Doing the Best You Can

Q: I tend to get very nervous before any live performance. How do you deal with performance anxiety?

A: Everyone, at some point in their development, gets nervous before a gig or feels inadequate to the task at hand. It’s natural. The best thing you can do is over prepare! Still, the nerves are there. What do you do?

This is my mantra:

“I will do the very best that I can! I can do it better than some, while others could do it better than I. All I can do is give it my all!”

As long as you give everything 100%, there is nothing to be ashamed of, feel bad about or regret. If you do your homework beforehand, stay focused and sober on the gig, and give it everything you’ve got, you’ll be fine! And even if you biff something here or there, you’re human. Forgive your mistakes and imperfections.

I went through a long and painful phase in my development when I couldn’t stop comparing myself to my heroes. I’d hold myself up next to the best of the best and feel nothing but unworthy. This is very unhealthy. Also, it is inaccurate.

I’ve seen my musical heroes in jamming situations and they’ve made the same mistakes I’ve made. When we only see someone in the environment where they are to shine by design, it’s hard to see the human potential for mistakes in what they do. I’ve seen Victor get lost in a tune, John McLaughlin play a “huh?” solo (not on his gig mind you, but sitting in with a band playing a tune he didn’t really know), Dennis Chambers drop a stick… you name it. We’re all human, and the one thing that every great I’ve ever known or talked to has in common is that they are always simply doing the best that they can.

Remember this: I’m stealing this quote from someone:

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent!”

Truer words have never been spoken.

Our own minds are our biggest obstacles much of the time. If I feel nervous, I will play nervously and make mistakes. More recently in my development, I’ve finally gotten to a place where I’m not afraid to make mistakes. This is huge! It doesn’t mean that I won’t make any, but it means that I won’t be as affected by them, and my playing won’t suffer because I won’t be dwelling on them. They come and go. Who cares?

The less I care about the mistakes, the fewer I make because my mind is in the music and not trapped inside of my ego. It’s a beautiful thing!

Do your homework, prepare, breathe and relax. Your hands and ears know what to do, just don’t let your brain get in the way.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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  1. buster

    Damien–the quote you cite is from Eleanor Roosevelt. Here’s the other thing I’ve learned about mistakes when playing live: you are probably the only one who’s aware of them. Unless you’re playing for a room full of other musicians, it’s likely no one is paying that close attention–ideally they are just grooving on the whole band sound, or dancing, or just talking with friends. No body is there to hear you be “perfect.” They are there to have a good time.

  2. Thanks, Damien! Great article. Amen, brother!