Advice: Nerves

“ It’s all right to have butterflies in your stomach. Just get them to fly in formation.”

Dr. Rob Gilbert


This months column is a question I am sure has affected almost all the readers at one time or another.  The question comes from Matt who wrote:  I know you do a lot of big shows and all.  What would you recommend to a magician about being nervous on a stage. You don’t seem nervous when on a stage.  How did you get rid of it because its been haunting me a lot lately.  Any advice will help.


Dale Salwak, the famed Director of the Chavez Studio of Magic was one of the first magicians I met who offered advice not just on tricks but on performance skills.  I use and think of his advice often to this very day.  I knew he would make an excellent addition to this months column.  Dale wrote:  Even the seasoned pros are nervous before a show; that is a sign that they care about their work and their audience. With time they have learned not to let that nervousness interfere with their performance. Usually within the first thirty seconds after they have walked out and greeted and “felt” the audience, they settle down and are comfortable with themselves. A great deal of this comfort comes from experience. The more shows you do, the less prominent will be your nervousness. You are always a step ahead of the audience; they don’t know what is coming but you do, and that is a great advantage to you as a performer. Deep breathing exercises before going out are also an excellent way to relax. “Living through the show” in your mind the night and morning before is a great way to get yourself “in the moment.” Finally, remind yourself that you have nothing to lose, that you are doing what you love to do, and that the audience is there to be entertained. Take to heart the example of Howard Thurston who, before going out, repeated over and over to himself, “I love the audience.” This feeling was genuine, and it spilled over the footlights. You are not onstage for yourself; you are there for the audience. In every audience there will be people who are hurting, or suffering, and part of your reason for being there is to lift their spirits, even for a few minutes. “To lose yourself in performing is one of the highest and most sustained pleasures of life.” As Red Skelton said many times, the purpose of a performer’s life (or anyone’s life, for that matter) is to serve others, in your case through your art. Grab hold of that truth and it will transform you, your performance, and your audiences.


Gregory Wilson, the brilliant close up magician and FISM winner, also took time from his busy schedule to reply.  He feels his answer to the question is most likely different than other magicians as he never get nervous on stage.  Why? Attitudinally, He doesn’t take himself too seriously.  So, if he fails it’s not the end of the world.  He’s not beholden to a tightly-scripted performance. Instead, he prefers a loose and free-flowing outline. Naturally, parts are very tight, but that’s the foundation that gives him wiggle-room to deviate, explore and “feel” the audience. He’s secure in the knowledge that the audience wants him to succeed. He suggest that you be a leader and they will follow—willingly.  The famous singer with the big voice, Kate Smith, who reached her pinnacle in the 40′s said, “I don’t get nervous because of one thought: If those in the audience could do what I do, they would be on stage!” In other words, if we’ve put in the requisite time and practice, we should feel entirely comfortable that we belong there.


As for me, I appreciate that you perceive that I am not nervous on stage.  However, I am always a little nervous or perhaps a better word might be anxious.  I love the thrill of a live performance and the energy that comes from the audience is intoxicating.  I love my job and want to do the best I can so I get wound up and have to fight the adrenaline rush that comes before the show.  Bob Fitch is a brilliant coach for magicians and actors alike and recently I had the opportunity to take a short workshop with him and learn some valuable techniques.  I discovered I didn’t know how to breathe!  Yes, something I have done all my life and yet I was doing it wrong.  Since adjusting my breathing I have found a new energy on stage and I feel less wound up before entering the stage.


I use almost all the advice mentioned above by Dale and Gregory.  I remind myself that I am the only one who knows where the show is headed and that magic is about surprise.  I may know what is supposed to happen, but the audience is seeing it for the first time.  I remind myself that they came to have a good time and are on my side from the moment I step in front of the audience.  I take several deep breaths before starting and remind myself that I am one of the luckiest guys on Earth.  I get to “play” for a living.  I get to put smiles on peoples face and magic into their lives.  Then I go out and have fun.


I think in time you will find the more shows you do the more of a comfort level you will discover.  Rocco, the world’s most original magician, quoted Claude Debussy and said it’s the space between the notes that makes the music.  Learn to relax and enjoy your time in front of your audience.

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