Blowing Performance Nerves Out of The Water! My Top Five Tips

Well, there’s only really one real sure fire way of blowing your nerves out of the water, and that’s to get lots of performance in. Do it over and over and over again. Normalising it, normalising the activity of getting up in front of others and laying your soul bare (or so it feels like sometimes!) to those that will listen. The more you do of something (generally) the easier it becomes and the more natural it becomes too.

Do you remember when you first learnt to drive a car, or ride a bicycle, or any other new skill in fact? It was really exciting right?! New possibilities, new movements, new ways of doing things. All very positive. Sure it probably felt a little clunky and more than a little bit awkward at times too, but you knew it was all adding up to the experience of learning to drive (or whatever skill you’ve imagined here!). And then soon enough you’re driving without really thinking about it – well, you’re obviously thinking otherwise it would be a rather dangerous activity, but you know what I mean. It just becomes “situation normal”. Something you can do every day with ease.

Well, the same is true for performance. The more you can get yourself out there, get yourself “match fit”, and used to playing in front of others instead of to the cat or the blank wall then the more normal it will feel. The more it will begin to feel like you’re driving the car instead of it driving you.

So what happens in the meantime whilst you’re clocking up the driving hours?

There are a number of things you can do to help manage and work with your nerves….. Here are my top five tips of the moment*:

(1) Realise that you absolutely, 100% choice about the way you feel about a situation.

No one makes you feel nervous, excited, happy, sad, joyous or poo-your-pants scared. These reactions are all learnt by us in our formative (and sometimes not so formative) years, and are adapted as strategies that we then run unconsciously, without even thinking about it. By drawing your attention to that fact, and to the unconscious strategies you might be running – by raising your awareness of how your mind and body are operating, to follow on from a recent blog post on here – you can begin to change how you react to certain situations.

(2) Think of that nervous, slightly fluttery tummy feeling as “excitement” rather than nerves.

Because you love to play guitar, right?! Or you probably wouldn’t be reading this, or care about getting out there and playing for or with others? So give this a go. Next time you’re about to step up and you get that kind of jittery feeling tell yourself that you’re just very excited – excited to be playing your guitar, excited to get to play it for others, excited to share the awesomeness that you’ve been working on and excited to cut loose and get some more experience under the belt! Yeah!

(3) Get back down into your body!

Yep, that sounds weird doesn’t it?! What I mean to say is that, when we’re very nervous we tend to get all up inside our own heads. Thinking of all sorts of different scenarios. What ifs. Can Is. And so on. This takes us away from (a) being aware of what our body is doing, how we’re holding it and (b) reduces our body’s availability to play, to move as freely as possible to make the music and translate our movements into music. I know for sure that when I relax my torso my tone actually changes, it’s like my body allows the guitar to resonate with a greater ease, so getting out of my head and into my body is very important.

(4) Focus your attention on something in your music. For me I find it really helps to really hone my concentration in on two things – the tone quality I’m creating and my sense of musicality. If my conscious brain is actively tasked with these two things it finds it very difficult to have any other kinds of thoughts, let alone those potentially destructive negative thoughts.

(5) Think into the future and how fantastic you’ll feel five minutes after your performance. Yes, there is work to be done, but imagine how you’re going to feel immediately after you’ve finished! Regardless of the outcome, and any lessons to be learnt or improvements to be made or otherwise, I’ll bet you’ll feel fantastic. And you’ll have another live lesson, another experience from which to learn.

*bearing in mind that I’m totally open to learning new things, and more than happy for these to get replaced by more effective methods. These are what work for me currently.

Feel the Fear – Addressing Performance Anxiety – What are you most afraid of?

In a recent post we took a look at what performance anxiety is (take a look here if you missed that one).

This brings us to an excellent point to make the first steps in dealing with those performance nerves and get them working for us rather than against us.

