Calm, cool, and collected
November 6, 2004 2:21 PM   Subscribe

GuitarAmeaturQuestion: I'm performing with my guitar tonight (I'm playing, someone else is singing). Now I can play the song alright, but this will be my first time playing in front of a large group since I started playing (about 6 months ago). During the auditions for this event I got nervous enough that my fingers trembled slightly making it hard for me to play (obviously).

Any tips on how to stay calm during the real thing and play okay (besides the cliched "picture them in their underwear" thing)? Advice from guitar players and non-guitar players alike is most welcome.
posted by Stauf to Media & Arts (25 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I played in front of people too, and I get nervous easily in such situation (stutturing and so on), but that time went well I think because I basically enjoyed it. Granted, I played bass in a five-piece band, but still, I thought I wouldn't be able to do it.
We made blunders, mistakes, the guitarist wouldn't let us know in advance what we'd play, but we managed to have to have a good time because, hey, we had fun.
It's thrill, it doesn't last long, and while I was nervous before it about the whole thing, I would've like it to last longer.

So, in my opinion, you can be nervous, as long as you enjoy yourself, it'll show. Audience are forgiving, too...

Have a good time! :)
posted by XiBe at 2:32 PM on November 6, 2004

I suggest not making eye contact with the audience. It helps if you're blinded by stage lights, but if you make the mistake of glancing into someone's face out in the audience, you might be distracted by them, their expression, what they're doing. Concentrate on what you're doing as hard as you can, so hard you forget anyone's out there.

Also, depending on your alcohol tolerance, half a beer might actually improve your playing by numbing your tense nerves a bit. Keep your hands nice and warm, too. Mittens before curtain.

posted by scarabic at 2:51 PM on November 6, 2004

I hear that some professional musicians take beta-blockers before performing live.
posted by gyc at 2:55 PM on November 6, 2004

Drink half as much booze as it takes you to get drunk. For me, 3-4 beers is a good number.

I agree with Scarabic, keep your hands warm. I have little half-gloves I use.

Don't be afraid to look at the audience. They're more afraid of you than you are of them, at least if you're doing it right. Seriously, looking at the audience leaves an impression. Don't just stare at your instrument. And would it hurt you to move your ass a little?

FWIW, I have heard that if you try to focus on the way you look while you're playing, it can help. For example, if your favourite guitar player is Yngvie Malmsteen, try to look and act like he does when he's playing. Guitar face, mmmm. YMMV, etc...
posted by alex_reno at 3:14 PM on November 6, 2004

I don't recommend alcohol/caffeine/etc. before playing unless that's exactly how you practice. Deep abdominal breathing helps me stay calm, if you know how to meditate, that helps too.

I second (or is that third?) the "keep your hands warm" recommendation. I have trouble keeping mine warm once Fall comes, so that's a priority for me. Simple scales in 2nd or higher position are good for exercising all four fingers, AND generating some heat. If you don't know what I mean, just play Finger 1-Fret1, Finger 2-Fret 2, etc. from the 6th string up to the first and then back down.

You don't mention if you're playing fully acoustic, or with a mic, or electric, but consider setting up the stage so you're not looking directly at the audience and more at the singer you're backing. Being able to make eye contact with the people you're playing with, whether they're instrumentalists or vocalists, helps keep you in touch. Don't forget to listen, too.

So take a deep breath, relax, and have fun!
posted by tommasz at 3:34 PM on November 6, 2004

I play piano not guitar, and in fact am heading off to do just that in a few minutes...but I find I can get myself into a zone where the other people simply dont matter. I just get into the music and forget them. I don't know if that is something you can just choose to do but worth a try.

Have fun!
posted by konolia at 3:40 PM on November 6, 2004

but if you make the mistake of glancing into someone's face out in the audience, you might be distracted by them, their expression, what they're doing.

One good bit of advice I got several years ago: glance over the audience, and see if you can find someone who looks like they're connecting. If they're smiling, bobbing their head, something. Look back at them from time to time, smile back.

Enjoy yourself is good advice. If nothing else, since there's two of you, this should be easier, since you can grin at each other, and if there's good chemistry between you, the audience gets into things faster.

Make sure you eat a nutritious meal close enough to the show that your body has good fuel while you're playing, but long enough before that you can't still feel it in your gut. Don't eat sugar or refined carbohydrates or anything that's going to make you do a glycemic spike.

Make sure your body is positioned comfortable when you start to play -- you shouldn't have any undue muscle tension necessary to keep position. If you're standing up and playing with a strap, make sure that's all set up well.

It also helps me to do some cardio about an hour before the show, but this isn't always possible.

Finally: the best way to get over this is to play in front of people. You are doing that tonight. If this is one of your first few times, or even your first few times in a while, don't expect perfection -- there probably will be a gaffe or two. Don't worry about it... just smile at your partner and keep going. After a few more shots of this, and with preparation and practice, you'll be doing just fine.
posted by weston at 3:43 PM on November 6, 2004

In order to get better I started practicing in the dark, so when I started playing live I just started closing my eyes, suddenly all nervousness drained out of me when I did that.
posted by Space Coyote at 3:45 PM on November 6, 2004

It's been a while since I played in front of folks.

