Shaking Off The Nerves

Over the 30 years I've been performing as a guitarist I have met many different types of anxiety in myself, people I have worked with, in students and other musicians I have met along the way. It's something I often get asked about, and I have a few tools that might help those with performance anxiety, and it may also come as a comfort to know that it's a very common thing that most musicians deal with regularly.

So it might help to define the kinds of things that can happen, and why. When we start thinking about a performance (or are about to go on stage) our adrenaline surges in our body, and many people notice sweaty palms, 'butterflies' in the stomach, the need to go for a wee, shaking hands and even nausea! Although they are collectively not great things to be feeling, it helped me to realise that these are quite normal human reactions to a stressful environment. By having these feelings, you are just proving you are human! I have found over the years that I have been able to change how I perceive these things and instead of thinking about them as something showing that I am 'nervous' I know they are something I feel when I'm 'excited' by the thing I'm about to do, but getting to that point hasn't always been easy.

I still remember fondly the first time I played a national live TV show, and I was feeling pretty peaky. There were big stars everywhere backstage, and it was live (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 found that many people take a nervous pee (or 3!) before going on stage. It's nothing to worry about.

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 can think of, but just a real feeling of dread before going on stage. Luckily for me, we had a week off between tours, and I sought out a CBT therapist who worked incredible magic on me over three sessions and cured it! Cognitive Behavioural Therapy works by re-programming your brain, and we made a squeezing my right-hand thumb and first finger together (how I hold a pick) a trigger for a lot of good feelings related to performing, and it really worked! I certainly recommend looking into it if you have any anxiety problems.

I am a big believer in the famous 6 P's as well: Prior Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance. If you don't put enough practice in, you are very likely to make a mistake, and so you probably should feel nervous. So making sure you are well prepared is something that 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 really a big deal if one does – nobody other than your own 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.

You'd be amazed at the power of your mind to create a stressful environment in order to 'practice' dealing with nerves. I studied classical guitar at The Tasmanian Conservatorium of Music and the classical exams we had to perform each semester were really quite a terrifying experience. We would have to walk into a big concert hall, set up and perform our repertoire for four examiners (no audience) who would not say a word, keep blank expressions and offer no feedback at all. In my first exam, my hands were shaking; I swear my palms were dripping with sweat, and 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 and would sit outside the room and imagine in my mind that I was about to do the exam and 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 and once I'd got it all out I would watch the balloon float away. I never managed to kill off the nerves completely, but it really helped get them to a manageable level so I could get on with letting the music out and not thinking too much.

It's also worth remembering that many times when we get anxious that we are worrying 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 in a relaxed way, and if you start taking yourself out of the moment you are much more likely to make a mistake and then have something actual to worry about! 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, and you are likely to rely on it to judge tempo when you start a song. However, if you are feeling excited and your heart is beating faster than normal you are very likely to start a song faster than normal and if it's a technically difficult song you're going to face some challenges. If you're starting a song with a band, try asking the drummer for a tempo and if you have to start on my own, take a few seconds to run the melody through in your mind to avoid setting off too fast.

One last tip that I found super helpful is to pretend to be confident, even if you are not feeling it! Fake it until you make it. Your posture can affect your thinking, and by putting on a super confident mask, you are likely to find that something eventually clicks and 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!

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 practising effectively too, a really 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 feeling and realising that you are not alone can offer a lot of comfort in itself. Good luck and best wishes!

Food For Thought