Playing Under Pressure and Facing Your Fears

Stage and curtain

Photo by Dominik Gwarek

Q: I’ve been playing electric bass for about five years, and I’m currently attending the third year in a Music Conservatory. When I play music while other musicians observe me (not the members of the band), I become quite uncomfortable. I feel judged, and my heart starts pounding, especially if it’s someone I respect like a teacher or a skilled musician. Of course, this causes me to start messing up. This doesn’t happen when I’m on the stage, I think because there is more space between the audience and me. I’ve tried to let it go, but as time goes on, my anxiety is growing. What do you recommend?

A: Although I recently answered a similar question in a recent column, this is slightly different, and I’ll recommend something from a different angle.

In a nutshell, most every response I’ve given to a question throughout the course of my time writing for No Treble comes down to one basic idea:

Examine whatever it is that is giving you pause by tackling it slowly, methodically, and from as many differing perspectives as you can imagine. Back up any problem to its root and start there. Through time, thoughtful exploration, practice and experience comes the desired result.

What you’re speaking of isn’t stage fright but rather a hyper-awareness of yourself in the context of your surroundings. More to the point, an awareness (or perception) of people looking directly at you and not the group as a whole. It sounds like you are comfortable with yourself in the group context but less so in the one-on-one.

I don’t think that’s unusual. The closer the microscope is, the more aware you become with yourself.

Much of who we are musically can be traced back to who we are personally. I’m not even speaking of your “voice” here but rather a less conscious tendency inherent in your personality that may lead to any number of decisions while playing. This isn’t true for everybody. Certainly, there are people who are shy one-on-one but find that they are totally comfortable when making music with and in front of people. The reverse is also true for some.

For many of us, though, who we are deep inside very much impacts who we are within a musical context. Some people feel the need to have all of the attention on them while others would rather blend. Some are team players (only want to enhance the overall musical statement) while others like to dictate how the game is played (musically talk over the other musicians and are less likely to follow when they can lead).

Some people prefer to be a part of the consensus but don’t necessarily feel less comfortable speaking publicly (feel great when playing the role of the bass player but don’t like to solo, for example).

Some may feel pressure to be somebody they are not but rather who they think they should be, or wish they could be.

These may be superficial examples, but I think they ring true for many people. I, for one, have spent some time examining my self-perceived deficiencies as a person and as a musician, and I continue to contemplate any correlations between the two. It sounds like you may not have tapped into who you are yet and are struggling with your identity. Of course, that’s my armchair psychoanalysis of why you may feel uncomfortable with people looking at you too closely. Or, you may feel secure in your identity but have not yet spent the time necessary on the instrument to feel confident “speaking” yet. You are also young. This is not a fault, just a cruel reality of your level of experience. You haven’t had the opportunity to build on the real world experiences musically to have the confidence you require.

I think this is a good thing! This means that you care very much about what you say, how you say it, and that what you say is thoughtful and honest. Thank you for caring and not wanting to BS your way through it all.

I would suggest you try a few things, both leading to having to do the same kind of work in the end:

  1. Explore any side of your personality (outside of music) that relates to the issues you’re having as a player
  2. Then explore any issues as a player
  3. Force yourself to confront them head-on. In the end, the only way to tackle any task is to approach it mindfully and without fear. When you’re scared, force yourself to continue on as if you weren’t.

The real X factor is likely just experience and confidence, as it is with many things. The more experience you have with something, the better you understand that thing. This leads to higher levels of confidence. In short, if you’re afraid of snakes, get a pet snake.

What does that mean, though?

You indicated that the bigger the stage, the more comfortable you are, regardless of the audience size (and without any non-band members nearby). I would recommend you start a duo with somebody and develop enough material to book some coffee shop gigs (or similar). I actually used to love taking gigs where the band was sonic wall-paper (no one is paying attention) because this allowed me a chance to explore things musically in a way that I wouldn’t in a real concert setting (practicing on the gig, in a sense). This can also be a great way to get comfortable playing up close and personal, without everyone staring directly at you. Even if it’s a coffee shop and people are sitting right next to you and watching, you can keep reminding yourself that this is just a coffee shop gig. No biggie. No one is expecting to hear the second coming of Jaco here. Just have fun.

Even better, book some solo shows! (Yikes, I know). Pre-record some loops, pads, backing tracks of any kind and force yourself to play in front of people with only you and your pedals, laptop, or whatever else you require. Talk about a way to confront your fears! You very well may be subjecting yourself to torture as far as your first gig goes, but I guarantee that if you persist, it will get better, you will get better, and you will develop a comfort level with it.

A slightly less terrifying way to go might be to simply invite your significant other or a friend or two to listen to you play a piece (a tune you’re working on or anything else you feel like playing). It can be under the guise of wanting an opinion, constructive criticism or simply just a way to beta-test something you’re working on. It doesn’t matter the material or the way in which you present it. It only matters that you are forcing yourself to turn everyone’s attention to yourself while you play in a safe environment.

