So you wanna be in a rock band?: Taking centre stage ... fright?
I recently conducted a guest lecture to a group of young budding rock starlets. After contemplating what I imparted and the responses I received, it dawned on me that this issue is one worthy of its moment on my personal soap box.
And so, without further ado, we shall discuss the phenomenon known as "stage fright," the difference between "debilitating nervousness" versus "good nervousness" and, finally, some tips for how you may combat your own case of "cold feet" and/or "sweats" when getting ready to rock. But first, as always, a personal story:
Long before I got into rock 'n' roll, my dream was to become a Broadway star — the next Sarah Brightman. Accordingly, I went through classical and operatic vocal training for about 14 years.
Although I've always enjoyed singing, performing and speaking in front of audiences and never, from an emotional perspective, felt anxious before stepping on stage, I used to be plagued with something I like to refer to as the "jitters."
Basically what would happen is anytime I prepared to sing solo in front of a crowd, the moment I uttered my initial note, my legs would start to shake so violently that it sounded as though I was putting on a ridiculously over the top vibrato technique. No matter how hard I tried, I had no control over it. I got so self-conscious that I wore floorlength dresses to all of my vocal recitals so that my leg shaking could not be detected by spectators.
This was something that plagued me for several years, and I couldn't figure out the cause, because as I said, I didn't feel nervous. It wasn't until I formed my first rock band at 15 that it eventually went away.
But as we know, history sometimes likes to make a habit of repeating itself. And so, 10 years later — last summer — and the first time I had performed solo in a long time, my jitters came back with a vengeance. Not only were my legs going haywire, but I found myself completely overwhelmed by the experience of being so tiny and alone on this massive stage, relying on only myself to produce sound playing to a crowd of over 500,000 at a major U.S. festival.
Now, before I go any further, let me just state for the record that harbouring a little bit of pre-show nervousness, in my view, is actually a good thing as it means you're invested in what you're doing and you're putting your heart into it. You're nervous because you want things to go well. For that matter, I've yet to meet a professional who doesn't claim that they still experience anticipation and anxiety before doing their thang. On the other side of the equation, however, is what I was experiencing (i.e.: debilitating nervousness): something that was affecting my performance detrimentally and something I needed to understand so that I could resolve it.
After thinking long and hard about what was similar between my vocal recitals and last year's festival experience and comparing how I felt before jumping on stage with my bands to both of these scenarios, I quickly figured out what was missing and therefore what was bringing on the jitters: it was all about the approach.
With both of my bands, before officially plugging in, we always gave ourselves positive pep talks, did band cheers and went out there with an attitude to have fun.
Realizing that the live show medium is really more about entertaining people than hitting every note with perfect precision (if they wanted that, they could go listen to the recording), even if we screwed up parts or re-sang the same lyrics, if we delivered a show that got the crowd pumping, we weren't too hard on ourselves afterward as we fulfilled the goal we set out to accomplish. Moreover, as you'll learn once you get out there and touring, even when you commit what seems like glaring errors live onstage, if you treat them with professionalism in that you "just rock past 'em," to be honest, the vast majority of people won't even notice.
The point is this: because my classical training was so much about indoctrinating me with the concept that I was to sing every single note exactly how it was written on the page, I felt I had to perform perfectly or I'd be failing to live up to the "Conservatory" standard. This mentality carried over to my first few solo performances because it was established as the initial guideline for how I was to perform when I was all by myself on stage.
Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against classical training — in fact, I owe a great deal of credence to it for allowing me to develop the abilities — however, the way in which it was taught created a situation where I developed a nervous reaction that affected my performances in a negative way. The resolution? Quite simply, I had to learn to overcome my classical perfectionist mentality and to take on the positive approach I did when I was with my former bands.
You may think it's cheesy, but I tell ya, it works. Each time before I step on stage, I take a moment to find a quiet corner, close my eyes, and have a brief moment of Zen with myself. I ask for confidence to go out there and do the best that I can.
Performance anxiety can also in part be conquered by making sure that you're ready, by investing in practising, and by realizing that with everything in this business, the best laid plans don't always work out. In other words, and in complete contrast to the above stories, I've been completely exhilarated to jump on stage, and 100 per cent confident I was gonna rock it, and then what happens? Well, I find out the soundman didn't properly ground the electrical equipment and so every time I strum my guitar and sing simultaneously, I get slightly electrocuted ... I wish I was joking.
Let me leave it at this: we all have wicked shows, and we all suck sometimes — sometimes it's our fault, sometimes there's something freaky out there in the air. As a musician, you need to learn how to deal with all of the above — not just deal with it, but deal with it like a professional.