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One of the biggest problems for performers is anxiety. I'd like to hear if anyone has had this issue and how they dealt with it. Folks who don't get particularly nervous, why do you think you don't? Those who have overcome it, how did you do it?

I've changed this post (3/8/09). This discussion became about me, which is not exactly what I intended. I do appreciate all the great comments from everyone and there is excellent information from the brain trust of the community.

I am in hopes that this will be a general discussion regarding performance anxiety in which everyone will free to offer their experience good and bad - when you realized you had mastered your anxiety, when you totally fell apart and what that was about, etc. I hope this will be a place where anyone might feel comfortable asking a question and be a resource for performers.

Tags: anxiety, fright, performance, performing, stage

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David, et al,

I get nervous on stage. I still do, forty years after my first audience. Maybe it never goes away. But you do learn to work in that space and have a great time doing it. I should mention that I teach for a living and even there I still feel the aura of working a crowd. It just feels more like home than it did the first time.

I believe that everyone who finds themselves in front of other people looking at them for something goes through a similar experience. It is a heightened reality. Expectation becomes a quasi-physical entity. In time that entity can become a familiar presence, even if it never really goes away.

One trick that works for some is to interweave some conversation into the performance – to speak to the gathering as well as deliver the goods. You learn to say hello and listen for the response. Even if no one says anything to you, the room answers. Thats who you play to – the space in front of you. You slow your heart rate down. You breathe. You play a chord or a riff to send a sound out as your avatar.

I find that working the same room helps me be more comfortable when in strange places. Familiarity can breed a degree of comfort and build up adaptability to novelty. Even playing for or with a friend elicits a similar reaction of expectation although the scale is less intense than an auditorium full of strangers. When you pay attention to your emotions in smaller environments, you develop a working rapport with enhanced awareness.

Even an extended sound check can make a room feel more familiar, more appropriate as a setting for your anxiety.

It doesn't make it go away. It just makes it more like someplace you know how to act in.
I spent about a dozen years as a freelance writer. Going full-time was the biggest obstacle for me. I had a new wife, a good job as a computer operator for the State and even got Arbor Day off! Finally, a wise olde scrivener told me I would be a computer operator until the day that the thought of being the best Computer Operator in the world scared me more than the thought of being the worst Writer in the world. He was right. A couple of months later, I handed in my keys and left and the ride lasted a good, a really good, dozen years.

So, I think there's something similar going on, here. The anxiety will probably be with us until the thought of never performing becomes worse than the thought of being the worst performer, ever. For me, it feeds some little piece of me that I have been neglecting for thirty years. I love being back. I love being in a little band with other fifty-plus grandfolks. We all grew up playing albums at 16-speed, trying to puzzle-out the solos to Black Dog and Reelin' In The Years and have come back to music in the last several years and we all have varying degrees of competence and craft. But to me it's just the joy of playing in front of an appreciative crowd that I have missed. I love my band, but I want to try it one night up there on stage all alone, too.
Here's a stage fright fantasy that actually came true. I was sixteen and sitting crosslegged on a stage in front of about twenty-five high-school students playing the intro chords to “Michelle” when I accidently broke wind. The old hollow wooden stage acted just like a giant soundbox and people in the back of the room easily heard it, I’m sure. Oddly, no one said a word or laughed, I think everyone was too startled to respond, but, crimson face and thundering pulse and all, I kept going. I mean, really, you don't want to stop playing there. Fortunately no close friends or relatives were attending and I never heard anything about it from anyone after the event, but it was definitely an experience not to be forgotten. Once you go through that, little slips in playing or forgetting a few words don't seem like much.
Believe in yourself and your instrument. I like to think about a performance as just a walk around the block...I've done it a thousand times. For me, the anxiety went away real fast. After my first performance, anything would be an improvement. I was playing bass in a garage band. Someone heard us who owned a bar and invited us to play. It was a cluster-F. Fortunatly, it was a biker bar and everyone was drunk. All they wanted was Lynyrd Sknyrd as loud as we could. Wrong chords, notes, missed verses, total stage freight. After a few sets and few fights, we settled down to what we were doing in the garage and it went away. Trust me, the first time is the worst. Just practice as much as you can and believe in yourself. Your ax is your best friend and she won't let you down, trust her!!!
Something that I have experienced in my life is that age and experience have tamed the demons of anxiety and fright while speaking or performing to others. As a younger person, I stuttered. Speaking in front of others was extremely harrowing. Something I learned was that presenting a canned speach by others was much more difficult than actually presenting my own thoughts. From this, I learned that being invested in what I was saying gave me much more confidence. The same applies to music.

