Scene and setting: You're preparing to hit the stage for your first performance, your mouth is dry and your nervous sweats have given your forehead a noticeable glimmer. Of course, it doesn't help that there is an onlooking crowd awaiting to be wowed and entertained by you, the musical talent; perhaps you're playing as a solo act, maybe you're with a band. As you're on stage getting the final details squared away before the sound check, you notice that your hands aren't reacting in the same manner as they usually do when practicing with your band or in your bedroom; running through your head are a number of scenarios, including but not limiting to the following: Will I drop a pick? What if I hit a sour note? What if a string breaks in the middle of one of my solo? Sounds familiar? Well, good news is that you're not alone in suffering from stage fright, as we all endure it at some point (except for Yngwie -- I'm not even sure our favorite Viking knows what fear is) and this post will focus on some tips to help you overcome stage fright.
Get out of your head:
Although I've already alluded to this point, it's important to understand that you're not alone in this struggle as even professional musicians have to battle their pre-show jitters. Once you understand that you're not the only one to suffer from the fear of performance, you begin to realize that this particular issue can be overcome (or at the very least, managed).
It's also important to note that many of our fears are, to some extent, a product of our own mind. Those worst-case scenarios and the dire conclusions that we are so quick to jump to are really of our own doing (and undoing). Don't prepare for the worst to happen, as that ends up becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Take it as it comes and live in the moment -- remeber, you were drawn to these stage because it was supposed to be fun, right?
I know this one sounds a bit cliché, but usually these things get that label for a reason. Controlling your breath is one of the most effective ways to deal with anxiety. By taking deep, controlled breaths, we're able to then focus on something else rather than our fears. Notice the sensations around you, feel the texture of your guitar pick, the wound strings or whatever other sensation your mind wants to focus on. Remember, the more you tense up, the more difficult it is to move your extremities.
Warm up on stage:
And I don't mean in an "exercise-y" way. I simply mean do a few "disguised" exercises that are designed to be both entertaining preparative. For example, I like to tinker with the 'Woody Woodpecker' theme or 'Dixie,' in reference to the 'Dukes of Hazzard.' Not only does this allow me to warm up and ease into swip picking in front of a crowd, but this can also get in the crowd's good graces due to its nostalgic quality, making it easier to build rapport. Similarly, this can be applied to any technique. Just be creative with it and have fun, as long as it's done tastefully and not too over-the-top.
Understand your role:
Whether you're playing a paid gig or an open mic night, it's important to understand that you're there to entertain, which is why I put so much stress on having fun during your performance. The truth is that if you're having fun, the crowd will pick up on that energy and have fun as well. Conversely, if you're completely rigid, awkward and boring, the crowd will also pick up on that as well (and remember, that's when we all perform at our worst). If you're fortunate enough to find yourself in front of a crowd, remember that they're there to have a good time; to forget about their stressful lives. In the end the crowd really is on your side and they want more than anything to see the performance of your life.
This is probaby the one bit of advice that really helps me mitigate stage fright, which is that not everyone is a musician. As guitarists, we're trained to hone in on certain playing specifics such as if vibrato long and controlled, or shallow and unpredictable; if you want the tone of a thick pick or thin pick; are the strings controlled or is there an open string bleeding through and muddying the overall sound of a phrase? These subtle differences aren't picked up by the untrained ear -- the truth is, that sour note you hit probably wasn't even noticed. In fact, one of my favorite examples of this is none other than Little Wayne.
*Warning: Very cringe-worthy to the musical ear.
Before we delve deeper, I will concede that, given his genre of music, his listeners probably aren't too big into guitar virtuosity, thus setting their expectations low. And sure, as players, we recognize this for what it is: a solo with two notes (literally) that are played in a manner that sounds so bad that it physically hurts me to watch and listen. The reason why I picked this as an example is to show that "normal" people can't pick up on all the differences that we as players here. And that's not to suggest that you shouldn't even try (because let's face it, it level of celebrity allows him to get away with performing with consistant cacophonous guitar performances), but rather to suggest that only a handful of people are going to notice that less-than-perfect scale run. And as players, most of us understand how that could happen, because as I said, we've all been there and we can all appreciate and enjoy the effort and gusto involved in performing a piece for a crowd, regardless of its level of difficulty.
And if all of this hasn't quieted your monkey brain, I leave you with this parting gift (pay attention @ 1:28 - 1;30):
In those few seconds is something absolutely wonderful -- notice that he gets caught up on the D string on the 10th fret, resulting in a minor flub. I mean, this is Yngwie Malmsteen, one of the most terrifying players to have ever existed. This man single handedly created the Neoclassical genre and has inspired and influenced players since the soundwaves of his playing have reached the shores of the U.S. The reason that I highlight this is not to criticize Yngwie for a mistake, but rather to show you that those who we perceive as guitar gods are in fact human and are capable of hitting the dreaded sour note now and again. So the next time you make a minor flub of your own, be a true viking like Yngwie and gracefully get to your destination, regardless as to if you take an unexpected "sonic" detour. And always remember, the audience has invested tim and, in some cases, literally money into your performance and want to see you have a successful performance, too. Just do your best and forget the rest. Oh, yeah, and if you hit several wrong notes, just tell the audience that you were merely playing jazz.