Nervous Musician Needs To Calm Down
April 30, 2010 2:07 PM   Subscribe

I am a guitar player who has a hard time playing in front of other people. When I play by myself, I am really pretty good but as soon as someone enters the room or I am in front of even a small number of people, my fingers freeze up, my mind goes flying and the music doesn't work. I do want to play in local open mikes, so I am not seeking stardom for sure. I just want other folks to enjoy the music I make. Suggestions?
posted by captainmickey to Media & Arts (25 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Experience for one could work. How many times have you experienced these issues? You may find that you get over it with repeated exposure.
posted by dino terror at 2:14 PM on April 30, 2010

Most of us have been there, I think. You just have to push through it. Perform as much as possible and eventually it becomes routine, rather than a big event to get worked up over. If you're of age, it can help to have a drink before you play.
posted by ludwig_van at 2:15 PM on April 30, 2010

Any chance that you can jam with a few other musicians? I find I can get distracted by working with some people, but other folks are just nodding along and listening, so it's a very low pressure way to gain a small audience. Plus, folks tend to be encouraging and complimentary, which might help.

Otherwise, you might try just playing anywhere out of the house somewhere for/with a friend, and work up from there.
posted by ldthomps at 2:15 PM on April 30, 2010

have you tried/thought about recording yourself and then posting the audio files online, or even just sending them to friends? that can help you get comfortable with your music being "public" without having as much pressure in the moment as a live performance does.
posted by neitheror at 2:15 PM on April 30, 2010

Kind of sounds like choking. They've actually done studies on it. This Jonah Lehrer article might be helpful to you.
posted by Theloupgarou at 2:23 PM on April 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Lexapro cured my stagefright.
posted by greekphilosophy at 2:24 PM on April 30, 2010

Go to the park, deep in the woods, play. Move half way to the trail, play. Sit on a trail, play. Go to the bench behind the snack bar, play. Go to a bench near the shopping district (face the wall, so you can't see anyone, and so no one will think you are panhandling), play. Move to a more crowded area, play.

Every once in a while, look up and find someone smiling!! Play.

Get three friends (or even relatives) play. Get some more, play. Every once in a while, look up and find someone smiling!! Play.

Get some more, ...
posted by Some1 at 2:30 PM on April 30, 2010 [3 favorites]

Play with others.
posted by jeffamaphone at 2:36 PM on April 30, 2010

One plays at 60-70% proficiency when performing for others (according to a guitar teacher I had).

Just accept this and get better, so your performing will be better.
posted by Danf at 2:40 PM on April 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've had this problem on piano. I've yet to become comfortable enough with performing in front of people that I don't get mind-/hand-numbingly nervous when performing for people, so all I can do is practice enough times that playing the piece requires no brain power whatsoever. I just sit down and it comes out. Forget where my hands are supposed to go next? Doesn't matter - they'll still hit the right notes. I'm hoping that as performing becomes a thing I do more regularly, it'll get easier, but I haven't gotten there yet. Performing is still a rare thing for me.

It would also help you to do a little song practicing with other musicians so you get used to playing music with others around, while not necessarily performing. I've started doing that too, and it really helps to have someone you're comfortable with playing stuff at the same time you are.
posted by wondermouse at 2:42 PM on April 30, 2010

Nthing the idea that the more experienced you become with it, the less nervous you will be.

You could also consider the occasional use of beta blockers.
posted by chez shoes at 2:47 PM on April 30, 2010

Try some karaoke bars. Just go get used to being in front of people who, for the most part, also have no experience performing/singing/playing. Some people do frequent and perform over and over, but there are many noobs as well.

Then take that and go find an open mike.
posted by Max Power at 3:27 PM on April 30, 2010

Take a class. Find one that is slightly below your level so you feel comfortable. This is the best way I have found to get used to playing in front of other people.
posted by yfatah at 3:56 PM on April 30, 2010

What they said above.

You could also try meditation. Get yourself to relax. Visualize yourself sitting in your living room, playing alone. Don't try to think about it, just visualize it. Get comfortable seeing yourself in your mind's eye.

Later, add a friend in your mental living room. They are not paying any attention to you. Maybe they are watching TV. You play on, as you do when you are by yourself. You are not even sure if your friend knows you are there. Just concentrate on playing.

Later, visualize your friend having turned to you, and idly watching you. You didn't even notice he was watching. Forget about him. Just play.

Add some more people later. They are sitting around, as if they were watching you, but they are talking and laughing amongst themselves. You are enraptured by your own playing. As you play, they slowly quiet down and listen. You don't notice them anymore. You are just playing the guitar, concentrating on the music.

