Performance anxiety has probably been around as long as people have been playing music. It is a well-documented and discussed subject but I thought I’d offer a few hints and observations that may be of use.
First and foremost: EVERYONE gets nervous when they play in front of another person. I know I do, even after countless performances in front of audiences ranging from a few dozen semi-interested listeners to shows in front of many thousands. The trick is to channel that nervousness into something else. Because I can tell you from personal experience that the times I’ve performed and went out there totally at ease I probably screwed up faster than I should admit. Which then leads to a state of mind where I’m probably MORE nervous than I would have been otherwise!
So, what to do. Pre-show jitters are often counter-productive but incredibly common. Avoid slurping down that third cup of coffee before you perform. Shaky hands and a shaky voice aren’t easy to overcome when they’re caffeine-induced. Likewise, avoid mood altering substances, for the most part anyway. A glass of wine or a beer or two, fine. Other substances tend to make most people feel like they are sounding really good, when more often than not their playing is at the very least self-indulgent and at the worst, sloppy and ultimately disrespectful of a paying audience. Some players – Willy Nelson comes to mind – seem to have no problem with, shall we say, altered performances but in Willy’s case, there is a lifetime of practice doing it that way and his audience almost expects it. I once heard a story of the late, great folk blues legend Dave Van Ronk playing a concert here in town shortly before he passed away and the person assigned to host him was required (by Dave) to stop at the nearest liquor store and buy him a quart of whiskey, which he downed in short order before his show and did just fine. But these are the exceptions, friends.
Remember that audiences are a lot more forgiving than you might realize, especially older ones. When I was very young (high school age, perhaps a bit later too) I and my friends were very judgmental about bands of our peers. Our standard was – how much do they sound like the original artists? Fortunately, I matured enough and played out enough to realize that if a group sounded just like the original artist, they probably wouldn’t need to play for little ol’ me! Mature audiences take that into account, whether they’re conscious of it or not. They want you to succeed! And if you look like you’re having a good time playing, mistakes or a less than perfect performance doesn’t matter much at all.
Here’s a simple one. Don’t forget to breath. Sounds logical, right? But when we’re nervous it’s easy to be so focused on the music that our breathing is irregular. This causes something akin to panic in our brains, which ramps up the nervousness factor by a lot. If you’re a singer, a deep breath the instant before you sing a phrase will go a long way toward making you relax.
Think ahead as you play. I know that the worst performances I’ve given were due at least in part to putting my mind on autopilot and listening to myself rather than anticipating the next phrase or series of chord changes. This too will help you relax, based on the presumption and confidence that you know what will happen next. (And that’s why we spend time practicing, right?!?)
If you’re just getting into playing in front of audiences it sometimes helps to pick out a point in the back of the room to focus on rather than looking out at those expectant faces. This gets easier with experience of course, and making eye contact with listeners is always a good idea. But if you find yourself starting to choke when you see some local guitar hero watching you play or a very attractive member of the opposite sex is sitting there in the front row, shifting your focus point can help you calm down and deal with the task at hand.
Keep a bottle or glass of water close at hand. A nice deep swig of water between songs really helps eliminate the dry throat syndrome that goes along with heightened nervousness. It feels good, you will feel better and the next tune will go smoother.
And finally, accept your mistakes. It is a bummer to mess up a song but let the little man in the back of your head tell you that you WILL play it better next time. Don’t let a screw-up affect what comes after it. If your mistake is blaringly obvious, don’t be afraid to acknowledge it to your listeners with a laugh and a shrug. They will appreciate your honesty and keep rooting for you, I promise!
Peace & good music,