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“I am not fitted to give concerts. The audience intimidates me, I feel choked by its breath, paralyzed by its curious glances, struck dumb by all those strange faces.”
So you’ve been practicing. Learning the names of various chords and the notes on your fretboard. Working tirelessly on your bends and slides, hammer-ons and pull-offs. You’ve got a few songs under your belt that don’t suck, and now you’re set to take that all-important next step—playing for someone. You’re finally ready to show us what you've got.
Taking your music out of the bedroom can be a daunting step, be it playing a few carols at a family holiday gathering, or a few covers at a crowded concert hall. Performing for others can leave you feeling exposed and opens you to judgment. Whether you’re a novice or a seasoned guitarist, we all experience some degree of nervousness at one time or another when it comes to playing live. There’s simply no getting around it.
In almost every case it comes down to neutralizing that little voice in your head that says you are going to fail miserably. You know the one. It’s consumed with fear—fear of making mistakes, fear of what the audience will think of you, your music, your band. This voice will dissuade you from doing what you love if you let it. It will drive you back behind closed doors to the safety of anonymity, where your cat can appreciate your talent.
The experience of intense and persistent anxiety before a performance, a.k.a. stage fright, manifests as a host of different symptoms that include worry, memory lapse, shaking and trembling, butterflies in the stomach, sweaty palms and dry mouth. In the extreme, people might choke or freeze during the performance or leave the stage because they are unable to continue. With the exception of walking off stage, I have experienced all these symptoms, most times simultaneously. It’s important to realize though that a belly full of butterflies is a normal response to live performance, what is often perceived to be a stressful situation. Some maintain you’re not an artist if you don’t experience stage fright.
Performance anxiety doesn’t discriminate. It affects musicians of all ages, from all musical genres, and has little to do with how long you’ve been at it or your level of musical prowess. Barbra Streisand, the most successful solo female singer of all time, gave up live performance for 27 years after she forgot the words to a song in a concert in Central Park in 1967. Beatles’ guitarist George Harrison and indie singer Cat Power were also seriously affected. Power had to cancel her 2006 tour because she couldn’t manage her anxiety. And Carly Simon’s paralyzing stage fright is legendary. She’s as famous for it as she is her signature song “You’re So Vain.”
When it comes to stage fright, there's little anyone can offer in terms of a cure-all. We all have different coping mechanisms. But I'll tell you this. That old “seeing-the-audience-in-their-underwear” thing never worked for me. What has is learning that when confronted by music performance anxiety, we’re far too hard on ourselves. It helps to remember that most people can't even do a fraction of what you're doing on stage, and that they are more impressed than you know that you have the balls to go up there and perform at all.
As far as mistakes go, it helps to remember that they are inevitable. Rarely does a musician, or an artist of any merit, escape unscathed. Don’t beat yourself up over them. Truth be told, most people don't notice or care when you hit a wrong note or two, or flub lyrics, or, as in my case, forget an entire verse and cover by repeating it verbatim. It’s how you deal with mistakes that matters. It's far better to make light of them than let them trip you up. And if you're performing original material, even better. No one will ever know when you screw up since they’ve never heard the song before.
Remember, to err is human. Your performance is not a matter of life and death. Keep things in perspective. After all, how many musicians have you heard mess up? What was your reaction? What was their reaction? Perfection is an unrealistic goal, and the only one really expecting it is you. Don’t let your desire to be perfect cripple you. Imperfections are what make us interesting and more relatable. So lighten up and give yourself the credit you deserve for playing the majority of the notes correctly. Don’t dwell on the negative. Let it go and have fun. You’re finally able to play music for others to enjoy. Wasn’t that the goal?
Now I’m not saying it’s okay to be sloppy. If you’re screwing up to the point the song is unrecognizable, then perhaps it’s time to go back to the drawing board. The gig is not the place to work out technique issues. If you need to practice something to make sure you don’t repeat the same mistakes, save it for the sober light of your next practice session, not the stage.
I would also recommend starting off your set with a song that’s not too terribly difficult to play. Consider it a warm-up number. An icebreaker. Something that stands a good chance of being well-received. A song you can play forwards and backwards, with the guitar upside down and behind you, standing on one foot while balancing a lit birthday cake on your head. It will serve as a confidence booster and help take the edge off your fear. By the time you've finished this opener, most normal-grade stage fright will have subsided significantly and you'll be good to go. You'd be surprised how confident you become when people are cheering you on. You’ll wonder why you worried in the first place.
You might also help dispel some of that nervous energy by redirecting it. Rub your hands together as briskly as you can. Put all your energy and nervousness into the movement then shake your hands out. Shake your arms. Make them loose as noodles. Roll your shoulders and upper back. Wag your tongue about while making strange noises. Jump up and down. Above all, remember to breathe.
If you don’t take another thing away from this article, at least remember this: The best antidote for stage fright is to change your mindset from “impressing others” to “giving to others.” In the end, its all about the music. It’s not about you or me really. As musicians we are the real instruments from which music flows. The instruments we play are merely extensions of our beings. When you play for others, you become a giver. When was the last time you ever felt nervous or afraid while doing something nice for someone else? Do you feel nervous helping a little old lady cross the street? Are you wracked with fear and self-doubt when you throw a couple bills into the Salvation Army kettle? Does cooking a pot of chicken soup for a sick friend bring on a panic attack?
Playing music should be no different. Don’t think of yourself as an Olympic competitor that must perform perfectly to win a gold medal. Don’t think you have disappointed the entire human race if every note you play isn’t spot on or if the crowd doesn’t like what they hear. Some will like your music, and some will not. This comes with the territory. Either way, you will have given something of yourself.
