Dealing With Getting Nervous


One of my biggest Achilles heels has always been stage fright, or getting nervous when I have to perform in high pressure situations. I discussed my frustrations with stage fright at length in the original Confessions essay. Since the time of that writing, I have slowly but surely managed to have less trouble with stage fright. However, as I keep mentioning, I'm still the same guy. In the ensuing years my stage fright thing has gotten better all the time, and for a while there I felt that if I was really in a comfortable, low pressure situation I was as relaxed as could be but that I still got really nervous in situations playing with and/or in front great players, or at least people whose musical opinion I really respected.

What has happened recently is that I've started getting less nervous even in those situations to the point where I'd call the feeling more "uncomfortable" than "nervous." I still sometimes (or even most of the time) feel like I'm not at my best in high pressure situations, but the difference between that and the "totally comfortable feeling" is starting to become less and less all the time.

Here are a few practical observations for someone who is having trouble with this issue:

1) probably the most important thing is getting more experience. The more you do it, the more you'll get used to it, and it won't seem like such a big deal. Aside from the pressure of performing in front of people, and possibly even in front of the other band members, you're also probably dealing with other factors you're notaccustomed to, like a strange room, playing over people talking, and possibly the blend with other instruments if you've mostly played by yourself when you practice. These things all change your perception of your sound and this can be very disconcerting, especially when combined with the pressure of performing. Keep in mind, though, that at these types of gigs, no one is listening anyway, except maybe the occasional odd jazz fan in the audience who may come up and offer compliments, or the typical "you may think no one is listening, but I'm enjoying the music quite a bit." Probably a big part of why the masters are so confident and "un nervous" when they play in front of huge crowds with world class players is that they do it all the time. In the case of someone who doesn't get the chance to get "thrown into the fire" all that often and it just takes a lot longer to make that growth happen. I'm pretty convinced that if I had a steady 4 night a week gig with Larry Grenadier and Jim Black in New York (one where I'd never get fired no matter how badly I played), and all my heroes came in regularly, I'd get over the nervous thing once and for all pretty quickly. Until virtual reality is perfected, we'll have to find other ways to accomplish this goal, I guess, heh. Also, one's sound is different in a living room as opposed to on a gig, and it seems to be a lot harder to play physically because the way everything feels and sounds changes so much. What I think is that, again, the masters are used to playing in that context on a regular basis and are as comfortable and at home with that situation as I am playing in my bedroom. At any rate, I think the exact same thing applies to the "nervousness" thing.

2) perhaps the pressures of performing have brought out weaknesses in your playing or your preparation of the material that you weren't aware were there in the comfort and safety of your practice room. My rule of thumb is to try to know something way better than I think I'll ever have to, especially if I might be performing it in a high pressure situation. Here's where unhurried, thorough practice can really pay off. If you thought you knew Scrapple really well, see what happens if you play it at a tempo you're not used to (faster, or even more useful, WAY slower). You might even try playing it in other keys and/or positions.

3) This is connected to the section on meditation; take a few deep breaths before you play, and concentrate on trying to stay relaxed. You've practiced (hopefully) relaxed, so when you're right hand tenses up, you're trying to play something in a way you haven't practiced it. It can be really tough to get over this because it's human nature to tense up when we're feeling under pressure.

4) try to approach playing/performing with an attitude of giving rather than concentrating on trying to impress anyone, or win their approval. It's my belief that music is a powerful healing and enlightening force that brings people together spiritually, and I view my role as a musician in society as a very important one for this reason, even if I'm just playing background music. If I feel like I'm trying, in my own small way, to help make the world a better place, and that I'm approaching performing with an attitiude of surrendering to the music that belongs to and is part of all of us, that I'll be much less likely to get nervous than if I'm spending my time thinking "did the bass player think that was a hip substitution?" Again, the former can be a tough thing to get in the habit of doing, as it's our nature to do the latter. I think a big part of stage fright comes from a feeling of separation from the audience (and/or fellow musicians) and the more connected you can get yourself to feel to everyone, the more likely you'll be able to conquer the stage fright.

5) even though it will get better the more you do it, it'll probably never go away completely; getting used to dealing with stage fright and playing "though" it, is a skill that takes experience just like any other. The famous FDR quote "the only thing to fear is fear itself" comes into play here; when you get stage fright at first it's something you're not used to during practice, and that makes it even worse, because you get freaked out that you're getting stage fright. As you get more accustomed to having stage fright over and over, it will go from being like "oh my GOD, not YOU again" to "oh...YOU again." Sort of like an annoying relative that keeps showing up. After a while you go from panicking and trying to pretend you're not home to resigning yourself to the situation and trying to live your life around him as best you can.

6) imagine everone in the audience in their underwear. Just kidding; that's just my tribute to mothers everywhere who have a child in a school play.

Introduction / Technique / Meditation
Ground Zero Revelation / Sound / Dealing with Getting Nervous