Lessons about performing, lesson 23: You will have performance anxiety!

Well, we’ve made it all the way to 23 (A prime number!) and I’ve not yet run out of lessons to share. I’m actually amazed that it has gone on this long, but I’m not out of stuff to say and you seem to really enjoy them. So, we continue!

For those that are curious, or unfamiliar and new, this is another entry in my series of things that aspiring performers should probably know. Click here for the full list – and it’s quite a list. There’s a lot of things you should know.

These are lessons learned over decades of performing. This is stuff that I’ve learned along the way. At one point in my life, music was my sole source of income. I played because I needed the money. After I no longer needed the money, I just kept playing!

Either way, what should have happened is someone should have written a book with all this stuff in it. I can’t find said book and I’m pretty sure it doesn’t exist. Sadly, that leaves you with me and my writing style. Sorry about that, but I’m all you’ve got. Really, this information should have been written down by someone far more adept at writing than I am.

Rule #23: Dealing With Stage Fright!

It may not be crippling. It may not be overwhelming. It may not be every time – but it probably will be there and sometimes will be problematic. One thing is nearly certain, and that is that you will eventually have anxiety before a performance. You will probably experience some anxiety before every performance.

It’s okay! It happens to the best of us. (That’s what she said!)

Seriously, it does. Even after all these years, I get a bit of anxiety. In my case, it’s overcome by my desire to perform and my excitement to perform. If I look, it’s still there.

You’ll get it. It will happen. It’s normal.

As you may know, there’s a few sites where I share my work. When I made the choice to share, I noticed that I had just as much anxiety as I used to have before performing. My stomach was in knots and then the compliments started rolling in.

After that, I just kept sharing – not for the compliments, but because I’d moved past the point where I was anxious. I still get a little apprehensive about it and there’s actually stuff that I decide to not share. I just don’t think it’s good enough to meet my expectations. Usually, that’s a recording issue, because I’m not very good at recording myself.

By the way, if you’re interested in recording yourself, Chris from The Kilt Lifters has been supplying us with some guest articles and they’re specifically about recording. Check back this Sunday for what I feel is his best article so far! While you’re there, consider checking out his new album!

So, if we all face performance anxiety – how do we deal with it?

Well, you just push through it and I have a story for you that may help you realize that much of your anxiety is unfounded.

That’s right, it’s story time! (Does the story time dance!)

A long time ago, when dinosaurs still ruled the planet and rocks had not yet degraded into soil, I was a young classical guitar student. Like many young students, I pretty much sucked. Unlike many young students, I absolutely pushed myself to practice. Seriously… At that age, the guitar was the only thing in my hand more often than my dick.

(Who doesn’t like dick jokes?!? Highbrow humor, folks. We’re cultured and refined!)

After much preparation, recital day came. Yup – that kind of lessons and training. As in, I studied classical guitar in a very formal setting and it was recital time.

I was apprehensive and my anxiety levels were through the roof. At that age, I hadn’t quite perfected the art of swearing, but I’d have sworn a lot – had I simply known how.

My piece was prepared, memorized, mastered, and meant to stun! My recital was to be in front of my peers, their parents, my instructors, several guests, and some random students as well as some random teachers who were not music instructors.

I stumbled out onto the stage, guitar in hand. I took my seat. I looked out into the audience and saw my family.

It should be noted that I went to a boarding school and my father was a career Marine. Seeing my family out there was unexpected and a shock. This was not a part of the plan! Their plan to surprise me sure worked!

And I promptly forget the entire piece that I was slated to play. Try as I might, it was gone from my memory and it sure as shit wasn’t going to come back any time soon. I’m pretty sure that piece of my brain had just meandered off to Tahiti. I can’t blame it, I’d have liked to have gone there too.

Lacking anything better to do, and given the fact that I’m now seated and the room is silent, I played something else entirely.

