Posts Tagged ‘performance’

Overcoming Stage Fright

That is moi about 27 years ago, flying through the air as the Nutcracker Prince. Yes, the fat man was actually in great shape once upon a time. 🙂 But that’s not what this article is about; at least entirely…

That picture was taken from my very first public performance – actually the second performance of the day, but on the first day of my first public performance. As a dancer, especially a male dancer, you have to get over your stage fright and self-consciousness and fast. Look, you’re prancing around on stage in tights with the shape of your genitals clearly visible to the world. Once on stage, it’s too late to be thinking about your balls hanging out…

Admittedly though, I had a serious case of stage fright the first show of the day; so much so that I forgot the final steps to my solo, something that I had practiced for 3 months leading up to the show! I recovered by doing a standard sequence of steps that made it look as if I knew what I was doing. But I was PISSED after that show for losing it!

So during the few hours between the matinee and grand opening night show, I practiced for about an hour and a half before the show, and went over and over my blocking and steps till I could literally do the solo with my eyes closed (which I also practiced). I had it down so well, that I even worked out more complicated maneuvers that I added into the solo (without the artistic director’s knowledge 🙂 ), so confident was I with what I had worked out.

When it came time for my solo in the grand opening, though I was a tad nervous at the start, I was confident and focused enough to nail the solo. I mean nail it. I know the picture is a little grainy, but if you can see my face, what I was doing was playing to the audience; not self-absorbed at all, not giving any thought to how I looked. I was running on pure instinct, trusting in my memory of the steps I needed to execute, which allowed me to interact with my audience, or as my beloved dance teacher and mentor put it, “Make love to my audience.” And I got a standing ovation and yells of “bravo” at the end of my solo. And I in turn walked to the front of the stage, bowed to the audience and applauded them for going on the journey with me.

So how did I get over the stage fright?

People talk about using your nervousness or fear or turning it into some other feeling like anger. Still others say to imagine the audience in their underwear or some other visualization, and there are professional coaches who make tons of money teaching people how to get over their stage fright. The coaches probably work, but why pay when you can teach yourself?

So circling back to how I overcame my stage fright, there are a few things I’ve learned in all my years of performance that I’ll share here:

  1. First, be mechanically prepared; that is, know your shit. This doesn’t necessarily get you over the stage fright in the moment, but it certainly helps to give you confidence.
  2. Be mentally prepared. The best way to describe this is that before you perform, visualize yourself doing it so that once on stage, it’s not a surprise. Racers such as ski, bobsled, and even race car drivers do a lot of visualization to make sure they’ve visualized the right line to take through their course.
  3. Once you hit the stage, JUST DO IT! You know your stuff, you’ve visualized it, so execute. You might feel nervousness, you might feel anxiety, that’s okay. After almost 40 years of performing in public, I still get nervous before all my performances. But I don’t try to compensate for it. I simply execute. My performance may not be sexy; it may not be sophisticated. But I’m just doing it. Once I get comfortable, I get confident, and once confident, I can truly put on a performance.

Another thing that really helps me is simply being in the moment and realizing that “it is what it is.” There’s nothing I can do about it – even if I make a mistake. Can’t stop a song if I mess up, so I just have go on. Being in the moment is simply being present. Not dredging up the past and not looking into the future, but purely focusing on where you are and what you’re doing (gawd that sounds like Yoda). After all, where you’re at is no accident. You chose to be there; likewise, your audience chose to be where they’re at – where you are. Nothing can change that, so be in the moment and show up.

Notice that I haven’t once mentioned anything about analyzing your situation. I think analyzing and trying to figure out why you have stage fright just makes you have it more. Instead, I offer suggestions that put you in action, for to me, it’s action, not thought that breaks the stage fright.

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I belong to a men’s fellowship group at my church. Ostensibly, it’s a bible study group, but it usually extends far beyond just discussing the particular bible passage that’s the topic for the week. This past meeting, the subject turned towards vulnerability, and we all agreed that much of our success in life – no matter in what we endeavor – has much to do with being vulnerable. During the course of the discussion, a good friend mentioned that he’s just watched a great video from the TED conference on the very subject of vulnerability. I just finished watching it, and it has really gotten me thinking. Here’s the video:

What struck me like a ton of bricks was what she said near the end of her talk: To let ourselves be seen—deeply seen, vulnerably seen. To love with our whole hearts, even though there’s no guarantee. To practice gratitude and joy in those moments of terror.

