How Do You Deal With Performance Anxiety

Bass Player

Q: Do you ever get scared? How do you deal with performance anxiety?

A: I’ve written a fair amount about various types of musical situations I’ve found myself in, related anxiety, and how I’ve navigated it but this may be the first time I’ve written purely on fear. I’ve mentioned in the past that I spent quite a while living as a fear-based player, meaning that I was terrified of making mistakes, sounding bad, playing something “stupid,” etc. I’ve also written about how my playing grew by leaps and bounds once I got past it. (And it’s not that I suddenly became a better player but, rather, that I was finally free to have fun and my musical sensibilities soared once I got over my fear of sucking.

Here are some thoughts and methods I’ve employed relating to fear and creativity.

Fear is natural and it can’t be shut off. Don’t try to pretend it’s not there but embrace the focus that it gives you.

  1. Long before the gig: turn it into motivation to practice, shed, and work on the given material like never before. Turn fear into motivation, plain and simple. I’ve had tours that have terrified me when I let my mind rest and wander too long so I learned how to turn that into the energy required to make a lesson plan, stick to or exceed the lesson plan and, ultimately, nail the gig.
  2. Day of the gig: Don’t focus on not feeling anxiety but, rather try and empty your mind. Don’t avoid it but don’t obsess on it either. Find a quiet space and just lay down and breathe. Try and envision the first few songs of the gig. See and hear yourself playing it the way you want it to sound. Relax your body and meditate on the music. Or simply, focus on your breath and let everything wash away. Visualization can help in meditation as well. It might sound corny but if something works for you, do it (and you’ll never know if it works if you don’t try). Sometimes I’ll picture myself on a beach and imagine that each breath is the water ebbing and flowing back and forth. My heart rate slows, all of my pent-up anxiety and tension eases away (at least a bit) and I find myself in a much healthier frame of mind.
  3. Right before you hit the stage: again, visualize yourself playing the beginning of the show. Get yourself over that hump before you even plug in. I also did this when I first started teaching large groups (which used to REALLY freak me out beforehand). I would come up with a solid plan for the entire session and, often the night before, when I couldn’t sleep because I was anxious about the next day, I would just start talking through my lesson plan. Rehashing my approach and getting a flow going with the information. This helped me tremendously!
  4. After the gig: Think about what went right and, if there are any trouble spots, keep shredding them and slowly tighten up the show.

Know that with every success, you will slowly start to realize that you CAN do this.

Each time you freak out a little bit, work your butt off and come out the other side unscathed, you will have taken another step towards believing in yourself and, with that belief, comes comfort. Then comes the day you can finally just have fun and really PLAY.

Realize that you could play literally nothing but bad notes, and the world is still spinning.

Nothing actually matters. You may have blown one gig but does that really matter in the span of a lifetime? The chances are that you won’t ever actually play nothing but bad notes but you very well may hit a clam here and there. Realize that it happens to everybody (truly) and that the only thing you can do is to make note of what happened and why and work to correct it next time. The hard part is not fixating on that bad note at the moment. That will often only lead to more mistakes because you aren’t paying attention to what is happening in the now anymore. Try to acknowledge them and move on.

There is no such thing as a bad note, just a bad resolution (Whit Brown said that once in a lesson). As soon as you lose your fear of “wrong notes,” you instantly become more able to make them work in one way or another. Anything can be made to work (to at least a degree). Getting over your fear of weird notes opens up your mind to more sonic possibilities.

Pay attention.

Keep your mind on what you’re playing and what is coming up next. Don’t let your mind wander, don’t stress about anything, just play what you need to play right now. Sometimes it helps to sing it along with yourself or imagine someone else playing it but, regardless, keep your mind on the task at hand.

The long and short of it is this: everybody screws something up, somewhere, at some point. You can’t avoid it. All you can do is your best. Your best now may not be where you want it to be but, it likely never will be. You can only continue to try and improve, work on what needs work, and try and find joy in the creation of music with other people. Music feels better when you’re having fun and it’s also more fun to listen to when the people playing are enjoying themselves. Perfect isn’t a reality. Intention, energy, hearing people operate at their peak and going for it.

It’s all about the experience so just immerse yourself in the joy of creativity and don’t sweat the small stuff. It truly doesn’t matter and, once you realize that, everything often gets better for it (as long as you keep a healthy attitude and continue to strive for your best, that is).

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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