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Shaking Off The Nerves

Tips on dealing with anxiety, especially (but not only) when performing.

Article by Justin Guitar @    /    Photo by Joice Kelly @ Unsplash

Anxiety -or- Excitement?

It helps to define the kinds of things that can happen and why.

When we start thinking about performing or going on the stage, our adrenaline surges in our bodies. Many people notice sweaty palms, butterflies in the stomach, shaking hands, and even nausea! Although they are collectively not great things to feel, it helped me realize that these are normal human reactions to a stressful environment.

By having these feelings, you are just proving you are human! Over the years, I've been able to change how I perceive these anxious feelings. Instead of thinking about them as something showing that I am nervous, I know they are something I feel when I'm excited by what I'm about to do. Getting to that point hasn't always been easy - so don't beat yourself up if you can't do it right away.

I remember fondly the first time I played a national live TV show, and I felt pretty peaky. There were big stars everywhere backstage! It was a live show (as in no miming to track!), and I had to take a solo. I had butterflies in my tummy, clammy hands, and had buckets of adrenaline surging around my body.

While waiting to go on, I mentioned to one of the other band members (who has worked with some of the greatest musicians of all time on the biggest stages!) that I needed a pee, and he replied: "me too, most people get that before a big show, let's go!" And since then, I've noticed that many artists take a nervous pee (or three!) before going on stage. It's nothing to worry about if it happens to you too!

Later in my career, I quite randomly had a pretty severe panic attack mid-tour. I felt pretty embarrassed and managed to keep it to myself at the time, but I was terrified of going on stage; no reason and no trigger that I could think of, but just a real feeling of dread before going on stage. Luckily for me, we had a week off between tours. I sought a Cognitive Behavioural therapist who worked incredible magic on me.

   Cognitive Behavioural Therapy works by re-programming your brain!

Over three sessions, we made squeezing my right-hand thumb and first finger together (how I hold a pick) a trigger for many good feelings related to performing, and it worked! I certainly recommend looking into it if you have any anxiety problems.

Do You Know The 7x Ps?

I am a big believer in the famous 7 P's: Proper Planning & Preparation Prevents a Piss Poor Performance. If you don't put enough practice in, you are likely to make a mistake, so you probably should feel nervous. Making sure you are well prepared should always be top of the list to prevent anxious feelings!

That said, even the greatest artists make mistakes. I've seen Neil Young start with a wrong harmonica and have to start a song again! Mistakes happen, and it's not a big deal if one does - nobody other than your ego is going to get hurt! So don't worry about them, and whatever you do, don't raise your hand or admit the mistake. If you must do something, give the bass player a dirty look or blame your gear. ;p

   You'd be amazed at the power of your mind to create a stressful environment to practice dealing with your nerves.

I studied classical guitar at The Tasmanian Conservatorium of Music. The classical exams we had to perform each semester were quite a terrifying experience. We'd have to walk into a big concert hall, set up, and perform our repertoire for four examiners who would not say a word, keep blank expressions, and offer no feedback at all. And we'd have no audience, just the examiners.

In my first exam, my hands were shaking; I swear my palms were dripping with sweat! I felt (and played) awful. I knew I had to prepare myself for the exam better, and not just the music. So I started setting up my living room as the exam room. I would sit outside the room and imagine that I was about to do the exam. After some practice, I was able to get myself into quite a nervous state just thinking about going into the room to play. Once I could do that, I started trying to calm myself down by using slow breaths and another old psychology trick of imagining myself blowing all the nervous energy into a red balloon. When I'd got it all out, I would watch the balloon float away.

I never managed to kill off the nerves completely, but it helped get them to a manageable level so I could get on with letting the music out and not thinking too much.

What Can Go Wrong? And Why?

It's also worth remembering that when we get anxious, we worry about what can go wrong. And the more you think about it, the more likely it is to happen!

In a musical performance, the goal should be to let the music flow out relaxed. If you start taking yourself out of the moment, you are much more likely to make a mistake and have something actual to freak you out. If you keep worrying about that difficult section coming up, not only are you more likely to mess it up, but you'll be much more likely to mess up the bit before it too!

   A related side note of advice is to remain aware of your heartbeat - especially for solo performances. Our heartbeat is the body's natural built-in metronome! So, you are likely to rely on it to judge tempo when you start a song. :) However, if you feel excited and your heart is beating faster than normal, you are likely to start a song faster than normal. If it's a technically difficult song, you're going to face some challenges.

If you're starting a song with a band, ask the drummer for a tempo. If you have to start on your own, take a few seconds to run the melody through in your mind to avoid setting off too fast.

Just Pretend :)

One last tip that I found super helpful is to pretend to be confident, even if you are not feeling it! Your posture can affect your thinking, and by putting on a super confident mask, you are likely to find that something eventually clicks. You become the thing you were pretending to be! It can be very powerful and well worth trying if you start to feel like you're losing your cool.

   Fake it until you make it.

I hope this might help or comfort some of you that have anxiety issues - it really can be quite debilitating if you are working professionally. For further reading, you might like to check out The Inner Game of Music by Barry Green and Tim Galloway, which has advice on not only anxiety but on practicing effectively too - a great book on many levels.

If you're finding it very difficult to deal with, I strongly recommend getting some help from a professional therapist. The difference it can make may transform your performing experience! And don't be afraid to discuss it with other musicians. Sharing these feelings and realizing that you are not alone can offer a lot of comfort in itself.

I hope you enjoy this food for thought and that sharing my experience can help you go further in your performing journey.