Performing Under Pressure: Insights From The Last 2 Years
***Disclaimer: I am not an expert by any means - these are personal opinions formed based on my experiences****
As a performer, inarguably one of the largest barriers to overcome (for most people) is performance anxiety (“stage fright”), caused by a conscious and/or subconscious fear of judgment.
After having talked to musicians and performers, I have learned that everyone who is successful still deals with this to some degree or another. What makes them successful however is the ability to manage the impact of nerves on their performance. For most it’s the sheer love and passion for music (combined with experience) that overpowers this fear.
However, this doesn’t apply to all musicians, some with whom I’ve interacted still deal with substantial stage fright despite being seasoned professionals.
In my opinion, a significant factor is the genetic/epigenetic predisposition to be sensitive to the judgement of others. Some people simply have a bigger hill to climb to overcome stage fright.
Since I was a child, one characteristic I cannot remember being without was stage fright. I was never the kid to raise his hand in class, to be comfortable in drama class or to be attracted to the spotlight in any form. My comfort zone was in my small group of friends and in hobbies.
Music changed all of that. For some reason once I had a guitar in my hands – I had a desire to perform. This desire was further amplified when I discovered fingerstyle guitar and songwriting.
To this day it’s a desire that I have not fully reconciled.
I am constantly at war between my intense passion for music and my equally intense fear of judgement. This is a battle that plays out every time I’m on stage.
My typical first task is to mentally navigate my way to a mental zone where I am able to play with full passion and no nerves. In all honesty I reach that zone every time, but the time varies with each performance.
With regard to this, I want to share what I’ve learned over the last two years of forcing myself out of my comfort zone and onto the stage. These insights have translated and helped me in many aspects of my personal and professional life, I believe they can do the same for you.
Insight #1: Put In The Work (Repetition, Repetition, Repetition)
I’ve been on stage in many different contexts; from busking in a farmer’s market to playing headlining showcases. No matter the occasion, I have developed the ability to produce a certain level of performance no matter the occasion.
This is because of the daily amount of practice that I put in, whether it’s learning songs, techniques or songwriting. This consistent practice has allowed me to function under pressure despite any nerves because I have built everything into MUSCLE MEMORY.
This comes from a principle that applies to mastering any skill: repetition, repetition, repetition.
When you have performed a task so many times that you can “do it in your sleep” you will have no problems performing it at maximum nerves. Your brain is equally as engaged with your performance in both cases.
This principle also applies to performing, especially when starting out. This is why I believe open mics are the best thing to ever happen for aspiring performers. There were two open mics in my city that I attended religiously every week for the first year and a half of my career. These performances were equally as important as a daily practice routine.
Through sheer repetition, I was able to condition my brain to being in the center of judgement and give it frequent opportunities to figure out how to deal with it. To this day I will always play as multiple open mics leading up to a big show to recondition my brain to the stresses of being in the spotlight.
The point of everything here is that you can reduce the impact of the stage fright on your performance by putting in the repetition in the practice room and on stage.
Insight #2: Let It Be, Let It Be
This only applies if insight #1 is done well.
I’ve tried multiple mental tricks to try and calm myself before and during shows. Including thinking positive, breathing slowly etc.
They work on occasion however, I have found the most consistently successful inner monologue has simply been “let it be”.
Don’t think- don’t think about how to beat the nerves. Accept that they exist and that they will go away eventually. Essentially, shut off your brain and let the work that you’ve done show. If you’ve practiced enough – you don’t need to think about anything except enjoy being on stage and enjoy making music.
Nine times out of ten I have found the nerves will simply fade away after a couple of songs.
The best part is that I also feel authentic on stage. I’m not trying to put on a face to make the audience accept me, I’m simply playing and letting what happens happen. Don’t get me wrong, I will reflect of performances after they happen and adjust for the next one, but on stage is not the time for this analysis.
Insight #3: It Wasn’t Meant To Be Easy (So Keep Working)
Two years isn’t a long time to be a performer. Most professionals have been performing for a lot longer than I have.
However, two years was long enough to teach me that beating something like stage fright isn’t a simple task. I’m still contesting with it to this day, but I have made significant progress to this point.
When I first decided to embark on the journey of being a performer, I expected that the nerves would simply go away after I got used to performing.
The truth is they never do – you just learn to reduce their impact and eventually use them to your advantage. This takes many years and many hours of on-stage practice to be able to do.
I find it interesting how there are always levels to every profession- a lot of times it’s not inherently obvious how the next level is accessible. In the case of performing the I have learned that the best solution is hard work, the right mindset and patience.
Additionally. I am applying this principle to my personal relationships and my various day jobs and I have been seeing an equally positive effect.
I hope you gained some value from this post. I welcome any and all feedback.