help a girl play some music without falling to pieces.
February 9, 2009 5:42 PM   Subscribe

i said yes to playing a gig in a week and a half, and now i don't know what to do. the last time i played was two years ago! i'm so nervous just even thinking about it...

a couple of years ago, i agreed to playing my first gig, also incidentally in february. i didn't enjoy the experience at all, due to a lot of fumbling with sound levels, instruments and messing up cues. after that experience i swore i'd never play solo ever again.

but here i am in 2009, and with pressure from a friend and no time to think it over, i said yes to playing another gig. i am getting nervous just thinking about it, though at least one difference from two years ago is that i have a supportive boyfriend.

the gig is defined as "experimental" and the only things that i will be using are a guitar and amp, delay & distortion pedals, possibly a loop one if we can find it and oh, maybe a toy piano. my main problems are nerves, short concentration span and, oh, did i mention nerves?

any hints for improvisational sets of twenty minutes or more without losing the plot? i usually have problems playing songs longer than three minutes, due to my pop upbringing. maybe hints about feedback and looping, that could possibly be sustained for longer songs? and how did you get over your initial anxiety about playing gigs? i'd love to make this a regular occurance, but if i'm this nervous about doing it, i might go back to my failed attempts at putting a band together.
posted by sardonicsmile to Grab Bag (17 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
you'll be great. trust me.
posted by stubby phillips at 5:55 PM on February 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

After many years of playing, I never lost the nerves, but I learned to love them. That excited state translates into acute awareness of the other musicians and the sounds that we are making. Eventully this morphs into a relaxed, almost distracted state where my subconsious is doing the work, and I am observing (or not).

One thing: welcome the unexpected. Whatever happens, roll with it and USE IT. Act like a jazz musician, whether you are playing jazz or not. There are no bad notes, only notes you failed to capitalize on.
posted by SNACKeR at 6:01 PM on February 9, 2009 [2 favorites]

A loop one probably = a delay pedal. They are fun to play with and make simple riffs sound cool. Turn it all the way on repeating and turn down the frequency. Instant loop.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 6:29 PM on February 9, 2009

Best answer: I go to a lot of experimental noise shows. I'm not so sure we're talking about the same genre, but I've watched a lot of people who halfway know what they're doing coax squeals and buzzes and clang and clash and ambient drone out of incestuous snarls of guitar pedals and samplers and circuit bent equipment in small, low-rent spaces for no money, so hopefully I at least know the difference between an awesome show and a really bad one.

Bring some energy to it. A good experience was watching a musician strap on strobe goggles that flashed red and blue lights into his eyes, then crash blindly against the wall as he wrestled with his guitar.

Make it intense. If you're not going to thrash around in metal stage-pagentry, look really really really into what you're doing. I'm picturing musicians curled into the fetal position above a vintage radio they were methodically slamming into the ground, running their fingers over the rims of amplified wine glasses in a trance behind her thick opaque glasses, a geeked out electro kid tripping on acid and playing with a Korg Kaossilator for an hour. One band I know would all sit on the floor, Indian-style, and calmly wreak absolute ear-blasting havoc with their instruments while bare lght bulbs hooked up to a MIDI sequencer flashed around the room.

If you can't sing, don't. I could list bad experiences here, bu I don't want to make you more nervous if you are singing.

If you fuck a song up, keep going. Don't stop, apologize, and start over.

Keep the noise loud and constant, and it will at least sound like you know what you're doing.

I suggest not talking to the audience. It's not a personal pet peeve, or anything, but if you're nervous it's unlikely to go well. Just get out there and slam out with your clam out.

You'll do lovely, my dear. If you didn't live on another continent I'd suggest you come play a show for my crowd. It can pretty much only go well; I'm guessing if your friend asked you to play and the genre is "experimental," likely people shall be receptive to most anything.
posted by Juliet Banana at 6:33 PM on February 9, 2009 [2 favorites]

If you can loop you have a huge advantage. If pure improvisation isn't a requirement experiment with building some tracks to solo over with the looper. You could go with some prearranged material that you're comfortable with and build on it. I'm thinking something like this:

KT Tunstall

If you can get ahold of an octave pedal you can lay down some basslines, use the guitar as percussion and then solo over top of it.

For purely experimental ideas check out what Robert Fripp does with loops, there's a lot of room for some atmospheric improvisation once you've laid down some basic tracks:


For further inspiration here's Victor Wooten building a solo with a loop.

Make sure you have the setup you're going to use at the show ready to go as far in advance as possible. Knowing your equipment before you take the stage will take care of a lot of the nerves.
posted by mikesch at 6:40 PM on February 9, 2009

When Chuck Jones was young, he had an uncle named Lyn. One time his uncle told him, Chuck, they're allowed to kill you but they're not allowed to eat you.

Seriously: even if things go really strangely, what of it? It's one day, right? The audience won't be hunting you with torches and pitchforks afterwards even if it goes badly. So go, do your best, and don't sweat the little stuff. (And remember, it's all little stuff!)

Even if you blow it badly, we'll all still love you.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:47 PM on February 9, 2009

Some performers swear by beta blockers to control stage anxiety (don't use them without a prescription from your doctor!). But I'm with SNACKer -- learn to love the rush. It can really be exhilarating. I think beta blockers might be more useful for performing well-rehearsed but very difficult pieces. I'm not sure I'd want to dull my senses like that for an experimental gig, but I've never really played one, so what do I know? Besides, it's your second gig. You're supposed to be nervous! Maybe have a drink if that helps you relax. And even though it's an improvisational gig, but I'd seriously suggest practicing a few fall-back riffs/loops just to have something familiar in your bag of tricks to get you back on track if you feel like things are starting to get away from you. It's much more comfortable climbing out on a limb if you know you have a safety net.

