Stage fright, performance anxiety or nerves – call it what you want – attacks in many ways with a variety of symptoms. I had a student some time ago that would get so nervous before playing the drums she would literally tense up, losing all matter of finesse and technique – we’re talking arms turning into planks and shaking. Other symptoms, of which I’ve suffered myself, are sweaty palms, butterflies in the stomach, shortness of breath, dry mouth and shaking. For my student, there was certainly room for improvement of technique anyway before the nervousness, but the anxiety was really hindering her. The shakes didn’t just happen on stage either. The nerves set in even in seemingly mundane situations such as just playing in front of me in her lessons each week. We had a chat about some strategies to combat performance anxiety.
This is a big one. If you’re super prepared and you know your stuff, you’re less likely to fear making mistakes or wrecking the gig. Fact. For example, I was really nervous going into my first rehearsal for the Leo Sayer tour, but I had practiced the charts and was able to get comfortable once I understood the rehearsal would be just to work on the finer details. However, if I were not reasonably con dent with all of the tunes, the situation would have been very different. So, doing your homework will certainly help to alleviate feeling the pressure of falling apart on the gig.
This might seem like an obvious one, but in times of stress or nervousness before a performance, I’ve tried this and it’s actually good. I learned this strategy from well-known drummer David Jones. He advised me to fixate my gaze on one point in the room and do some deep, sustained breathing – in through the nose and out again through the mouth. How long you breath in and out for can change as you need. You might start with five counts in and five counts out and so on. The great thing about this technique is that it forces you to relax because, for those few moments at least, you’re very still and not madly focussing on being nervous – you can’t as you’re thinking about how long you’re breathing for! It’s pretty cool. Try this one by yourself somewhere and not in front of other people – or you’ll be nervous!
DON’T JUMP THE GUN
Ever been super rushed to set up at a gig and then you sit down and smash into the first song without really being settled? Every time this happens to me I play terribly and feel anxious. I’m a firm believer in spending just a few seconds to settle and just get in the right place. This in a way follows on from the breathing technique, as you are really just trying to get relaxed and a little more comfortable. These few seconds are really useful as they allow for simple things like getting the tempo for the first tune into your head, a couple of deep breaths or just singing the first few bars to yourself to get the vibe before you count things in. This applies to any instrument for that matter.
This is my final point and as wishy-washy as it may be, it’s the most important. As a student learning to play – whether it was at high school or the last day of doing honours at University, I didn’t feel I was good enough as a player. My teachers would always comment on what could have been done better. Yes, this is an integral part of the learning process and we can always do better. I understand this, but it was only after finishing study that I would start hearing (from peers that I looked up to) that I did a great gig or played awesome. Over time, this builds confidence but more importantly, I started to believe that I could do a good job.
Nowadays, I still believe this. I’m not saying I’m the greatest drummer that walks the planet but I feel confident in my playing, I have something to offer and that the band and the audience are going to like what I’m playing. This is a crucial thing. Students in turn, have to have a belief that they’re going to play well and not embarrass themselves.
My students’ shakes haven’t completely gone away but we’re working on it by committing to solid practice, good technique and a damn good attitude combined with small successes to build confidence.