8 Ways to handle performance nerves (for guitarists)
Performance nerves can be a real issue for guitarists, especially because of the nature of how we create sound on the guitar.
Nerves can manifest themselves as shaking of the hands, sweating, memory slips, loss of focus and more. There things can amount to technical breakdown, buzzing, wrong notes, and many more unwanted effects.
There are many methods and theories on how to overcome performance nerves. Here are some things you can try:
1. Work on being more in the moment and getting into a flow
Flow is a used a lot in relation to optimising performance. I recommend you read The Inner Game of Tennis to get a good grasp of this concept. Flow is a state where you become very present whilst doing something, and consequently stop paying attention to your thoughts (especially negative ones). How does one practice this? I think its a matter of becoming more aware of what is going in your head while you are playing. A teacher will usually be able to help you with this. Your body usually gives you clues to what you are thinking. Video taping yourself can be a good way to pick up on your visual clues. Over time you can improve your ability to let go of thoughts which impede your performance and create nerves.
One thing to understand is that thoughts are not the starting point, they are usually habitual and emanate from core beliefs. Changing your beliefs connected to performing will create more powerful change but more on this later.
So set a goal to explore the state of flow, learn more about it, examine if you get into flow in any aspect of your life and see if you can bring that feeling across into guitar playing. Certanly, if you are doing something that you really enjoy and feels fun and effortless, and you think that you are good at, its likely you experience flow when you do that thing. Is guitar playing like that for you sometimes? When is it not? Can you tell when you are in and out of flow.
This is connected to the previous point. Meditating is usually done by sitting quietly and moving towards a state of presence (and beyond). Its the practice of quieting the mind to achieve higher awareness and engagement with higher energies.
Any type of meditation will help with achievement of flow because it is basically the same as flow except thats meditaion its more focussed with being and flow is more about becoming one with what you are doing.
3. Be Passionate
I recently heard an interview with Pepe Romero where he talks about what he does before a concert performance.
He talks about getting into a feeling space of love and good will and passion for the music. This evokes powerful feelings and emotions which can easily override the smaller ego driven fears.
Connect with the reasons why you are playing guitar and why you are playing the music you have chosen. Think about how much your audience will enjoy the music and keep yourself out
4. Be Super Prepared
Really try and know your stuff and don’t cut corners.
- Work with the metronome and do slow relaxed practice.Nothing beats slow and deliberate and effective practice.
- Keep up tech work and warm ups so that you are match fit.
- Do mental practice and visualise yourself playing through the piece.
- Practice in a quiet place and also try performing in less ideal environments to see if you can handle the distractions.
5. Have a performance plan or ritual
Great athletes will usually have a race plan which they have practiced. You can take this basic idea into your performance by thinking about your musical goals and things you are trying to get across. Make decisions about:
- High and Low points in the piece.
- Understand the context of the music.
- Make decisions about fingerings, dynamics, articulation, and phrasing for each section.
- Understand the moments of tension and resolution.
- Have a pre-performance ritual (this might start at the beginning of the day)
- Record yourself playing
- Play in front of friends and family
7. Embrace Failure but look for positives
This is more of an internal thing you can do to bring down the charge of a performance. You can do a lot of things to improve where your attention is directed in relation to what your body and mind are doing but its also good to contemplate the significance of your performance. I find that having a relaxed attitude towards what you do helps. It’s good to acknowledge that you are playing for people who appreciate you making the effort to learn and perform the music you are presenting. I also acknowledge to myself that if I “stuff up” or make some errors it’s ok. A mistake that young players make is that they think that every performance has to be perfect, but in reality a great career is built on sustained and committed effort over years and not just one performance. Every performance is a working progress because you are always refining your art (hopefully) so every performance will be different. It’s also a good idea to look to craft your performance so that you know that you have delivered a quality performance even if there may be some parts which may not have worked.
It is said that what the body does the mind follows, so keep your body relaxed and breathe into tension. This helps a lot with shaking hands etc.
There are other things you can do and think about in relation to managing your nerves but I have found these ideas and practices quite helpful. I think that one shouldn’t expect a performance to be risk free or nerves free. It’s part of being an artist. It is also the reason why many players give up and it certainly is not an easy path. Over time I think anyone can learn to handle performance nerves and deliver great performances.
I have found that some of my performances have being very much assisted by nerves and others have been hindered. I always get a great buzz after performing and I know I wouldn’t get that if I wasn’t nervous to some degree.