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Stage fright: in Children

A few weeks back I asked for advice for a friend whose four-year-old
daughter suffers from stage fright. Katie loves her dance classes
and choir classes, but gets paralyzed with fear and misery when it's
time to perform.

Many thanks to those who shared their experience and expertise! I
have passed your ideas to Katie's parents.

The response was interestingly mixed, with most folks offering some
version of: arrange with the teachers of the choir and dance class
to let Katie participate up until the performance, and then not
perform. Let her come watch her friends perform, and eventually she
may want to perform too. If forced, she'll develop a lifelong horror
of the arts.

Rebecca Rottsolk writes:

>Have the mom not have her 'perform' for awhile. She can sit in the front row
>of the church (or near where ever the choir sings) and sing(or not) from
>there. She doesn't need to stand up in front and perform to be benefitting
>from choir. (When I've had to do this it did not make all the other kids
>want to copy her, so setting that example isn't a worry). Eventually she may
>feel ready to sing with the choir.(If this takes a whole year - so what?) In
>a few months, maybe she can have some liturgical task (like carrying the
>book to the altar) or something that gets her doing something up front. But
>the gaming and hiding behind the lectern is a funny power-trip that just
>needs to end now in a non-threatening way.Rebecca Rottsolk

Mary Lycan :

>I can think of no pressing reason why a four-year-old should have to appear
>on stage. If she's now reluctant to get into the car on gig nights, she
>will soon be reluctant to go to rehearsals.
>I suggest the parents strike a deal with the choir and ballet folks: let her
>participate in classes/rehearsals, and then attend the performances in the
>audience. (I doubt very much either ensemble has such finely tuned choral
>blend or choreography that this will cause much of a problem to the
>conductor/choreographer.) Let her have a choir robe/angel suit and a tutu,
>and perform privately at home, but only if she wants to. Be sure to promise
>her up front she's taking a class, not preparing for a performance. Then
>keep your promise.
>If the parents can live with this arrangement and *not wheedle* or make
>pointed remarks, I predict that within two years she will volunteer to
>perform. In the meantime, they can just say to the other parents, "Katie
>prefers not to perform in public," and leave it at that.
>Parents: calm down. there will be bigger issues in about nine or ten years.
> Use this opportunity to give Katie a chance to make a choice and live with
>the consequences. You will be giving her responsibility, honoring her as a
>person, and adding to the reservoir of parent-child good manners and good
>will which you will need later on.
>As my best boss ever used to say, "Is this the ditch I want to die in?"

Susie Howell :

>I had a similar child, although a bit older--maybe 6 1/2. He VERY
>gradually got over it. Katie will probably get over it. But for now,
>that's how she is, and there's probably nothing that will cure it except
>time and more social maturity. See if the parents can negotiate
>"non-performing" status with the dance teacher and choir leader. The worst
>thing that can be done is to force her to perform against her strong
>objections, and turn her off of music or dance for all time.

Kevin Carroll :

>I think a simple and straightforward solution is to stop her performing!
> She's supposed to enjoy it, so tell her she doesn't have to do it. When
>she makes the decision herself to go onstage it will probably be better. I
>have often found that kids who are terrified are better left for a year,
>and they come back "cured"!
>Good luck!
>K Carroll, Ireland

Duane Toole :

>The literature in childhood education is becoming more and more clear in
>this area: young children should not be forced to perform; it can do
>permanent damage to their musicality. Most training programs for
>preschool children make it clear that children of this age are not old
>enough to perform; even the performance-oriented programs (like Suzuki
>and Yamaha) speak strongly against forcing a child to perform.
>A little research in this area will help the child and the parents.
>Places to look: the Suzuki Method, Kindermusik, MusikGarten, Choristers
>Guild, etc.
>Duane Toole
>Software for Musicians
>By referral only

David Douglas :

>I would emphasize that performances are fun but that she doesn't have to be
>part of a performance if she doesn't want to. And then don't push or coax.
>Let her come to performing if and when she wants to and don't do anything
>that interferes with her enjoyment of the activity itself.
>I suspect you will get a lot of conflicting responses to this.
>David Douglas

Patrick Flahive :

>In my twenty seven years in music education (choir-specific) I have found
>that the children will become comfortable at their own pace. This is not an
>issue that can be forced and, my opinion is, if an adult makes an issue out
>of it they are risking giving the child a persistant and pernicious aversion
>to performing. Four years old is very young! Some individuals are
>extroverts and naturally take to the stage, while others are introverts who
>will take their own time and, it must be acknowledged, may never become
>comfortable in a performance situation. Most are not born to perform and it
>takes many hours of classroom rehearsal to develop comfort. I ask if any
>one of my kindergarteners would like to try whatever we're studying as a
>solo. This gives them the chance to raise their hand yet does not force
>them into a terrifying situation. Eventually, after many opportunities,
>most of the children will give it a try. Some never do.
>Make it as enjoyable and non-threatening as possible and, very important,
>give the child the choice.
>Patrick Flahive
>American Federation of Pueri Cantores

