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.
Frederic ChopinHow to Deal with Performance Anxiety
So youve 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. Youve got a few songs under your belt that dont suck, and now youre set to take that all-important next stepplaying for someone. Youre 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 youre a novice or a seasoned guitarist, we all experience some degree of nervousness at one time or another when it comes to playing live. Theres 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. Its consumed with fearfear 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. Its 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 youre not an artist if you dont
experience stage fright.
Performance anxiety doesnt discriminate. It affects musicians of all ages, from all musical genres, and has little to do with how long youve 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 couldnt manage her anxiety. And Carly Simons paralyzing stage fright is legendary. Shes as famous for it as she is her signature song Youre 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, were 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. Dont 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. Its 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 theyve 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. Dont 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. Dont dwell on the negative. Let it go and have fun. Youre finally able to play music for others to enjoy. Wasnt that the goal?
Now Im not saying its okay to be sloppy. If youre screwing up to the point the song is unrecognizable, then perhaps its 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 dont 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 thats 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. Youll 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 dont 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. Its 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. Dont think of yourself as an Olympic competitor that must perform perfectly to win a gold medal. Dont think you have disappointed the entire human race if every note you play isnt spot on or if the crowd doesnt 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 dont 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.