Performance Anxiety

Stage Fright Microphone

“Give me the beat boys, soothe my soul, I wanna get lost in your rock and roll, and drift away…” Drift Away (written by Mentor Williams, sung by Dobie Gray and most recently covered by Uncle Kracker)

I was recently invited to jam with a bunch of folks that I have played with several times before. I was initially thrilled at the prospect of bringing my guitars to play. I have always enjoyed jamming and, as I’ve mentioned before, there is nothing like getting together with other musicians to improve your own guitar playing and enjoyment of the songs you’re playing. I also love to sing, and these friends are heavy on the guitarists and short on the singers. I checked the date set for the jam; perfect timing, as I didn’t have to work that day. Food is always involved with these occasions, and I happily planned my contribution to the potluck buffet for our starving artists.

I was really looking forward to a good time, but then, suddenly, anxiety set in. I realized that one of the other guitarists was someone who seemed to constantly scowl at me the last time we played together. He seemed annoyed at both my choice of songs as well as the arrangements of those songs. I knew that he was a much better guitar player than me. I was acutely aware of that every time I played. I’ve told myself many times that I can’t really compare myself to this guy. I haven’t played for as many years, I don’t have much time to practice, and I know I have my strengths as a singer/guitarist. Plus guitar playing shouldn’t be a competitive sport.

Despite my soothing mental monologue, I managed to work myself into a frenzy about having to play anywhere in the same room, building, city, state, heck, same country as this guy. I was worried about forgetting chord sequences, missing chord changes, or missing the chords altogether. I just knew I would forget all the lyrics to my favorite songs, even when they were in front of me on a piece of paper. And never mind trying to play anything but the most basic rhythm guitar! Not that I usually get fancy in the group setting, although it can be a good place to just try out something new or different. And by fancy, I mean basic riffs…

I had myself so upset that I was ready to bail out on the whole idea of jamming at all. Then I took a deep breath, and reminded myself that this was just for “fun”. Who would have thought I would need a sedative to perform for “fun”? I told myself that this was just one person, not all the rest of the jammers. I wondered if I was overreacting to our last jam together. As a (perpetually) beginning guitarist, I’m intermittently insecure about my playing ability. Aren’t we all? Most everyone I’ve ever played with has been very supportive and encouraging of my attempts to play, including the folks who invited me to the jam.

But I always feel like I don’t measure up. I know many of us feel that way; it seems natural to critique our own performances. In fact, one of the best parts about playing with others is when we all laugh and share with each other how we individually screwed up on any given song. It almost seems like a “I messed up more than you and this is how” contest sometimes. And yet, the overall song always manages to sound marvelous. Music is really wonderful that way.

I managed to talk myself out of giving up on my guitar playing, and when the day came, packed both the acoustic and the electric (and the yummy dessert I’d made) into the car and drove off to meet my friends and play. When I walked in, everyone had started already. I was late, in part due to my anxiety and procrastination at facing the music, if you’ll pardon the expression. I set my dessert down in the food area, and got out my instruments. Looking around the room, I saw the guitarist who I dreaded playing with hard at work, wailing on his axe. I repeated my mantra “you are good enough to play with them or they wouldn’t have invited you, you are good enough to play with them or they wouldn’t have invited you” again and again in my head. I took a deep breath and, at the next opportunity, joined in.

That day was one of the most delightful sessions I’ve been part of. The guy I was worried about was a blast to play with. He was fun, encouraging, very into the music and the synergy everyone in the room created. He even asked me to play a song that I knew he scowled at last time. What I had assumed to be his contempt for my playing and singing was probably nothing more than a bad day on his part. My anxiety was created by my feeling of insecurity about my playing, and my need to see playing as some kind of competitive sport. If I’m not good enough at that sport, if I don’t have enough skill or practice time (does this sound familiar?), I don’t get to be on the team. Even if I’m on the team, I don’t get to be a starter. When I let go of the “I need to prove myself” feeling, I had a marvelous time. I let go of my anxiety and had a lot of fun. We really grooved well together, and I was glad that I had talked myself into participating.

While the case of nerves that I had before this jam was relatively minor, performance anxiety can be quite real. There are many, many articles on it. Even seasoned performers can get “stage fright” before something they’ve played hundreds of times before. Recently I played with my husband and daughter at her middle school talent show. We were playing Gershwin’s Summertime and Van Morrison’s Moondance, both songs that I have played hundreds of times, with several of those times in public. Just before I got on stage, my heart was pounding and my fingers felt clammy. Getting on the stage, I had time to notice that the spot lights were blinding, and thank goodness, hid most of the crowd behind them. We started to play, and finger and vocal memory took over. It wasn’t a flawless performance (I managed to miss a chord change on one verse), but it was warmly received by the audience. The applause and the praise afterwards were genuine. As was the warm glow of accomplishment my family and I felt, and the pure joy in sharing our interpretation of music that we love with other people.

I’m sure many of us have suffered from anxiety over performing, whether with a few friends, or in front of an audience. However, when you can let go and just enjoy the beat and “Drift Away”, you will truly soothe your soul.

n.b. This column continues in a series dedicated to the female musician. Of course, male musicians are welcome to read and comment on the topics discussed as well, as many have (thank you!). We have our own forum in the forum section. As always, I would love suggestions on topics you would like to see covered. Please email me and tell me your story. I enjoy hearing each and every one.