that actually playing behind your head isn't as much isn't as hard as you think it is. If you don't really think about it, [it’s like] playing without looking and [in] a weird position.”

Then-sophomore Michael Ross tests out playing the guitar behind his head.

Typical performances are not as spontaneous. About 15 minutes before a show, Ross likes to clear his head, warm-up, and reassure his band.

“We usually just like to get together [like] football players,” Ross said. “Everyone [says] that we got this and are ready to play because usually [we] practice a ton before."

"I find [that] the best thing to do [is to] look straight towards the back and focus on the general crowd without focusing in on anything"

Compared to more formal choir performances, bands have a closer proximity to the audience, which could be potentially nerve-racking.

“I find [that] the best thing to do [is to] look straight towards the back and focus on the general crowd without focusing in on anything,” Ross said.

When COVID-19 regulations on live performances loosened, Ross had to re-familiarize himself with the feeling of performing.

“I developed a mantra that I use in my head: calm and careful,” Ross said. “The fight or flight instinct makes you either speed up and rush or just kind of freeze. I like to keep calm and cheerful to get myself to focus on keeping a steady rhythm.”

QuaranTunes founder JULIA SEGAL has been involved in music for most of her life. She was classically trained in piano and quickly found her own path by writing songs at a young age. She started to seriously train her voice in middle school. Throughout the years, she once again diverged from the classical style by experimenting with and writing pop, jazz, and indie.

After putting her music online in high school, Segal was encouraged to perform it. Soon, Reverie was born. She found like-minded band members who could perform along with her once or twice a week at different venues in the Bay Area.

“We performed at this very cute coffee shop called The Backyard Brew and I really liked that because it had a very chill ambiance,” Segal said. “Even when we messed up everyone was super supportive. Oftentimes our friends would come watch and that was really fun.”

Still, the goal is to make every performance count.

“Practice makes perfect,” Segal said. “And then the more that I performed, it just kind of started to feel easier, like a second nature. [When I first] started performing with my band, I wouldn't warm up beforehand and then I'd start playing and then my voice would be cracking and all that and then I'd get really embarrassed. So I started warming up before the shows and … I was coming into the show feeling more confident.”

"I was always extremely nervous [while performing] the piano. When I was performing my own music, it just felt so much easier because it felt more like me"

Not all performances are made equal. Segal prefers performing her own original music.

“I was always extremely nervous [while performing] the piano,” Segal said. “When I was performing my own music, it just felt so much easier because it felt more like me.”

She released her first EP, Staring at Ceilings, last summer, which gave her more opportunities to share her music with others.

“I found a lot more joy [while] performing originals because … I feel proud of the way that sounds because I wrote it," Segal said. "I started off writing these very abstract songs because [they were] about … made up stories or a concept that didn't really relate to my life. In recent years, I started to actually write … about real experiences … like how I've been in pain, sad, and having feelings for someone. When I perform those songs, it feels a million times more vulnerable. [When] I performed at Stanford, I didn't care that much because no one at Stanford would know any people involved. There have been a lot of times I've been too scared to [share my music] on Instagram [because] people would connect [the dots].”

Segal is heavily involved in the Stanford music community. Her favorite performance by far was a part of a music festival she helped organize called Stanford on Shuffle, which had a turnout of over 300 people.

“We hosted it at this really cool location on campus and then I spent a really long time that day perfecting the setup for hanging up literally hundreds of lights and making it look very beautiful," Segal said. "And then I was able to get a pretty awesome band to perform with me. It's really fun for me to play with a lot of different people.”

Perspectives on performances also change as people grow up and get more experience. This is especially true for Segal, who realized that feeling like the center of the universe while performing is a false illusion.

“When you go to college, you realize … how insignificant you are in the grand scheme of things,” Segal said. “It's kind of depressing, but at the same time, that eases nerves a lot.”

Currently, Segal is in New York City interning for the Save the Music Foundation, a nonprofit that QuaranTunes has partnered with over the years to help restore music programs in public schools. Segal hopes that the experience and knowledge she gains there can further improve QuaranTunes’ operations.

“I'm interested in going into the nonprofit sector and doing social impact specifically within music so they're very much up my alley,” Segal said. “[QuaranTunes] was almost very immature [because it was started by] a 16 year old who knew absolutely nothing about business. But it's amazing how we're still able to have that big of an impact.”

She also looks forward to hosting more spaces and concerts for Stanford students to perform on campus and continuing to write her own music.

The stories of these three QuaranTunes members make it clear that their passion for music is closely tied with performance.

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