Tim Getz :

>I'd say.... don't make her perform! She is awfully young and if she is
>forced into performing she may begin to lose interest in music and dance
>altogether. She will likely grow out of the stage fright.
>Tim Getz
>St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church
>Corona del Mar, CA

Mary Hoffman , who I hope will
follow through on her idea about writing for the _Choral Journal_:

>I have MUCH experience with this, and it is not at all uncommon, no
>matter who the parents are! Every child has his/her own "pressure
>gauge." I NEVER force a child to do what she's not ready to do. Some
>children need to see the big picture, watch other kids do the same
>thing, before they see (understand) what their role is in that
>environment. Most kids who flip at performance time in their early
>years tend to be children that relax in highly structured
>environments, and they grow to be highly organized people. They have
>to know every nuance of the event before they feel safe (!) to
>My success with kids like that is a very backdoor routine using some
>fascinating child psychology. The explanation really merits a phone
>call (or an article in Choral Journal?!) and I would be happy for
>your colleague to contact me.
>Mary M. Hoffman
>Director of Children's Music and
>Assistant Director of Music
>Peachtree Presbyterian Church
>Atlanta, Georgia 30363

Sisse Schilling :

>I would stop performing with her at once! When she grows older, she might
>enjoy it, but as it is now, she might hate it forever in her life.
>Performing is not a goal, it is something you do, when you are ripe for it.
>I have a girls choir, and some of the girls just won't do it. I ask from
>time to time, because they shall have the invitation, but it's okay, if they
>When they say yes to it, they are ripe. Not before.
>I remember hating it myself, when I was a child.
>Best wishes,
>Sisse Schilling

And three with advice on how, gently, to encourage Katie to perform:

Marie Amenta :

>Do the rehearsals have observers before the 'grand event'?
>I usually have my little kiddles rehearse before moms, dads, the
>custodian, etc. before we perform. At first, this was not my choice--it
>just happened. And I noticed when I DIDN'T have anyone around for the
>rehearsals leading up to performances, I had many more 'fraidy cats.
>Now, especially with anyone under 7 or so, the more the merrier at the
>final rehearsal!
>Just a thought!
>Marie Grass Amenta

Kimberly O'Connell :

>I teach Pre-K through eighth grades in three Catholic schools and this very
>issue came up during the Christmas programs. Before the performance, I
>brought the youngest children up to the empty auditorium and had them stand
>on the stage. I told them that there would be lots of people there and that
>even I get nervous. I also told them to "Keep their eyes on me and pretend
>that we were in music class together". For most of them, it worked. It also
>ensured that at least a few of them were watching me instead of the audience.
> I hope this is helpful.
> Kimberly O'Connell
> Haverhill Ma.

Linda Beaupré :

>I don't deal with children quite that young, but I do have three
>five-year-olds in my youngest choir (grades 1-3). I have the children
>practice singing in a mirror for expressiveness, and we play a game of
>taking turns watching (one or two watchers) to pick out the children who
>are most expressive and know their words! They are not allowed to be
>chosen if they are not looking at the conductor! They love this game and
>will play it endlessly. One of the reasons children are nervous at that
>age is that they are not used to watching the conductor, and they are
>not used to watching children of their own age perform. Watching
>themselves in the mirror, and watching each other, and learning to watch
>the conductor all help somewhat. One other way of having them learn to
>watch the conductor is playing the "look out!" game of stopping/slowing
>down/speeding up/pausing unpredictably and trying to catch them not
>going with you. When I'm really desperate, I have them all stand up and
>they have to sit down if I catch them not watching me or if they sing on
>when the rest have stopped or paused on a note. The conductor is their
>lifeline on stage, and if they aren't used to looking at your smiling,
>encouraging face, they only have that big audience to look at! Hope some
>of this helps.
>Linda Beaupre

Thanks again to all for these useful perspectives. At last report,
Katie was watching videos of her friends' performances, and agreeing
with her parents that it did look like fun.

Best wishes,

Nina Gilbert

Nina Gilbert
Director of Choral Activities, Lafayette College
Easton, Pennsylvania 18042-1768
voice mail: 610-330-5677; department fax: 610-330-5058