You get the idea. Slowly work up the level of exposure, starting with no risk, to little risk, and increase the risk bit by bit. Each time though, concentrate on the music, and yourself, concentrate on playing the way you know how.

Eventually you start to play at a friend's house. Then a friend of a friend, with some strangers at the party. Then a small stage at a coffee shop, in the afternoon, with only your friends there.

Visualize it all first. Get comfortable with the visualization.
posted by Xoebe at 4:06 PM on April 30, 2010

banana's are a cheap "beta blocker." Work well for me in getting over performance anxiety.

Following something like Some1's suggestion, would playing in a capacity where you're more or less anonymous (rather than introduced or acquainted with the audience) help for getting warm to the idea of public performance?
posted by oblio_one at 5:44 PM on April 30, 2010

I actually took beta blockers this entire week to get over the "stage fright" I felt drawing blood. I'd just freeze and my body would go into overdrive with anxiety prior to the beta blockers. I took atenolol and it was great. I was able to get over the anxiety my body produced and perform excellently, garnering enough skill that I didn't need the pills in the end. I even volunteered to come in early and help out and had a great week. If it is something anxiety related, such as stage fright, I recommend giving it a try. It worked miracles for me!
posted by rainygrl716 at 7:05 PM on April 30, 2010

Film youself and post on YouTube as a start, perhaps.
posted by foxy at 8:03 PM on April 30, 2010

My advice is to suffer.

The desire to perform in front of an audience, combined with stage fright, is entirely natural. Many great performing artists suffer from stage fright.

If you are motivated enough to want to share your music with an audience, then you will eventually force yourself to do it in spite of the pain.
posted by ovvl at 8:29 PM on April 30, 2010

and those beta-blockers drugs is just some new-fangled thingy these kids do these days, like fuzz-tones or something, I do declare...

(but would make a great band-name...)
posted by ovvl at 8:33 PM on April 30, 2010

This might sound sort of crazy, but see if you can get yourself into a bigger venue. Go do open mic in the most crowded place you can.

I used to do a lot of music performance, and for me, the fewer people that were there, the more stressful it was. Somehow it felt more personal, like each one of them was watching me and judging me--there were a bunch of individual people looking at me, and it freaked me out. When the place was packed, though, it was much easier. No more individual people, just one big, faceless crowd in which I knew no one.

I'd also suggest seeing if you still have stage fright in front of a bunch of people you don't know. I realize that a lot of the time, a friend or someone will come along for moral support, but that always makes things worse for me. Even now, playing in front of my family/friends is sort of paralyzing for me in a way that playing for a total stranger isn't.
posted by MeghanC at 8:33 PM on April 30, 2010

Thelonious Monk played in groups for almost twenty years before he started doing solo gigs and records. I've found that playing in a group (especially a slightly larger one) can really help this, because you can blend in a bit and be more part of the "background." If it's an option, it might help you get better at playing in front of people.
posted by koeselitz at 8:47 PM on April 30, 2010

Arrange to play background music at a house party, but ask if you can show up early (as in, half an hour before it starts). Do a string of pieces you consider as warmup tunes; start as soon as you get there, perhaps when the hosts are still getting ready. As guests trickle in keep focusing on finishing the warmup and see if that takes some pressure away.

You could think of the whole gig as one prolonged warmup, if the nervousness is still there. Tell yourself 'it's just a warmup' when feeling nervous; tell guests that if you like. When comfortable enough and after a few people are there, start into whatever you envision as your set for the night. Since you're there just for background it's not important if/when your full set happens.

Disclaimer: Non-musician, don't know what the hell I'm talking about; it just seemed to make sense to me. See username.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 9:45 PM on April 30, 2010

Put together a short set of songs and practice it over and over, and then over again. Keep it simple, but work out every second right down to what you say in between songs. Everything goes on the set list, in big type you can see from a distance.

Practice your set at least three times a night for a week or two, then go to the open mic, ignore the crowd, and play it. If you flub something keep playing, odds are you are the only one who noticed. Especially if you play orignal tunes- they don't know how it is supposed to go anyway.
posted by InfidelZombie at 12:29 AM on May 1, 2010

Well, just a personal anecdote that may or may not help: I studied as a performing musician in college, and had to perform a lot, and was terrified for a while...and then I got over it. I remember thinking back one day after a gig and saying to myself, "oh, you aren't afraid any more, when did that happen?"

Point is, it was just doing it over and over and over that did it for me. After a while my worries were just stuff like, "is this bassist going to remember it's *four* bars at the end this time? He always screws that up..." etc.
posted by dubitable at 10:13 AM on May 1, 2010

Thank you to all for fabulous ideas. You've given me reasons to just get it done. I am going to give some open mikes a try.
posted by captainmickey at 4:33 AM on May 3, 2010

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