Food For thought
Every month Justin Sandercoe of justinguitar.com lends GT his insight as one of the world’s most successful guitar teachers. This month: shaking off the nerves.
When we’re about to go on stage the adrenaline surges and many people notice sweaty palms, ‘butterflies’ in the stomach, the need to go for a wee, shaking hands and even nausea. Although not great things to be feeling, these are normal reactions to stressful situations. However, I have been able to change how I perceive these things and, instead of thinking about them as showing that I am ‘nervous’, they are something I feel when ‘excited’ by the thing I’m about to do.
The first time I played a national live TV show I was feeling pretty peaky - big stars everywhere, and I had to take a solo. I had butterflies, clammy hands and buckets of adrenaline surging round my body. I mentioned to one of the other band members that I needed a pee and he replied, “Me too, most people get that before a big show.”
And once I had a severe panic attack mid tour. I was terrified of going on, for no reason that I can think of. So I sought out a CBT therapist who worked magic over three sessions. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy works by re-programming your brain, and we made the squeezing of my right hand thumb and first finger together (how I hold a pick) a trigger for good feelings related to performing. It really worked and I recommend looking into it if you have anxiety problems.
I’m a big believer in the ‘Six Ps’ too: Prior Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance. Being prepared is top of the list to prevent anxiety. But even the greatest artists make mistakes: I’ve seen Neil Young start with a wrong harmonica and have to begin again. Mistakes happen and it’s no big deal – just don’t admit the mistake; give the bassist a dirty look, or blame your gear.
I studied classical guitar at The Tasmanian Conservatorium of Music and the exams we had to perform were terrifying. We’d walk into a big concert hall, set up and perform our repertoire for four examiners who would keep blank expressions and offer no feedback at all. In my first exam my hands were shaking and I played awfully. I knew I had to better prepare myself for the exam, and not just the music. So I set up my living room as the hall and would sit outside and imagine that I was about to do the exam. I was able to get myself into a nervous state just thinking about it. Then I’d calm myself down by using slow breaths and the old trick of imagining myself blowing all the nervous energy into a red balloon and watching it float away. The goal should be to let the music flow in a relaxed way; if you keep worrying about that difficult section coming up, not only are you more likely to mess it up, you’ll also be more likely to mess up the bit before it too.
Be aware of your heartbeat, too - especially for solo gigs. It’s the body’s built-in metronome and you rely on it to judge tempo when you start a song. But if your heart is beating fast you are likely to start the song too fast, and if it’s a technically difficult song you’re going to face some challenges.
If you’re finding it very difficult to deal with then get help from a therapist; it can transform your performing experience. And don’t be afraid to discuss it with other musicians, as sharing these feeling and realising that you are not alone can offer a lot of comfort in itself. Good luck and best wishes.
Justin has some great advice on performance anxiety issues