Once you have this confidence you still may falter, however, the consequences no longer appear to be so severe. I still may stutter or make an error in playing an instrument occasionally.....the key is that it no longer frightens me.
Right on, Charles and all. Mistakes need to be in your budget during a performance. Your audience is there primarily to have a good time, not to hear perfection. If you don't get upset about the few mistakes you will certainly make, they won't either. And you know what? They literally won't even hear half of what you consider mistakes anyway, especially if you don't "cue" them that you flubbed.
I've been performing live off and on since 1983, and, while I don't have performance anxiety per se, I do get nervous when I perform live in front of an audience. Here are my tips...many of which have been already mentioned by other members of this group:

1. Do as much live performing as you can as often as possible, so it becomes second nature. I try to do at least 6 gigs a year, e.g. open mics or playing at parties, etc. Whenever I've gone a long time between gigs, I get a lot more nervous playing live. By the way, performing in front of family and close friends doesn't count, unfortunately...Performing successfully in front of total strangers is what gives you the confidence to conquer performance anxiety.
2. When you perform live, make sure you select songs you could do in your sleep. You'll be a lot less nervous knowing that you're playing songs you know cold. This is especially true for your opening piece, because that's when you're most nervous.
3. If possible, play originals rather than covers. I've found I'm less nervous playing my own songs because they're mine and I'm not playing a well-known song where I'll be compared to the original artist.
4. When up on stage, focus on playing your music and avoid looking at the audience. I realize this is a controversial statement, because engaging with the audience is a key principle of showmanship...but the fact is, if you're nervous, looking at the audience could distract you enough that you'll make a bad mistake.
5. If you do make a mistake, just play through and don't call a lot of attention to it. I remember once I was playing a song at an open mic and I blanked on the lyrics in the middle of the song. It took me about 5 seconds to remember the lyrics. Once I remembered, I continued playing like nothing happened. Not ideal, but at least I didn't compound the error by calling a lot of attention to it.

Hope this helps...
Those are fantastic tips, Andy. The second one is especially good for anyone, and both of my own current teachers support this philosophy very strongly.
Very good tips Andy!

I had my very first open mic about a month ago. And this was after about a year building up the courage to do it.
In the beginning of February I phoned the host of the club and told him to put me on the bill.

And then the anxiety started, I nearly phoned and cancelled many times. But following Andy's advice I decided on 2 of my own compositions, which I practised to death and could do them with my eyes closed.

Engaging the audience is key, I gave a short history of the songs and my nerves were starting to normalize.
The Adrenalin got me through, although it seemed to go so fast I can't remember much of it.

Hopefully doing my second open mic at the end of April, already feeling anxious but only a smidgeon compared to the first time.

Another secret which helped me, Dont rehearse the songs on the day, you will be anxious and it just might put you off.

Good Stuff
David (In Africa)
It helps to just keep doing it, but I've found that there's always an anxiousness that happens every time I perform. I've started doing stretching and breathing exercises before I go on now - it really helps.
Love the fart story.............Heh, Heh!
I have played in front of live people, several times, in my life.
Now that I'm thinking of it, I even played church organ, every Sunday, for a couple of years, in my youth. (That, and the choir, is the only thing that kept me coming to the place, and staying awake! But, that's another story.)

I never really got all that nervous, as the audiences were pretty much "captive-ated", into a sort of abiding, supportive vibe. All that, coming together to worship thing, and all.

Well, fast forward a few decades, to me playing guitar, alone, at an open mic coffee house. I had made plans to play there, for over two weeks, and the stage fright got worse, with every day. By the time I got to the place, my only thoughts were, "What am I doing, here? This is insane!"

I only had three songs to play, as was the custom. My first was my best, a simple cover of "Hesitation Blues"...I knew it so well, that I didn't even need the words, in front of me, like 99% of all the music I play! I got on the stage, plugged in, and started the opening chords. When the verse came around, my mind was completely blank! I couldn't think of a word, but I kept on playing...I think I played around a whole 'nother verse, because, just as suddenly, I remembered some words! Of course, it was the words to the third verse, but it really didn't matter, because at least I was singing, which is what I really love to do, most, I think.

Well, that was a very exciting thing, and I think I did well--the applause was absolutely a shock, and a rush, all at once!

I came back, two more times...

Each time, for me, was even more nerve-wracking, to the point that I just stopped doing it.

It isn't the music, that makes me nervous. I love to share in the moment, and would be very happy to play in a group setting (love to jam!). I just don't like to play alone...the anxiety leading up to the performance drowns out even the adrenaline rush of it.

And so, I'm back to playing for myself. It isn't really that bad, as music is what keeps me somewhat sane, anyway. Maybe, in another few decades, I'll come back to do it again. Or not.

I really did like that applause, though...(smile)

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