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
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.
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.