Overcoming Stage Fright
Do you ever get nervous about performances? I certainly do. I’ll spend hours and hours learning material, charting it out, listening to it in the car, and getting everything in order for the gig, and even after all of that, I’ll still be nervous! For some reason, I think that everyone else will be cool as a cucumber, right? Wrong.
Call it nerves, butterflies, or the jitters… everyone experiences them at some point. So why is it that we get nervous?
Maybe we start to think about all of the people in the crowd, or perhaps one particular person (such as a manager, another musician you respect, or your parents). Maybe the show is on a huge stage, bigger than any you’ve ever played on before, and the size of the venue becomes intimidating. Or, perhaps you’re subbing in a band and trying to show the other musicians that you were the right person to call when they could have called someone else. It’s easy to fall into the head-trip of nervousness and difficult to calm down once you’ve started to worry.
So what can you do about it? Dealing with nerves is a big deal for many players, and whether you’re worried about playing a school talent show or playing with a major artist, the anxiety you experience is often one and the same. There are more than a few books on the issue of nerves but, if you frequently get nervous, I find that the best thing you can do is isolate where your pressure comes from and then try to manipulate your way of thinking about it.
Many players (myself included) are simply worried about playing the wrong notes. This is a legitimate concern, because we want to be the best player who executes the best playing. But that’s not why we’re nervous…. We’re nervous because playing the wrong notes may have an unfortunate result, either with the music itself or with other peoples’ perception of us.
Getting down to the root of my anxiety, I discovered that the audience is the least of my worries. Although a large crowd can be daunting at times, it’s easier to detach myself from this external presence… the audience is there to enjoy the performance and it’s usually easy to give them what they want. That said, the pressure I put on myself is internal; it involves fulfilling expectations that I create for myself. These expectations all have to do with respect—for the gig, the music, and the artist.
Ultimately, my goal is to honor each of these, because I know how much work needs to be done for a gig to go well. By respecting the gig, I need to show up on time with the right gear and the right attitude. By respecting the music, I want to learn it to the best of my ability and be focused on the players in order to lock in, adapt, and execute. And finally, I want to respect the artist and the other musicians because we’re all here to make music together.
This particular concept, respecting the artist and players, is something that even seasoned pros get nervous about from time to time (whether they admit it or not). Working with an artist you hold in high regard can certainly make you second-guess yourself, or make you wonder if you deserve to be there. I simply try to tell myself that I do, and usually need a friend to remind me of that as well. I know that the artist usually has their pick of whom to call and that they’ve played with more people than I can count. The fact that I’m on stage with them is no less than humbling. I also know that the artist may be just as worried about the performance as I am. Not only do they need the band to play well, they need to be “the one” in front of the crowd… they need to please old fans, acquire new ones, sell merch, promote their records, and please the club or promoter.
Thinking about all of that, I hardly have anything to worry about. Considering everyone else’s responsibilities, my job of playing bass doesn’t seem that hard… I can do this. Somehow, by manipulating my perception of the gig, and reminding myself that other players have reason to be nervous as well, it’s easier to gain some perspective. All I have to do is play my best.
So, if you find yourself getting nervous before a gig, try to do the same thing. Isolate why you’re feeling anxious, recognize what you can do to ease the pain (whether that’s taking your mind off of the gig or by preparing until you’re blue in the face), and remember that you’re not the only one that gets nervous. If playing in front of huge crowds is your kryptonite, then think of playing simply to one person, because each person will be listening with their own set of ears. If you’re worried about being entertaining or having “stage presence,” then relax, and imagine what it would be like to play without worrying about the notes. By taking your mind off the notes that you’re playing, you give yourself freedom to have fun, to move around, and to be comfortable on the stage.
I’m sure all of you have stories to tell or situations where you frequently get nervous. If you do, please share your stories (and how you overcame the butterflies) in the comments.
Photo by Will Marlow
Ryan Madora is a professional bass player, author, and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and session work, she teaches private lessons and masterclasses to students of all levels. Visit her website to learn more!