I concentrated entirely on my guitar and my playing. I didn’t look at the audience even once. I’m pretty sure I looked like Beethoven having an epileptic fit, but I played and I played like I meant it. I played with emotion and zeal. I played as loud as I could, hoping the volume would at least count for something!

And almost nobody was the wiser.

In fact, I got my first standing ovation and a giant round of applause. My main teacher (I had one for theory and one for guitar) was rather pissed, but that’s not important right now.

Nobody cared. Nobody even knew that I’d played something entirely different than what I was supposed to play. They just knew that I’d played something that sounded good, that I was into it, and I didn’t make any obvious errors.

“What the hell is your point, TheBuddha?” You may be asking…

Well, my point is that you should have been following the many rules on this list. If you had been, you’ll not only play your instrument better than 99% of your audience, but you’ll be the only one who notices your mistakes.

They don’t know. They don’t see your fuck ups – unless they’re blatant. They don’t care. They’re there to have a good time and you’re there to give them that. The instrument is just one tool that you use to do that.

So, when you fuck up – and you will, play through your mistakes and don’t worry about it. I often say things like, “I’m a professional musician because I play through my mistakes.”

There’s not much need to be nervous. Your anxiety is largely unfounded. The fact is, they’re not musicians. The fact is, they’re not experts – and you are. The fact is, they don’t know what’s going on in your head and that you meant to play something else. They think it’s intentional. The fact is, they don’t hear your mistakes at all. This is even more true if you’re playing with a group of people.

All that anxiety fades away and you get comfortable. It’s still there, but it’s small. Use it to your advantage! It’s good motivation to keep yourself at the top of your game. It’s good motivation to practice. It’s good motivation to provide a quality performance.

Think of all the famous bands you know and now listen to them live. They sound like shit, some of them. All you’ve gotta do is sound better than they do. You’re there to do a job and the only difference between that and being a file clerk is that there are people watching you and being entertained by your antics.

It’s just a job.

Sure, it’s a job we love – but, at the end of the day, you’re going to work when you step on the stage. Do your job and get good at it. The anxiety levels drop, your comfort levels increase, and the audience appreciates your performance more.

An audience that appreciates your performance is willing to come see you again. That means, they’re willing to keep paying you money!

And, they don’t always have very high standards. They’ve already paid to see you. It’s not like you have to give ’em a refund if they don’t like the show. Just remember, you’re the one who’s mastered all these things and there’s no reason to be as anxious as you are. Remember, you’re the expert.

If you have anxiety, just push yourself through it and go on the stage. Once you’re there, you can’t really run off the stage and hide. You’re kind of obligated to perform. So, make that first step.

Many years ago, I used to vomit before I’d go on stage, I’d vomit every single time. I’ve even vomited into a bucket full of trash just as I was going onto the stage. But, I put that next foot out there. I made that next step. I got on the stage.

And the audience was happy to see me!

How you get past it is sort of up to you. I can only tell you what worked for me. I can only tell you how I have managed to move past it. I can only tell you about the things that I’ve done. I can’t explain your personal situation because I’m not in your shoes.

So, how have you been dealing with the performance anxiety? What tricks do you use? I used to play “Hide From the Spotlight” and “Don’t Look at the Crowd.” Those were pretty fun games and those audiences had pretty low standards!

What tips would you give a younger you about stage fright? These days, it’s largely buried under my excitement, but it’s still there. It’s just not as big and not as dominating. I no longer get sick!

Finally, remember that it’s you who had the courage to get up there and perform. It’s you that had the courage to get up there and hold yourself up for their judgment. You’ve already made it that far, so you can’t stop now. Step into the spotlight, revel in the applause from the crowd, and give them all the energy you can. You won’t regret it.

Seriously, if you have tips – please share them so that fellow readers can see them. I’m glad you read this insane keyboard pounding and we’ll have another article for you tomorrow – presumably. Until next time…

Shut up and play us a song!

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