5 Ways to Deal With Stage Fright

5 Ways to Deal With Stage Fright

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Topics: Lessons

Jim Morrison - shy boy

Early in his career, Jim Morrison was notorious for being so shy and nervous on stage he would turn away from the audience and face the band in order to be able to sing.

Jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald was also known to be extremely scared of performing in a live setting, supposedly to the point of getting very drunk to calm her nerves before going on stage.

I definitely get nervous when I’m on a jazz gig, as I know that I’m not the strongest player, and I purposely surround myself with jazz musicians that are way out of my league.

Over the years I have discovered a few techniques that have helped me overcome my anxiety and trepidation when playing out. Hopefully these hints will help you as well.

Close Your Eyes

Close your eyes and get into the music

Not as much of a cop-out as you might think. If you’re intimidated by the number of people in the audience, first let me congratulate you on drawing enough people to the gig to make you nervous. That in and of itself should give you confidence, knowing that your supporters and fans are there to see you play. If, however, that makes it worse for you, close your eyes and play for a little while. Don’t do it for the entire gig, obviously, but there is nothing wrong with blocking out the people watching you for a minute. Plus, it will give the audience the impression that you’re really getting into the music.

Move Around

If you stand still like a zombie, you’re setting yourself up for a bad time. You’ll inadvertently tense up and lock your knees, strain your neck, and tense your body. This will wear you out very quickly and make it very hard for you to play an entire set. If you have the room, move around a bit. Stand next to your band mates, give them some eye contact and a smile; they may be nervous, too!

Just do yourself a favor and don’t move around while you are trying out the “Close Your Eyes” tip; that might get ugly.

Find the Hot Chick

Unless you are playing jazz, chances are there will be a bevy of attractive females in the audience. Find one that you find particularly juicy and look at her. Don’t stare at her and drool like you need to be put on a stalker list, but some eye contact from the opposite sex is a good thing. After you’ve looked for a few seconds, do the “Move Around” to the other end of the stage and repeat with another hottie.

Oh, but beware – you don’t want to end up staring at the girl standing next to your wife or girlfriend, so have at least a little bit of awareness. Just sayin’…

Play With Your Senses

If you’re firing on all cylinders, many of your senses come into play at the same time – sight, hearing, touch, and your sixth sense (in this case I mean feeling the “vibe” of the performance and the audience). With all four of these senses being heightened, it can get overwhelming. “Close Your Eyes” gets close to what I mean here, but I would take it a little further by saying that you should purposely tone down/dull certain sensory inputs.

I don’t necessarily suggest you turn off “hearing,” as that would pretty much kill your playing. But, for example, you can lose yourself slightly in what you’re doing and not be detrimental to the overall performance. Focus on just the drums, or just the singing for a minute. If you have some freedom in the song’s interpretation, turn on an effect in your pedalboard that you don’t normally use for that part of the song and let the sound take over for a minute. Embrace the tonal difference and let it carry you.

If you can stop playing for a second (jazz gives you plenty of freedom to do this), do so. Take a breath, re-center yourself, and then take off again.

Know the Material!

Sorry, folks, but this is perhaps the most important tip I can give you. If you are not 100% confident that you know how to play the songs, then you’re simply setting yourself up for self-doubt and a massive train wreck. Put in the dirt time to learn your songs and don’t leave anything to chance. You’re going to mess up, rest assured, but by having the material down you’ll be able to quickly recover.

15 Comments Comments For This Post I'd Love to Hear Yours!

  1. Roman Age says:

    Hi Josh,

    I’ve just discovered your website, I’m always up for guitar tips and thoughts about guitar playing, especially when they come from personal experience.

    Mind you I’m all acoustic, I haven’t had an electric guitar in my hands for many years, having said that, if I would, I bet I’d enjoy it… for one hour may be.

    Roman Age

    • Josh says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Roman. Nothing wrong with being an acoustic-only player at all. I don’t play acoustic as much as I would like, but when I do pick up my Taylor it’s a beautiful thing.

  2. Klink says:

    Hey Josh.

    Good words. Would be interested to know if you have any strategies for recovery, like playing same pattern till everyone is back on track etc. We are a tight working band but one song is killing us. We cant drop it becuase it is such a fav with the punters. But we have a gremlin with it. The vocal track is critial to maintaining the song,, if we get of track with the vocal, the rest of the band struggles to keep going and often just has to stop early. Its like our gremlin song. We all know it so well but it is very sensitive to a minute slip in the vocal track.

    • Josh says:

      Klink,

      Thanks for dropping in. The first question I have, based on what you described, is why are you guys worried about getting off track with the vocals? I would think it should be the other way around. If you – as the instrument-players – are completely focused on the vocals to the point where the slightest deviation throws you off, then it’s no wonder things would go awry. The vocalist needs to stay on track with you, not the other way around. Now, I’m assuming that this is not a jam/free-form song, so there is structure to the music that is consistent. If that is the case then you guys, as the band, should play the song the same exact way every time. Don’t stop, regardless of what the vocalist does. If the vocalist screws up, it’s on him; it’s not the job of the band to fumble around to try and get him going again – that’s unprofessional. It’s the vocalist’s job to do his job correctly.

      Another thing I will say is that this song is obviously causing you guys stress. Although you say it’s one of your fans’ favorite songs, why would you consistently set yourself up to fail? I would much rather not play a song that has a 50/50 success rate. Think about what psychological effects this song has on you guys as a band. If there is tension and apprehension every time you play the song because you don’t know if you’ll be able to pull it off or not, stop playing the tune! Either practice it more until you have it nailed, change the vocals to eliminate the problem, or find another singer.

