Playing Live: What To Do With The Little Voices In Your Head
by Tom Hess
Whether you play for tens of thousands of people every night as part of a world tour, or 20 people at a backyard barbeque, most of the mental anxieties musicians experience while playing live are the same. In almost every case the negative little voice in your head is centered around fear (fear of rejection, self doubt, etc.). We all have experienced some level of fear or nervousness when playing live at some time or another. You may have felt a fear of failure, fear of making mistakes, fear of what the audience will think of you, your music or your band. Have you ever asked yourself questions like:
“What if I make mistakes?”
“Am I even good enough to be playing on a stage?”
“What if the crowd doesn’t like the band, the music, or me?”
“Is this show going to be a disaster?”
Here are some things to think about before your next gig (they definitely work if you use them, especially if you put them all together in your thoughts).
Don’t put unnecessary pressure on yourself to perform at a very high level. The time to experience pressure is while practicing at home or in rehearsals with your band. The gig is not the time to be putting additional stress/pressure on yourself. Yes you need to concentrate on what you are doing, but have fun. If you won’t allow yourself to have fun during a live concert, when will you allow yourself to ever actually enjoy music?
As a professional musician, the pressure to consistently perform on a world class level is higher on me now than ever before. I perform better by focusing on having fun and living my dream than worrying about making a mistake. I look at it this way, if I play 30,000 notes a night and I play 3 notes imperfectly, that means I have played 99.99% of all notes correctly. It would be pointless for me to concern myself about the 0.01% of mistakes while on the stage. If I need to practice something later to make sure I don’t make the same errors in the next concert, then I will deal with that tomorrow while practicing, not on stage.
You probably play at least a few thousand notes a gig too (maybe a lot more). Of course most of us strive for perfection, but don’t beat yourself up over a few mistakes. Be happy and give yourself the credit you deserve for playing 97%, 98%, 99%, or 99.999999% of the notes correctly. Don’t let your desire to be perfect cripple you when the reality is that none of us can ever be perfect all of the time. If you were taking an exam at a major university and you answered 99% of the questions correctly you would feel pretty good about yourself right?! Congratulations, you just earned the grade of an “A”! Be happy with that while you are on the stage. You can go back home and practice the other 1% later.
Remember this, when you are on stage performing (for 20 people or 20,000) everyone in the audience envies you. Almost everyone there wishes they could be the one up on the stage with all of the talent that you have. Even if they don’t like your music, they at least envy your position up there on the stage. So the next time you are on stage and feel nervous, remind yourself that the people in the crowd are “in the crowd”, only you (and your fellow musicians) are the ones “on the stage”... living the dream at that moment. Think back to when you began playing guitar. Remember thinking how cool it must be to be up on a stage playing in front of people who have come to see and hear you? Remember how much you desired that when you began. When you walk out on the stage, remind yourself how far you have come as a player. You are now able to do something you always wanted to be doing. The size of the concerts you play are not important really. What IS important is what you have already achieved. You are performing with a band on stage, most people only dream about that, but now you will have actually done it! Feel good about that, don’t ruin the excitement and pleasure of that experience by fear of making a mistake or two.
In the end, it's 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 are a “giver”. When was the last time you ever felt nervous or afraid of doing something nice for someone else? If you hold the door open for a little old lady do you feel nervous or afraid? When you donate money to a charity, do you experience fear or self doubt about that? When you give your time to someone who needs help, do you feel nervous about that? 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 you make a mistake or if the crowd doesn’t like your concert. If you think of your performance as “giving to others”… you won’t feel nervous or afraid, stage fright will melt away. When you perform, you add value to people’s experience when they hear you. Some may like it and some may not, it’s their choice or preference and even if you play perfectly, not everyone will love what you are doing. That comes with the territory. But you will have given of yourself either way. You came to share what you do with the audience. Feel good about that because when you feel good, the chances of making mistakes in a performance diminish.
If you don’t get anything else out of this article, at least remember this: The best antidote for stage fright is to change the mindset from “impressing others” to “giving to others”.