I used to get really, really nervous, but I found that it's the nerves that get you through and make you hyper alert.

I remember one time where I was doing a similar thing to what you describe. I got through the first verse and chorus fine but then struck the wrong chord for the begining of the second verse. I kept going, looked up at the singer who was kind of smiling at me (so I knew I was going to get some grief later!) but he just waited for me to repeat a couple of bars until I could bring it round to the begining of the verse. And I don't think anyone noticed. Then later he forgot the words for the third verse so I just had to repeat a few more bars until the light bulb appeared above his head. Again, I think we got away with it.

Anyway, keep away from the booze until after, ride out the nerves and then you'll be on cloud nine once you're done. Seriously - just talking about this makes me really miss playing live.
posted by dodgygeezer at 3:45 PM on November 6, 2004

I'm afraid that for me, back in high school when I performed a lot, the best thing was to just perform over and over and over again. Nothing else seemed to make a difference. After about four years of it I was pretty indifferent to the audience on my main instruments (piano/voice) - but even this didn't get rid of the shakes the few times I had solos for my other instrument (trumpet).

But then, I wasn't clever enough to come up with some of the suggestions people are offering so far, so hopefully some of them will help you. I also have a genetic predisposition to shaky hands. So you shouldn't take what I have to say as discouragement, but rather: even if nothing helps you tonight, or the next night, if you stick with it, you still can become comfortable with performing.

Also, Scarabic makes a good point about the stage lights - if they are in any way decent, you probably won't be able to see the audience at all. Of course, they themselves are brighter than any lights one normally deals with, so they do take a bit of getting used to.

I miss playing live too :-(
posted by advil at 3:48 PM on November 6, 2004

In my opinion, what many budding musicians interpret as stage fright is actually just a lack of practice performing their piece in its entirety. After performing live, they'll say "Its so much harder in front of an audience" when what they actually mean is "Its so much harder when you have to maintain your tempo and include the tricky parts." When you're practicing, its easy to try to treat a piece as a collection of phrases or riffs that you work hard to perfect (I'm a woodwind, and I think we're particularly susceptible to that), while your grasp of the piece in its entirety suffers.

So, I'd just play the thing start to finish a few times... don't let yourself stop, no matter what. For me, that helps more than blood chemistry.
posted by gsteff at 5:43 PM on November 6, 2004

I work at a performing arts school and occasionally we will have a student who ihas only performed in class or alone and they are suddently performing in front of a couple of thousand people. I always tell them that since they are on stage, 95% of the audience assumes they know exactly what they are doing and that every note played is exactly as intended. The important part is not putting a hole in this facade. If you screw up don't change your facial expression, just barrel on through it. If you can put on an air of "if you don't understand my Sonic Youth and free jazz influences the problem is yours not mine," even a big screw-up can be glossed over some.

So you know how to handle a mistake, you know the material backwards and forwards and most everyone in the audience assumes you are playing it like you meant to. What's there to be nervous about?
posted by spartacusroosevelt at 6:16 PM on November 6, 2004 [1 favorite]

I heard a long time ago that if you were going to take a test, you should take the test under exactly the same conditions under which you studied for it. If you studied drunk, take the test drunk. If you studied--somehow--on LSD, take the test on LSD. I heard this from my sister, back when she was a (drunken) biology major.

When I was in a polka band (believe it or not), we drank a lot of beer when we practiced. This may or may not have been to compensate for the horrible fact that we were playing polka.

When we played at parties, I--as lead singer, mandolin and trumpet-player--found that I would stall and stall the beginning of the show.

Probably some people thought that I was being a primadonna. The truth was that I was simply scared, and waiting until everything felt just right, and I'd had three or four beers, the number I was used to playing with during practice.

If you're not playing at a party that has an elastic band-starting time, this is a lot harder; play under the conditions you practice; plan ahead. If you and your band joke around for five minutes before practicing a song, it's okay to fuck around a little before you get started. Joke with the audience if you need to. Unless you're in an Emo or Goth band.

I've been in two (semi-) performing bands, and playing before a crowd is always nerve-racking. But, like someone said up above--unless you fuck up spectacularly (which is not as common as you might think, and it might surprise you how little the crowd actually notices mistakes)--you always come away from it swimming in endorphins. It's always worth it. Think about how great you're going to feel afterwards.
posted by interrobang at 9:48 PM on November 6, 2004

I usually close my eyes when I perform and focus on the music and my rhythm. I'm enjoying the music, who cares if no one else is.
posted by rhapsodie at 10:13 PM on November 6, 2004

I play in a band that occaisionally plays for festival crowds of over 6000 and when people ask me if that makes me nervous my answer is "If you asked me to land a small plane in an emergency, I would be nervous. If you ask me to play fiddle and mandolin for people, well, that IS something I am pretty good at, so here goes... " No one is asking you to play anything you can't play, so relax.

