We all know the feeling: stomach dropping through the floor, heart racing, and the room looks just a little too bright. If you have chosen the wonderful and chaotic path to being a performer, the nerves that come along with those important gigs are unavoidable and, dare I say, important. Nerves make you focus a little harder, and play with a touch of intensity that makes the audience stop and watch. Being nervous means your performance matters to you.
For me, however, the nerves hit perhaps a little more than most. After a childhood full of performing classical music, as I approached my mid-teens, the idea of being on stage for some reason filled me with anxiety. Where I had previously felt excitement, I felt dread. The nights leading up to a performance would be restless, ironically making any practice unfocused and pointless, inevitably setting me up for failure on performance day. As the performance anxiety distracted me, my playing became more likely to go wrong, making the lead up to the next performance even more anxiety-inducing, and so on in an awful chain reaction.
Eventually, I decided performing was clearly not for me. I loved playing music, but what was the point if I could never share it with an audience? I relinquished all hopes of pursuing music, going to university to study liberal arts instead. In hindsight, I do not regret this choice at all; I think if I hadn’t taken a break from music I never would have discovered exactly how much it means to me. I started realizing this less than a year into my degree. The nagging feeling that something was missing told me to pick up my guitar and start singing quietly in the student room. Nothing can clear my mind as well as playing music does, and I had missed that process far more than I had realised. The separation forced me to recognise that it doesn’t matter if music isn’t a “viable career choice” for me; it only matters that I play whenever I want to. Once I’d restarted, I wanted to play all the time!
One night, I drunkenly pulled the guitar out in front of a couple of friends to sing a song that I had written. My friends complimented my playing, telling me I should try some local open mics. A few months later, I finally accepted my friends’ encouragement to share the music that meant so much to me. I went along to an open mic, every bone in my body shaking with nerves, my voice wobbling, everything I played a little too fast and quiet. It wasn’t quite a disastrous performance, but certainly wasn’t how I wanted my songs to debut!
After that night, the question was: what next? I knew I was struggling with crushing performance anxiety bad enough to make performances stressful and unenjoyable; but I also knew I simply needed to perform in order to share my music. In London, I signed up for a busking competition that involved performing to the passing public almost every day for two weeks. To prepare, I immediately got to Googling, and it turns out: performance anxiety is much more common than you might think! Adele once said in an interview with Rolling Stone that she is “scared of audiences,” and supposedly turned down a headline slot at Glastonbury because of her stage fright. Lorde also is “totally reduced by nerves…completely crushed by feelings of all kinds.” Ringo Starr, despite decades of fame and performing, openly suffers with performance anxiety constantly: “There have been times that I just wanted to go back to bed as I just get so nervous.” Suddenly, my own performance anxiety didn’t feel so isolating. Still, my fears needed to be faced, and I needed to figure out how best to do this for myself.
I have found a couple of ways to get past the anxiety. Now, although still nerve-wracking, performances are completely doable. Here was what worked for me:
First, reflect on what it is that is making you so anxious about performing. For me, it came down to perfectionism. If I was in front of an audience, I wanted to play every note perfectly. Realistically, that wasn’t going to happen. Not every note of every performance I ever did was going to be beautiful. I had to retrain my thinking to remind myself that there is room for mistakes, or even just an average performance. I had to practice just giving myself a break!
Visualization techniques have helped me the most, and work terrifically for retraining your mind. You can do research to see what might work for you, but here is a rundown of my process: Whenever I find myself getting worked up about a performance, I imagine myself walking up in front of the audience. I question what might go wrong and why I’m getting myself worked up about it. For instance, I might trip or I might forget the words. Then I question what would happen if these things do occur: I trip, we laugh, I play anyway. I forget the words, I maybe hum a little section until the chorus, I laugh, I play anyway. Neither of these unlikely scenarios would be the end of the world--in fact, these things have happened to me and, as you can see, the world didn’t end.
Next, I imagine walking up in front of the audience and playing at my very best. I think of some of my favorite performers that I have seen live, and remind myself that they probably also get nervous, and mess up, and I think they’re amazing anyway. It’s their music I love, I don’t care if they’re perfect. I try to apply that same mindset toward myself.
Here are some more practical tips that helped me the most:
3) If you’re a big coffee drinker, like me, try just having decaf on performance days. The caffeine speeds everything up, including anxiety!
4) Drink plenty of water the day of, but then don’t drink too much just before the actual performance. I used to down gallons of water before a show, then get worried about needing a wee half way through! It actually takes about four hours for any water you drink to reach your vocal chords, so a few sips of water before going on stage are enough.
5) Take some deep breaths, right into your belly. After just ten seconds doing this, you’ll feel a difference.
6) If you’re very nervous, play to a light, or a brick on the wall that you can see behind your audience. Focus all your energy on playing to this one unimportant object and forget the people in front of it.
7) Just do it. The more you get up there and play, the less scary it will feel. Play to your friends, play to your family, play to random passers-by, until you can just do it. Busking is great for this. Everyone walking past is gone before you know it, so if you mess up you’ll never see them again anyway.
Finally, 8) know that no one remembers the bad performances.
No one cares if you mess up. Humans are generally quite nice creatures. We stop and listen and maybe smile if we like what you’re doing. If you’re excellent, then we remember you! If not, we just carry on, and even the worst performances are usually forgotten within the week. So why waste time worrying about being bad when you can just focus your energy on being brilliant?
About the Author
Rosie Ash is a busker from London, England. Having started out as a multi-instrumentalist, she now travels around the UK as a singer-songwriter, sharing her music with anyone who is willing listen. You can follow her @RosieAshMusic on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. Listen to some of her songs and covers here: https://soundcloud.com/annaroseash