Finally, remember back to when you began playing guitar and thinking how cool it will be to one day play in front of people. Remember how much you desired that when you began? When you walk out on stage, or break out the guitar around a campfire, remind yourself how far you have come as a guitarist. You are now able to do something you always wanted to do. The size of the concerts you play are not important really. What matters is what you have already achieved. You are now a performer. Most people only dream of that. But you, you have done it. Feel good about that, and don’t ruin the excitement and pleasure of the experience with fear, and doubt, and self-loathing. Performing your music in front of an audience is one of the most exhilarating experiences ever.
So for all you guitarists out there still cowering in the shadows, and for all you others about to step out into the light, the stage is yours. Own it
"Please play some wrong notes, so that we know that you are human" - said to Jascha Heifetz.
This is a very accurate depiction of what what fright is. I used to teach mathematics and physics to design engineers and was often in front of extremely well educated men and women. My information needed to be proofed, repeatable, and accurate. Zero flaws in calculations, conversions or logical assumptions.
When it comes to playing my violin, I get so tense when I start to play, its almost unbearable. I tried to tell myself it is no real difference being in front of 1 person or a lecture hall of 40. Really, there is. It comes down to confidence. Working experience in what you are doing. Looking back at things you first started to learn and comprehend, you derive your own conclusions before really understanding what you are doing. A book or schematic can tell you alot, but working and building from theory and fundamentally constructing and troubleshooting is another game entirely.
Being in front of a crowd, giving a performance or giving a lecture really comes down to just doing it. The short spot on piece as Picklefish put out is what I do now. I play my old Alma Mater fight song (Michigan Fight song - Go Blue - Wooot! ). I play it usually 2 or three times through slowly with long, over exaggerated bow strokes.
Stage fright is a real thing. Fear of heights, fire, drowning and hopelessness are no different. It is a persons mindset and belief. Facing a fear is a hard thing to do. Each little step into your disparity may not make it go away, but makes it easier the next time to face and endure it. Just don't give into it entirely. A support team is what helps out. FM has accumulated quite the team here.
"I find your lack of Fiddle, disturbing" - Darth Vader
I've always had some issues with stagefright. From when I was still in highschool it led to the rather common solution of getting about half plastered before I had to go onstage in front of people. Not a glass of wine or a couple drinks, but about to the point where one is numb enough that you can't feel a slap in the face. Any drunker than that and you're too likely to fall over when trying to step on a pedal or something. LOL
Then one of my guitar teachers came to see me play out with my band. He stood around for several songs, smiling and applauding. Then gave me a thumbs up and headed out. I felt pretty good about that. Until I got to my next class with him. LOL
"Do you always go onstage that drunk? That's just throwing away all the 'edge' you work to get in practice."
I explained about the stage fright and we talked a bit about it, and he did end up coming up with something that was useful for me.
"Ever ride on roller coasters or go through funhouses at amusement parks? Adrenaline is what makes those sorts of things fun. It's the same exact chemical in your bloodstream as with the stagefright. Try not to think of it as fright, think of it as excitement or as being 'up', and you should want some of that so you can give a really good performance."
I asked if I had really been playing that bad.
"Eh, you were probably about average. But compared to how I've heard you play here in class sometimes, when you're clear headed and warmed up and getting into it a bit, it stunk. You're letting your audience down, man."
"Ok, so how did that get a thumb's up?"
He laughed. "Right, like I'd discourage another musician during their show. That wouldn't be cool."
So I hit the next show sober. I survived, and nothing bad happened. After the first song, I was ok and after a few songs I was enjoying my stage time. My teacher showed up for that one too and made sure I warmed up before going onstage. It had actually never occurred to me to plan on 15 min before the show for running scales and chord drills and finger exercises.
I don't take an easy song for first number, though. What works better for me it to start off with one that is fast and takes some work, so I can burn off some of that adrenaline. Basically hit the stage at 60 mph with no brakes.
My teacher also gave the usual attempt at a peptalk, which was useless as always. Anxiety is irrational, and rational logic is about useless, even when the person intends well. But the emotional support was appreciated, of course.
I never did "get over it". Just found ways to get it to work for me, if I can get in the right frame of mind to view the excess adrenaline as fuel instead of a problem. I don't get it bad all the time, though. If it was a very familiar venue that feels like 'home turf' then more often it doesn't amount to more than just mild nervousness. I don't think it actually has a solution, it is just one of those things some folks need to find a way to cope with if they want to play out.
Anyway, don't know if any of that is of use to anyone else. File it under FWIW. LOL
"This young wine may have a lot of tannins now, but in 5 or 10 years it is going to be spectacular, despite the fact that right now it tastes like crude oil. You know this is how it is supposed to taste at this stage of development." ~ Itzhak Perlman
I think my instructor said it well, which would reduce a 1000 words into a simple Phrase:
"IF YOU ARE NOT NERVOUS, YOU ARE NOT READY"
Implying, of course, that, if one is not nervous, one is probably too complacent; perhaps to the point of being boring.
He said that nervousness should be enjoyed, and employed as a natural tool to your advantage: no doubt to add zip to your repertoire.
I must profess a little confusion over the following quote from the article above:
"Rarely does a musician, or an artist of any merit, escape unscathed"
To what degree of merit are we to assume you refer, or are you implying that only artists with a superior degree of merit rarely escape unscathed? The statement is slightly dubious and could infer at least two meanings, one of which could produce ill feelings or will.
99 % of the people I meet are self absorbed human waste sphincters.
1 % play fiddle
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