You stand offstage – it could be at a grand performance hall, a church, maybe a coffee shop. Stage fright makes your hands shake nervously, like you are on a frozen tundra without gloves. You practiced weeks, months, maybe even years for this moment, a single moment in time when you expose your heart and soul to dozens, hundreds, thousands of strangers sitting in the dark.
As the lights go on, the applause becomes deafening. You make your way to the stage, get your guitar or piano or microphone ready. The music starts, the rhythm 1-2-3-4… but your brain, it blanks out. All that comes out is an out of tune twang or cough or an embarrassingly wrong chord.
What do you do? What can you do?
How can you prevent this moment from happening, or happening ever again?
Anxiety, cold feet, nervousness – they affect even the most seasoned performer. Let’s take some time and talk about some musical performance tips to help you avoid anxiety – because that anxiety shouldn’t stop you from putting yourself out there and sharing your talents with enthusiastic, curious audiences.
“One of the things I love about music is live performance.” – Yo-Yo Ma, World-Class Cellist
Tip 1: Be Mentally Prepared
Novice musicians often do not realize the importance of what is currently being labeled as “mental toughness”. This describes the ability to work past nervousness, anxiety, and things just not going right, to create an amazing performance for your fans. There is often excitement and raw energy, but when that mic doesn’t work or the drummer shows up fifteen minutes after the first beat, or you find that the audience size is way bigger or way smaller than anticipated – that is when mental toughness can save you.
You can’t anticipate everything that might go wrong, but you can mentally prepare yourself for various undesirable situations.
So when the sound guy shrugs his or her shoulders when all that comes out of the speakers is a deafening screech, or your hall gets hit by lightning so all the electricity goes off (true story!), you can close your eyes, count to ten, calm down, and implement plan B – or chuck all your plans and play an acoustic set.
Tip 2: Practice
This might seem like a no-brainer, but there are countless musicians that rely only on their talent to make it through live performances. You know these guys: they have perfect pitch and pick up songs after only a few listens.
When it comes down to a live performance, there are things like mental preparation, experience, and muscle memory that are necessary for a great show. And these things only come through cold, hard practice.
Good practice habits are more than jamming out with a friend or your favorite band on iTunes. Grab a metronome, sheet music, your instrument, and prepare for many hours of note-picking practice. You will be glad that you did (and so will your fans!).
“The real test of a musician is live performance. It’s one thing to spend a long time learning how to play well in the studio, but to do it in front of people is what keeps me coming back to touring.” – Neil Peart, Drummer for Rush
Tip 3: Visualize the Performance
Somedays, you might be too tired to sing another note or play another tune. That’s fine. You can take this time to visualize your performance. This can be done with your instrument, in the venue, or even in your shower. Here’s how:
- Close your eyes
- Take a deep breath
- “See” the venue in your imagination
- Mouth the words or airplay the notes
- Play over the entire set in your mind
- Imagine each note being played perfectly and musically
This simple exercise can help you overcome stage fright and cold feet, especially if the venue in which you’ll be performing is an unfamiliar one. Visualization of this kind is very powerful – there’s a reason this trick is favoured by many professional athletes!
Tip 4: Sleeping, Eating, and Self-Care
Many musicians are used to balancing work and school with midnight rehearsals and weeks of concerts and performances.
However, we musicians are not well-known for taking care of ourselves. Between lack of sleep, pushing our bodies and minds to the extreme, skipping meals or just noshing on gratuitous amounts of fast food, and even substance abuse, it is not surprising that many musicians burn out and feel extreme anxiety and nervousness when it comes to performing.
So be sure to take care of the basics: get a good night’s sleep the night before the performance, feed yourself well, and stay hydrated!
Tip 5: The Importance of the Warm Up
No Olympic athlete would start a marathon or sprint without warming up. Why? Your body and mind need time to prepare.
For musicians that depend on good health to sing, or on strength and dexterity to perform, it is important that you take the time to do a good warm up.
For singers, this can be something as simple as singing scales with various syllables and doing deep breathing exercises. Pianists and string players might practice scales while a drummer can jam out on rudiments and complex solos and beats. Every musician has warm-ups unique to their instruments – you want to do these warm-ups at least an hour before the concert to give your body or voice time to rest. And remember, this is just the warm-up, not the marathon. So save the bulk of your energy for the actual gig.
