Playing In Front Of People - Beat Those Nerves!

Do your favourite riffs fall to pieces, even under the gaze of close kin and family pets? If you have ever uttered the words ‘I can play this perfectly when no-one is watching’; read on!

In the music business, this common feeling is known as ‘performance anxiety’ (not quite the same as stage fright), and, in one form or another, we all suffer from it; albeit at varying levels of severity. So, what causes this? And can you beat it? Let’s find out ….

Why Do We Get Nervous?

Playing, or should I say practicing, the guitar is an entirely solitary process - you slave away over that part, lick or song for eons, to nobody else but yourself. As a result, everything you practice becomes very personal to you; therefore, a performance (even to 1 or 2 sets of ears) fells like a final showcase of the work you have invested - like a musical iceberg if you will! You naturally view all your previous efforts as hinging on that one performance. Add to this the self imposed pressure to play that part at a standard which matches your finest previous performances to date and you have already started to feel the cold hand of performance anxiety!

Sound familiar? Hopefully by understanding a few causes and remedies we can help you become the master of your nerves!

1. Acceptance

Ok, so the slightly less welcome news is that you can’t beat this - ask any guitarist if they feel more anxious playing alone or in the presence of an audience and they will all give the same response. The truth is that all performers (not just musicians) experience this. The difference between the hobbyist and the pro is that the experienced player has learnt how to own, and become the master of their anxiety.

Firstly - Accept that any performance you give, in-front of another person, is always going to be given at a reduced percentage of your best 100%. This removes any pressure for you to replicate some previous ‘flawless’ offering, and the chances are you will play better as a result!

Secondly - Tune into your feelings; yes, this sounds very zen I know! Are you sure what you are feeling are actually nerves? There comes a turning point in every musician’s life when they realise that, what they perceive as crippling anxiety, is actually the adrenalin surge of excitement - there is a fine line between the two! You see - seasoned players view this experience differently; the trepidation felt around making mistakes becomes the excitement of the unknown and the danger of live performance, the pressure of performing at your best is replaced by the enjoyment of simply performing - good or bad.

2. Perform Below Your Threshold

With the previous points in mind, it is worth considering what you are playing, rather than how. If you are consistently showcasing songs or riffs, to your friends and fellow players, of which you have only just learnt - they are still a work in progress so don’t be surprised when you don’t play them perfectly!

Set yourself the task of only showcasing what is truly part of your muscle memory (its OK to say something ‘isn’t ready yet’) - imagine the level of anxiety you would feel if your only task was to simply perform a single C chord; if this doesn’t wrack you with nerves then it is a good indication that a large part of the issue is the choice of what you choose to play in-front of others.

Performing more simple things shifts your focus onto areas with which you have more control: timing, dynamics, groove and expression. There is more merit in the simple stuff played well than a tricky part played less confidently. Set the distinction between practice and performance.

3. Reality vs Your Own Expectations

It is all too easy to set high standards for yourself, particularly when performing a song or solo by a legendary guitarist - you aim to match them, right? Or you feel the pressure to perform as well as the tutor from which you learnt the parts. Placing such a high standard of comparison upon anything you play is a sure fire route to being disappointed with your efforts. The truth is, you will always sound like ‘you’ so put aside any need to play as well as the ‘other guy’.

Anxiety can also be shaped by your perception of other people’s expectations; in simple terms - you assume those who are watching you are always expecting great things from you - effectively you are projecting your own high expectations onto your audience. Consider this: you have spent hours in the company of that guitar part, nurturing it from those first uneasy notes; however, from your listener’s viewpoint, this is the first time they have heard you play that riff so they have no real expectations.

4. Stop Overthinking

There is a great phrase used by many musicians - ‘If you’re thinking, you’re sinking!’; consider those moments in which you feel most at ease and confident with your playing - you are rarely ‘aware’ of the physical act of playing the instrument, but when you perform under any degree of stress, notice how conscious you become of the actual ‘act’ of playing; when the nerves kick in the first symptom is to become hyper aware of every note and every movement. To combat this, try shifting your focus onto a single area of your playing; for example - let go of accuracy and tune into your timing. Practice playing without looking at your fingers too - this will encourage you to play more subconsciously.

5. Give Yourself Permission To Make Mistakes

And this is a big one! It is OK to make mistakes or play badly - non of us are above it. Take the good with the bad. Once you view your not so good performances as part of the process you learn to accept them, and through acceptance you let go of the fear they create. Ultimately, if you are driven by the fear of making musical hiccups, you will no doubt mess up - it is amazing how few mistakes you make when you aren’t thinking about making them!

Learn to celebrate your less than perfect moments - laugh when you drop a note or two and see this as just part of being a guitarist. It is also worth noting that your audience rarely notice slip ups in the same way you do - time moves slower for you whilst playing - that one out-of-tune bend may have felt like a show stopper at the time, but when viewed later, is barely a passing ‘glitch’.

A great idea is to perform or practice in musical scenarios where mistakes are encouraged - try soloing using limitation exercises for example - improvise using 1 finger or on one string. This affords you the permission to make mistakes.

6. Relax

Next time you feel the beginnings of an attack of the nerves, take note of how tense you become, physically; your muscles become taught, your picking hand tightens and your fretting fingers turn into blocks of stone!

Guitar players have always accepted that tension is the enemy of the ability to play accurately or reliably.

It is all well and good to simply tell yourself to ‘relax’ but try a few physical remedies - take deep breaths and don’t hold your breath. Slow breathing is a natural method to alleviate stress. Relaxing your arms and shoulders, whilst making a conscious effort to loosen your fingers and hands will also put you in a more mediative state more akin to the way you feel when playing alone.

7. Don’t Self Deprecate

Negative thoughts can really chip away at your confidence and non are more damaging than the ones you tell yourself! Don’t disparage yourself to others and never apologise for your playing. Your body has a unique way of reacting to your thoughts and feelings; in short - if you say ‘I’m not very good at this riff’ enough times you will begin to believe it! You can be modest without being self depreciating so ensure you never say, out loud, any negative statements about your playing (or that of others - guitar karma is real!).

8. A Bad Performance Doesn’t Define You

It is very easy to over emphasise the times you played badly, naturally ignoring, all the musical moments where you excelled. The truth is - you are not defined by your last performance, good or bad; you are a sum of all of these things - your practice time, your failures and successes. Highs and lows all shape the guitar player you are, and will become. So, instead of seeing any poor performance as a disaster; view these moments with balance - for every bad performance, think of a good one!

The simple truth is that you will always be your own most scathing critic - embrace this; this is was drives you to improve! But don’t let this dominate your decisions, or block your opportunities to enjoy music and perform with others. Remember - there is no ranking system within music, no competition; everyone has the right to play and perform, so enjoy it! The sooner you lose the fear by learning to harness and understand it the more fun you will have!