Red Bull Stratos - Felix Baumgartner
Felix Baumgartner – feeling the fear and going with it anyway! (Photo credit: cattias.photos)

One of the key things to do when we’re addressing our nerves is to do just that – recognising, acknowledging that we have that nervous, fearful sensation. Ignoring it is not going to make it go away, in fact it will probably make the issue bigger than it needs to be and consequently make you feel a whole lot worse!

And trying to convince yourself that you’re just fine, that you don’t have any nerves is most likely not going to do much for you either. It doesn’t make you any less of a person, less of a musician, performer or a guitarist to admit that you have nerves. Everyone gets them!

There’s an excellent quote that describes just this in a book I’ve read recently (Fearless Living by Rhonda Britten – s’pretty good, give it a whirl).

“Managing your fear is a temporary solution to a permanent problem, like putting a lid on a pressure cooker that sure to blow sooner or later. Mastering your fear means accepting it, owning it, and making it work for you instead of against you.”

Right. So we need to admit to ourselves we are nervous. What next?

Identify what it is that you are most afraid of

Check out the following list. Highlight the top three that resonate most strongly with you in regard to the feelings you may have during a performance situation:

• Stupid

• Crap

• Not good enough

• Not competent

• A fraud

• Shouldn’t be here

• Lousy

• Really should have practiced more

• Can’t play for toffee

• I reckon I’m a lot better than I really am

• I’m so going to stuff this up

• You’re definitely not a guitarist

There may be others that I’ve not listed here, which you know are relevant to you.

Can you select a number one thought or feeling from those listed above? This is your primary fear, what you’re most afraid of whilst performing.

I’ve had most of these run through my head at some point or other before, during or after performing, so you’re not alone. My number one fear thought, though, is probably “I’m not good enough“. Good enough for what, I’m not quite sure! It doesn’t matter though. My unfettered psyche thought that I was no good at playing and that people were going to think I’m really terrible.

And how does that fearful thought make you feel?

Silly, foolish, incompetent, embarrassed, no good, a failure, inadequate, nervous, worried, tense?

Which of these resonates the most with you?
Again there may be other similar feelings evoked in you that are not listed here.

By identifying these thoughts and feelings we’re getting to the bottom of what triggers our nervous response, our performance anxiety.For me, as I said before it’s a fear of being no good, which then leads to a feeling of incompetence. The ultimate response then that leads on from these thoughts and feeling is one of nervousness – “ooh gosh, I don’t know if I can do this…” with physiological outcomes including sweating, shaking redness, which compounds things – “ooh they can see I’m shaking so they mush definitely think I’m no good“….and so on in a spiral of nerves!!

When you think on it, the funny thing is by reacting to our fear-driven thoughts and feelings we’re kind of acting out our greatest fear anyway! By thinking “ooh bloody hell, I’m rubbish at this. I’ll never play this through” we’re turning that fear into reality!! We’re confirming to our subconscious that we were right all along! And so it continues….

So, actually it’s judgement of our own selves and our own thoughts that creates this nervous feeling, this shaky nervy response.

Be brave, but also get to know your music INTIMATELY!
This is where we need to be brave and face that very thought and feeling that we’re trying to protect ourselves from. Yes, it’s a little scary, but feeling the fear and going with it is a sign that we’re growing as a musician and performer.

Very importantly, and something that worked for me in particular, this is also where REALLY knowing the music you’re playing pays HUGE HUGE HUGE dividends.

Do you know without a doubt where your left hand is moving to and from throughout the music?
And what about your right hand (I’m talking from the point of view of a right-handed guitarist here) – that often gets a bit left out. Can you define the precise right hand fingering you want to use and do you use that fingering consistently? Knowing that and confirming it can really help to reassure you that you know what’s going on, so you can tell you subconscious “hey, look we got this. Remember all that work we did?!“.

And don’t forget about the harmonic and melodic structure of the piece. Do you know exactly where the piece and all its phrases are headed?

By acknowledging, recognising and then facing up to that fear – safe in the knowledge (see that word there – “safe”) that we’ve done the work and know what we’re doing – we can then move onto the next step in working with and mastering the fear. Stay tuned!