Tip 6: Get It Together – Yesterday
I’m a percussionist. What that means is that I have to show up at least an hour before dress rehearsal to set up my equipment, whether it’s a drum set, congas, or a full multi-percussion set-up. Even if you aren’t setting up twenty drums for the first set, you still need to get there early to make sure that everything is in place.
There’s preparation with every instrument, and you need to plan accordingly. Write up a quick checklist with things like:
Make up this checklist a few days before the concert. Double check it and make sure you have everything to go the day before. This way, on the day of the performance, you just need to focus on playing, not worrying about logistics, as Gina Luciani explains:
Tip 7: Double-Check Logistics
Speaking of logistics, be sure to double check everything before you play. For example, I once played a gig where the xylophone collapsed during a solo. Thankfully, a fellow percussionist caught the instrument and held up the xylophone while I finished the performance – but I should have double-checked the stand during rehearsal.
In a cantata I played once, one of the lead singers tripped into the orchestra pit, hitting the gong. She had to be transported to the hospital. A little bit of lighting at the edge of the stage might have prevented this (If you’re wondering, she was fine, and so was the gong!).
Logistics covers a wide array of issues, so make sure that everything is in order. Once you’ve made that list from Tip #6, check it twice, so you can avoid an on-stage mental meltdown à la Mariah Carey:
Tip 8: Be Early
If it sounds like that I’m being repetitive, well, there’s a reason for that. You can’t expect to run onto the band stage three minutes before beat one and expect that everything will run smoothly. Depending on the venue and the complexity and length of your performance, you might need to be there anywhere from an hour to several hours beforehand.
This is the time to check logistics, warm-up, check on your fellow musicians, go through your music, do a sound check, and cover any other last-minute issues. This gives you time to drink some water, eat a light snack, and relax before the performance.
And most importantly, this gives you that moment for mental clarity before the big moment.
Tip 9: Positive Self-Talk
Musicians have a tendency to be extremely negative when they mess up. The antidote? Positive self-talk.
Avoid belittling yourself by saying “I can’t do this” every time you make a mistake.
Instead, tell yourself “I will have a great concert” or “the fans can’t wait to hear me tonight” or “I am ready”.
This works as a feedback loop – the more you think positive thoughts, the more you start to believe it, and the more your brain will do this on its own.
Tip 10: Deep Breathing
If you find that you are nervous, take the time to close your eyes, take a deep breath, and just relax. This gives your body a moment to recoup from the excitement that accompanies a live gig. Sometimes drinking a bottle of water, and just slowly meditating while doing so, can be enough to calm your nerves.
Achieving a state of mental calm can include specific breathing exercises, specialized therapy, and shifting your focus away from your anxiety:
Still shaky? Go back over some of the earlier tips like visualizing the performance and positive self-talk. Believe it or not, taking a few minutes to just be will help you rock it in performance.
But what happens if you DO mess up?
I’d be lying if I told you that you will never mess up during a concert. There will be a day when the stars don’t align perfectly, and you botch a line or play the wrong beat or come in too late. But that’s okay. That’s part of the process.
“It’s your response to failure that will determine your destiny.” – Sabrina Peña Young, Award-winning Composer and TED Speaker
Are you going to be the kind of musician that gets angry at the sound person, throws their guitar, and leaves the stage and your fans? Or are you going to be the kind of performer that can handle a mistake with grace and a laugh, and can move on?
Remember, there are people out there who paid tickets to see you. They are your fans. They want you to succeed. And if something goes wrong, they are more than willing to forgive you, if you can forgive yourself.
So when you make a mistake, try to:
- Move on with the music as if nothing happened if possible
- If it’s unavoidable, acknowledge the mistake and start the song over
- Laugh it off good-naturedly
- If you absolutely cannot continue, call for a break, and then come back ready to rock on
You never want to abandon the gig and your fans, no matter what happens. You can risk losing your fans, upsetting the people that have worked hard to make the concert happen, and possibly tarnishing your reputation. So be gracious, be cool, and just move on.
Quelling Those Nerves
Now you are equipped with tips for avoiding cold feet and anxiety the next time you have a concert – time to put it into action! Print up this short list below and keep it on a card on or on your phone:
Review it every time you are about to play a gig and share it with your friends. And the next time you have a live performance, you will be surprised at how your nerves seem much, much more manageable.
The nerves are unlikely to ever go away fully – but this is not at all a bad thing. After all, that tinge of nervousness makes you eager to go out there and play your heart out.
Planning for a performance is a ritual – think about all the ways in which you can make this ritual as healthy, productive, and calming as possible.