You'll be great. Seriously.
posted by Balonious Assault at 7:01 PM on February 9, 2009

And one other thing: Always remember that even if you feel like things are going horribly when you're onstage, if you don't show any disappointment most of the people in the audience won't know the difference, and at the end of the night you will have been the one up there making music while almost everyone else was wishing they had the talent, guts, and/or opportunity to be like you.
posted by Balonious Assault at 7:22 PM on February 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

and how did you get over your initial anxiety about playing gigs?

Coffee house open mic nights can help. Nerves when playing instruments have never been a problem for me. However I don't normally sing, and open mic nights help with that because the people there are often not the greatest, and if you are really nervous wait until you can follow someone really bad. And hey, If you've got a progressive coffee shop you might even see a set like you are describing, I did the other night.

Oh another thing on the nerves. After you sound check, play through some material and do it like you are the queen of the world. Rock harder than you've ever rocked, and since it's sound check no one is there to see it, so don't go getting embarrassed on me. This helps get your mind set for the show.
posted by magikker at 8:07 PM on February 9, 2009

Spend the first week getting something together. Spend the second rehearsing it.

You gotta power through the nevousness. Avoid any more than one beer.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:25 PM on February 9, 2009

Re: the looper, just get a killer, easy bass part written. Play it into the looper at the beginning of your piece and then play over that. A friend does that with her cello.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:36 PM on February 9, 2009

Best answer: I used to have some stagefright before playing and found some tricks to help with it.

- do some calisthenics, or run around the block beforehand. You'll come out pumped with focused energy and it will Really relieve the jitters.
- play an easy song first to warm up. Don't start with anything requiring too much finesse.
- play to your s.o. (your boyfriend) each day before the gig. Have him sit in the audience and think of it as just another day playing to him. Eye contact is an added benefit (play to individuals, not the crowd).
- know your songs inside out. Be able to play them easily as a set. Then, improvising, you can play around them, slap them silly, or transcend them. (this coming from a guitarist)
- as far as improvising: Interpret the hook of the song in several different ways. Unless raw repetition is what your after, look for quiet passages vs crescendos, emotion vs energy.

Just have fun with it. It's not an audition. And you will not be fired.
posted by artdrectr at 12:34 AM on February 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

"the only things that i will be using are a guitar and amp, delay & distortion pedals, possibly a loop one if we can find it and oh, maybe a toy piano"

I know from bitter experience that one of the most important factors in preventing nerves on stage is actually finalising what you're actually going to do. It sounds like this show is going to have an amount of improvisation, which is cool, but deciding on a toolset well in advance of the show should hopefully make you feel a bit more comfortable with what you're going to be doing.

Break a leg!
posted by coach_mcguirk at 1:19 AM on February 10, 2009

Best answer: Here are the things I learnt about stage performance from my music degree:

1. Fake it til you make it. As far as the audience is concerned, confidence and feigned confidence are exactly the same thing. So, for all intents and purposes, they are the same thing. Pretend you're confident and one day you will be. In the meantime, the distinction is unimportant.

2. In advance, think positive. Try and look forward to the gig. Imagine the situation as clearly as you can, and imagine everything going right and how confident you will feel and how much you're going to enjoy it. It may or may not help, but imagining everything going wrong is basically mentally practicing for it to go wrong, and therefore your chances of things actually going wrong are increased.

3. Nervousness and excitement feel very similar. Try and reinterpret your nerves as excitement.

4. If you make a mistake, pretend you didn't. Probably the audience won't notice. If they do, they'll respect you for your professionalism.

Usually (for me), feeling nervous in advance is a good thing. It means my subconscious has time to figure out how it's going to deal with the actual event, and I don't feel significantly worse when I actually get on stage. On the other hand, when I feel really confident about something, it probably means I'm riding for a fall.

A few good experiences will do wonders for your confidence, so if this goes well, mentally take note of it and hang onto the memory.

Other than that, try and have your set-up as organised as you can in advance, so that you're comfortable knowing what you've got to work with.

Good luck!
posted by Emilyisnow at 2:55 AM on February 10, 2009

I never really got over the nerves. The day of the show I maybe ate break fast but then after that I stuck to very light things (actually, all I would eat is peanuts... that may or may not work for you). What helped during our first show was inviting as many friends as we could, even if they didn't dig the music. Find them when you are playing and give them a goofy nod or fake a rock-star move to make them smile. I would try to stay calm by thinking "this isn't hard, this is my job, I'm going to go do my job now".
posted by syntheticfaith at 4:42 AM on February 10, 2009

When I did standup, I'd get so nervous my arms would fall asleep from the shoulder down. I found the best thing to combat that was simply being way prepared. Most of the nervousness is really not about the performance but about maybe knowing you're really not as prepared as you could be. Kinda like when you knew you didn't really study for a test.

That being said, I had another comedian who once told me that even if you kill, the people are going to walk out, get in the car and say something like, "Hey, that guy, what's his name, was pretty good ... whattya want to eat?"

In other words, you're forgotten pretty quick so go have fun.
posted by lpsguy at 8:01 AM on February 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: hey everyone, thanks so much for your advice. i played the gig this weekend past, and had some minor nerves, but kept it under control. i think it went pretty well, and hopefully be playing again soon!
posted by sardonicsmile at 5:50 PM on February 22, 2009

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