      I apologize if that sounds overly-harsh, but going solely based on what you briefly described I think you’re looking for workarounds rather than solutions. Take it out of rotation for a while and practice it more. Practice it slowed down so you can all sync up. Your fans won’t disappear just because you take one song off the set list for a month or two.

      Good luck! Please keep us updated.

  3. Klink says:

    Hi Josh,, It is kind of hard to explain why we are reliying on the singer, but the song is so structured that if vocals go off, the format of the song falls apart. He is a magnificent singer and so rare to find someone like him. It is actually a challenging timing challenge for me as the drummer.. So I think it is me that is the weakest link. I try and ignore to keep the format of the song right, but then the guitarists get lost as well. We rehersed it again last night and while it came out perfect, I think we tend to feel we get through on luck rather than subconscious ability. We should choose another song, but its like golf, you get it right for one shot on the fareway and it drags you back even if all the other shots were crap. Thanks for taking the time, we will percivere.

    • Josh says:

      Hey Klink, I totally get your golf analogy. I’m terrible, but I once got five yards from the green on a par-4 with a massive dogleg right. Took me 800 more strokes to finally get it in the hole, but I remember that shot like it was yesterday.

      Good luck with the song. Hard work usually always pays off, so I’m sure you guys will get it. If you have a recording of the song, I would love to have a listen!

  4. ladies favourite says:

    I always find this subject very interesting as without a doubt it is mostly in the mind. After playing electric guitar for years in several bands, these days all I do is acoustic duets with a friend of mine. We gig twice a week in bars/hotels & every single gig has different highs & lows – it’s very unpredictable. Something that made a difference with me was to get myself a mic, even though I don’t sing. I find I can bond with the audience far quicker that way, drop the odd joke, point out your mistakes etc suss out the people.

    What I suffer with EVERY time I play, no matter what the venue or crowd, is this strange tense feeling when we start the gig. I try & avoid playing any solos or pushing myself for the first 4-5 numbers (we usually play between 20-25 numbers in an average set). In terms of warming up, I play a lot of Django Reinhardt & so I run through a couple of his improvisations then onto a solid 10-15 mins of scales & chromatics, so I know my fingers are ready. After I get through those first few numbers, suddenly I feel relaxed & in my comfort zone & start to open up. If anyone else knows what I’m talking about I would be very interested to hear. I’ve tried many different approaches to deal with it, but it’s been like this for years now.

    Interesting the point about Ella Fitzgerald. I too drink when I play, mainly because it is something I have done for so long now, that when I don’t, it feels what I’m doing is slightly forced. The pick shifts unpredictably between my fingers, the guitar tone sounds very hard & brash & I find myself holding back. When I say I drink, I probably drink 4 pints of beer throughout a 2 hour set, the first beer being poured 20 mins before we go on. For the odd bum note that comes from the beer, I feel the music much more & new stuff happens & so for me it’s a trade off that works. Getting smashed before a gig is a nightmare – that horrible weary feeling of sobering up as you’re just about to go into a solo.

    This combination of drinking as you warm up creates that false security of confidence I think – by the end of the gig you’re playing your best, the audience is loving it & you feel a tiny bit tipsy. By drinking from the start maybe you inject that feeling of confidence which you know will be there by the end?

    • Josh says:

      Very interesting points. I don’t know if I want to go so far as to advocate drinking before you play, but I know it’s a commonly-accepted practice among musicians. I rarely drink at all, in general, so this isn’t really an issue for me. I warm up a lot before I go on – finger gymnastics and stuff like that. My band mates always push me to go for it right out of the gate, so I kind of have no choice. :)

    • Josephat says:

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  5. ladies favourite says:

    There are some fundamental differences from playing in a band & performing duets & i really should’ve emphasized in my post that this applies to my experience in duets. You say you play rock & jazz (like myself) – i’m assuming then everytime you perform you have drums, bass & possibly another guitar playing with you? You can really feed off of your other band members & you have a rhythm section setting the pace. In a duet you are the band & it’s a lot to think about. Keeping the timing, setting the rhythm, creating different textures,soloing (whilst keeping the rhythm moving)all the time knowing that any mistakes are very obvious, hence the holding back.

    • Josh says:

      Excellent point. I guess for me I stopped worrying about making mistakes a long time ago. I reconcile the fact that I’m going to make them, so it doesn’t bother me anymore. That’s certainly not to say I’m not going to practice or try to nail the material, but when the inevitable occurs I just keep rolling forward.

      But I understand exactly what you mean and in essence I agree with you.

  6. My best advice would be to think about this… “This is what you wanted and now you’re doing it.” There’s no reason to be nervous only reason for excitement. If you’re afraid people won’t like what you or your band is playing than forget about it because you aren’t playing music to make the drunk people who aren’t there to see you. You’re playing the music that you like for you and if people end up enjoying it than that is a bonus.

  7. Tip #2: Move Around.

    Doesn’t work so much when you’re a keyboardist.

    But the hot chick thing – I’ll try that at my next gig :)

    Thanks Josh!

  8. Thanks for the suggestions.

  9. Leprechaun says:

    “Find the Hot Chick” – How the hell is that supposed to help me? :D I will only get more nervous, when I know a hottie is watching me.

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