And don't worry about screwing up now and then - we all do it. And how, whooo-hooo, we all do it.
posted by zaelic at 2:18 AM on November 7, 2004

This won't help you in the short term, but I found that the best way to get over stage fright is to play on stage a lot. Eventually you get to a point where it's not about the audience, it's about the music. In the meantime, closing your eyes is not a bad idea if you're good at playing with your eyes shut.
posted by plinth at 4:27 AM on November 7, 2004

Stand with your back to them, at least from time to time. Move around a bit. Sway a bit while playing.
posted by angry modem at 8:40 AM on November 7, 2004

To reiterate what others have said, just keep getting up on stage and doing it. When my band started performing out, we could only play 50% as well as we could in practice, then it got to be 60%, 75%, 90% and finally 100% or better. After a while you get the confidence that you own that stage, and you can relax into the groove of the performance.

One thing that can speed up the process is to practice with some of the same distractions you'll perform with. Even if you don't practice with a sound system, set up a mike & mike stand for the singer to practice staying on top of. (Build a fake one if you don't own your own.) Set up distracting noises, such as having the tv on while you're playing. Shine some lights in your eyes while you practice. When we first started, our rhythm guitarist was in the habit of wanting to start over whenever he made a mistake. I made him practice playing the song without stopping while I grabbed his guitar strings or knocked his pick away.

Also, make sure you practice going through your set in its entirety, without stopping for anything in between.

Good luck! Just remember that it will get easier in time.
posted by tdismukes at 10:12 AM on November 7, 2004

I used to turn around and face the drummer a lot when we played. It helped me keep time and kept me from looking at the crowd during a show. Some people don't appreciate the guitar facing away from them. But, we were kind of a punk band so FUCK IT!
posted by trbrts at 1:24 PM on November 7, 2004

When you're practicing, its easy to try to treat a piece as a collection of phrases or riffs that you work hard to perfect (I'm a woodwind, and I think we're particularly susceptible to that), while your grasp of the piece in its entirety suffers.

Wow. I've never thought of this before, but it seems to jive with my experience very well. Thanks!
posted by weston at 3:58 PM on November 7, 2004

A few times a day, sit somewhere quiet, relax, and visualise yourself performing to a big crowd perfectly. They love you, and you're great. In your mind, play the whole thing through. Naked audiences are funny but distracting. Let us be more practical with our creative visualisation (which really works).

One or two drinks might be all right but it's a danger if you're late on and you get persuaded that you have time for one more...

Try to enjoy the attention, and remember it's your first gig, so cut yourself slack. If you screw up and it's recoverable, keep going; odds are few people will notice. If it's not recoverable, stop, and get your shit together before continuing. If you are humble people will be sympathetic. They will all get better from here on in, and one day, when you're feeling really blase about performing, you'll wish you could be as excited and fired up as you can be now.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 5:55 PM on November 7, 2004

interrobang: It's called state dependent learning. tommasz mentioned it implicitly too.
posted by abcde at 6:07 PM on November 7, 2004

What gsteff said.

I find more and more as I teach that there are a lot of people who simply don't know how to practice. I have one piano pupil who I know plays her pieces for hours every day, yet she still comes to most of her lessons without having really practiced.

If you don't have a good grasp of each technical bit, it'll suffer. But if you don't have a sense of the overall shape of the piece, it's always going to be hard to put those bits together.

Everyone who performs suffers from these nerves to a certain extent - although seasoned performers can often use it to their advantage. It's important to remember that, whatever situation you perform in, there are always going to be more distractions around. You have to know the piece better to play it live than to do it in a studio/bedroom/wherever. If you've practiced it well enough, you'll be able to appreciate the subtleties of the piece (assuming there are any ;-)) as you play.

A mistake is not the end of the world. Too many inexperienced performers play fine until they make one mistake, then tense up and the whole thing snowballs until it's a gigantic cock-up. Recognise the way you get tense (I used to have a tendency to hunch my shoulders and speed up - now, if I'm nervous, I focus on upper body posture and tempo, and that sorts things) and practice deliberately overcoming that. Wincing when you play a wrong note just draws attention to it. Try to enjoy the experience.

Think about clothes. I used to accompany a very good flautist who suffered badly with performance nerves. She'd always play in high heels, which just amplified the shaking effect, until it was so bad she could hardly play. It's important that you're comfortable.
posted by monkey closet at 1:17 AM on November 8, 2004

BREATHE (aside from other good suggestions here). Holding your breath (for whatever reason) is a common instinctual reaction to stress. Unfortunately, it makes your heart beat faster, which works against you. Keep breathing. Your heart has a tendency to regulate itself according to your breath.
posted by mkultra at 1:15 PM on November 8, 2004

Stauf, how did it go?
posted by tommasz at 2:11 PM on November 8, 2004

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