After the talk, I sat for several minutes thinking about my music; what I’m playing, what I’m writing. In a previous post, I mentioned that after a year-long hiatus, I returned to writing music, but making a conscious decision to write Christian sacred music. That was difficult for me because I really wanted to write more mainstream pop and rock for a time. Before I made my decision, I anguished over what I thought I should be doing and worried over what others might think of my music.

I had already gotten a taste of humble pie with my non-religious music from industry veterans: It was not very good; or at least not good enough to be published. Most feedback came back stated that the songs were structured well, and the ideas were sound, but they wouldn’t have that much appeal. Mind you, having wide appeal wasn’t very important to me, but I was living under the illusion that my songs were hits. They weren’t.

A large part of why I couldn’t find much success in writing non-religious music was what I now understand is a lack of sincerity and a lack of vulnerability in my writing; a lack of willingness to completely expose myself for fear of showing too much. You see, like many, I had spent a lifetime “numbing my vulnerability” as Brene Brown puts it, and when I was writing about my life, I was going to some pretty dark places that were difficult to deal with. It was too uncomfortable. But I had always found peace and solice in prayer, and though I’d visit those dark places, within the context of prayer, my songs became therapy for me. I allowed myself to be vulnerable so I could heal that pain.

From a more practical side of things, I also decided at that point in time that I made my decision to return to writing sacred music that it wasn’t necessary to try to play like everyone else. I’d continue to study and do my best to improve my technique, but I didn’t feel all that compelled to play John Mayer songs note-for-note, or play blues with the same kinds of phrasings as Eric Clapton. I just accepted that my playing was where it was at at that moment in time, and I’d just play.

The interesting thing that happened when I made that decision was that my playing improved dramatically; more so than at any point in my life and playing career. I’m no shredder, and I’m no blues god, but I finally started getting comfortable with what I could do, and I just did it, knowing that if I needed to learn more, I simply would learn more. In other words, I just accepted the fact that I only had a certain set of tools at a particular time, and I just used what I had.

Anyway, food for thought…

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…I gotta go with it! I just got home from playing a three hour solo acoustic gig. I’m physically tired from playing and singing, but I’m going to go out to my garage and play some more after I write this entry! I’m on a real high from getting a great evaluation back from my latest song, “The Breakup,” and my gig tonight was really magical because I had breakthrough with letting my emotions pour out while I was performing. I’ve been doing this gig now for almost 8 years, week in and week out (except for vacations), and even after all this time, all I want to do is sling my axe!

Call it an obsession, but I could think of a lot of worse things to be obsessed with…

I’ve been trying to develop an idea for a new song. It’s a softer one, but I don’t necessarily want it to turn into a ballad…. oh well… Like I said, I’ll just go with the flow for now and see where this latest burst of creativity takes me. I guess that’s the point of this entry, just going with it. Tonight at my gig, I was feeling really passionate about playing. Normally I restrain myself from letting it all hang out emotionally, but tonight I just said, “Screw it. I’m feeling this way, so I’m going for it. I’m going to put everything I’ve got into my performance.” What that produced was magic. Normally, diners at the restaurant don’t seem to be paying attention – I get pretty good tips so I know they’re hearing it – but tonight, they really listened, and I think they connected with what I was feeling because the room was unusually much quieter than it normally is when I stick to the background, and I observed people just watching me play. That was so over-the-top cool!

I learned a great lesson tonight, and that is if you play with sincerity and with all your heart, great things can happen!

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Stuck in a Rut

…but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel… At least I hope so. 🙂

For the past few weeks, I’ve been in kind of a rut with writing music. I’ve got eight songs for my new record, which I recorded pretty regularly over the course of about three months. And it wasn’t just eight songs I wrote. I wrote and recorded about 20 other songs before deciding on the ones that made the final cut. The process was incredible! A song would come to me, I’d grab my guitar or sit at the piano, and in a relatively short amount of time, I’d have a song. Then I’d spark up my DAW, and record a raw piece to make sure I captured it. No sweat.