As you can tell, I’m basically saying that the quickest route through your problem is to face it head-on. Even though it may feel like you are running into battle alone and only armed with a wiffle bat, I can guarantee you will survive and learn something in the process. Even if you only learn where your limitations are, the knowledge is still useful.

To a certain extent, if you are one who is naturally predisposed to be a bit self-conscious, there is no assurance that you can completely win the war without a determined fight. You may, at the very least, discover a way to deal with it or develop a functional relationship with it. I have had students who were wonderful players but could never get past their own insecurities and wound up quitting music all together. This is a total shame. I always felt that if they would only have addressed their insecurities head-on in their life than they would have broken through them musically as well.

Remember two things through all of this:

  1. No matter how badly your belly churns and how sweaty your palms get, there is nothing to be afraid of.
  2. Experience breeds confidence

I have a Nietzsche quote that always struck me as interesting. “What? A great man? I always see only the actor of his own ideal.”

Initially, I thought he was calling most people a fraud but I think it’s more likely that he is also saying that all of us are winging it to a certain extent and there are those (especially those great men) who have an image of who they believe they should be and act accordingly.

I encourage you to envision what your ideal image of yourself is both personally and musically and then foster that growth. Who do you wish to be? Be that. That is your optimal self and he already exists, he just needs you to do a little work first.

Readers, how about you? How have you faced your fears and conquered them? Please share your stories and advice in the comments.

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. Shelby

    I’ve had, and to some degree still have problems with this also. And I’ve been playing over 40 years. Generally don’t do much in way of any solos longer than one or two bars. Really self-concious if they’re longer than that. mainly because that’s not what I’ve ever aspired to or worked toward. Other musicians in an audience used to make me nervous as well. But I finally realized, after enough compliments on my playing, that I should believe them. Do you go out of your way to compliment someone if you don’t mean it? If you’re working, there is a reason for it, namely that someone else believes that you can do the job like they want it done. So why question their judgement? Enjoy!

  2. Juan

    My wife says to me tonight, “I wouldn’t know you were making mistakes if you would just stop shaking your head.” I am a guitar player who has recently been asked to cover bass on the church worship team. I am hypercritical of myself in all of my endeavors until I reach a point I can do something blindfolded, obviously this doesn’t happen overnight. My bass skills are rudimentary at best and I play with some amazing musicians who have made me better and more confident, hint hint, but tonight we played with the Pastor and for whatever reason I found myself fumbling over myself on songs I am more than familiar with. I keep waiting to be told I am no longer needed and it never happens. I tend to dig my heels into a task pass or fail and have noticed my nerves relax over the last few months. The support from my worship teammates also helps as it is both encouraging and constructive. In a, typical for me, longwinded fashion it does get better with time, practice and determination. I have only been steadily playing for about 4 months. The drummer and I play 4 half hour sets a week together plus one two-hour rehearsal a week and are beginning to sync up dare I say almost telepathically. He is a steady time keeper and play his whole set not just trap. Most importantly I am my own worst enemy and take myself out of the game. One mistake made early and the dominoes fall mistakes made late in the set and I recover just fine. Internally screaming a prayer of, “Oh God please get me through this set,” doesn’t hurt.

  3. Anton Bell

    I found this article extremely useful and inspiring. The way how it goes from not only a musical standpoint but also personal fears and short comings was what really stood. The answer was a very holistic approach.

  4. al

    whoa dude where do I start?….you are not alone.I’m a guitarist, who switched to bass about 5 years ago and had the same issues because it is a different disipline.It’s hard but play through it.the being graded for performance is way the real world you seldom play for other musicians, so unless you are way off they will never know….never forget this is supposed to be fun.

  5. Fu

    When you realise that it mainly your perceprion of the situation (you have no problem playing in a band, so you know your skill) when you think of your performance of going bad, you will experience emotions that go with that idea. Insecurity, fear, shame etc. so you start relating that sort of emotions to that type of performance.

    Since you can control your thoughts you can start having a different idea about the performance. When you start thinking of it going really well and you being relaxed and cool, you will experience similar emotions. By practicing the situation in your mind over and over, seeing yourself it and feeling good you are imprinting yourself with that outcome. And once you actually do the performance you have practiced it in your mind numerous times so you automatically will enter the positive state that you have related in your mind through emntal practice.

    Emntal practice is used a lot in sports and performance, is very easy to learn and apply and get you better and faster results than by traditional practice alone. As a professional hypnotherapist I can promise you that you will be amazed how much you can advance in just a couple of weeks by using this simple technique. Not only to solve any sort of performance anxiety but also to improve your skills and learning speed.

  6. Cory

    Heres a question for ya Damain…How long does it take for you to put together such a thoughtful answer? All of your responses are detailed and thoughtful. They’re a real help! Thanks!

  7. Tom O'Connor

    Try filming and recording yourself performing in your practice space, really forces you to get to terms with your own playing and get more comfortable with playing to your biggest critic (yourself). It can also help you notice things about your playing technique or body position, such as areas of tension that you’d like to work on. You don’t have to do anything with these videos, but you can choose to upload them somewhere like youtube, and ask for your musical friends’ opinions about your playing, that way you can show them the playing that you can truly do.
    great article!