But as soon as Christmas season hit, it seems that the stress of getting stuff done at work before taking a vacaction, then Christmas itself just sucked the creative juices out of me. Okay, I’ve written some jam tracks and recorded some short snippets of songs, but to date, I really haven’t gotten the inspiration to write a full song. But in spite of that, I’m feeling really positive as there is a bright side to this lack of creative energy.

As you know, I’ve lately been driven to be more academic about what I’m playing; partly because I want to be able to effectively teach what I’m learning, but also because I just want to be a better player. So in lieu of writing music, I’ve been working on my improv skills, and I’ve been really happy with the progress I’ve been making! All this practice is just making me a better player, and that is inspiring in and of itself!

For instance, as many may know, one of my regular gigs is to play at church. Before any naysayers start ripping me about playing at church, understand this: Do a worship service of ANY kind poses particular challenges. For instance, you can’t just rock out all your songs or pick music that is always up-tempo. Worship services need to take people through an emotion journey with respect to the music. Typically, the beginning and the ending songs are pretty upbeat, while the middle songs are much more subdued or, if you do have a more upbeat song, you don’t go all out and rock. The idea is that the music is not the focus, the worship experience is, and the music you play needs to enhance that. Furthermore, because it’s in a church, you can’t play at real loud volumes the entire time. As I mentioned above, you can get away with it at the beginning and the end, but even in those spots, you can’t really play at club or concert levels.

Sounds a bit constraining, doesn’t it? I’ve been gigging for years, and each type of venue poses its own particular limitations. The trick is to work around those limitations so that you can be as expressive as you can be.

All that said, considering the constraints, last night’s service was awesome! To add to our normal volume constraints though, I was missing both a drummer and a bassist, and all we had were two other guitarists besides me, one of which just started playing with us that day. So it was particularly challenging because being the most experienced guitarist put holding down the rhythm to the songs on me. But that was the cool thing. All the work I’ve been doing on my technique has allowed me to so much more than just strumming chords, adding little runs or double adorning some chords with arpeggios or arpeggiated double-stops. This is stuff that I couldn’t do six months ago! And despite not really being able to do any leads, it didn’t matter, I felt totally inspired!

So yes, there is a bright side to this rut. At least I can still play… 🙂

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playing inspiredIn last month’s issue of Guitar Player, Steve Cropper was spotlighted. Cropper was a great session guitarist for Stax records who wrote and played with the likes Otis Redding, and was arguably one of the great guitarists responsible for establishing the 60’s era soul sound. In the interview, he was asked what advice he’d give to aspiring rhythm guitarists. His reply was both amusing and incredibly insightful (I’m paraphrasing): “Pick the prettiest girl in the front row, look right at her, and play to her.”

On the surface, that may sound a little chauvinistic, but there’s an incredible amount of truth in that. As performers is to, well, perform. No matter how we perform, it’s always an outward facing activity. And from my standpoint, there’s nothing better at inspiring me to create on the than when I’m playing for someone, and shape my playing to describe what emotions are stirred by the thought of the person for whom I’m playing.

Mind you, it’s not a sexual thing. It’s about playing against the images that crop up when you look at someone. For instance, the restaurant that I play at every week is a nice, family-oriented restaurant. During my set, parents will bring their children to where I’m playing, to show their kids the “music man.” Seeing the smiles and faces full of wonderment is really inspiring to me, especially as I’m a father myself (of eight kids!), and I almost always change the way I’m playing when kids come to see me play. I’ll even do special kids songs just for them at times, and let them strum my guitar.

The point to all this is that when you’re playing inspired, you draw your audience in. As a performer, there’s nothing worse to me than being mechanical. The music comes out dry and worse yet, seemingly contrived. And people pick up on that. But play inspired, and you take your audience on your emotional journey.

So take Steve Cropper’s advice, and find someone in your audience who’ll inspire you. I guarantee you’ll like the results!

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