Greets from the road!
I’d like to address an issue many guitarists and other musicians face, and that’s the issue of stage fright and nervousness.
This came up with friends last night as we were hanging out after my gig. So, even though I am a touring pro, I still get nervous sometimes.
Here’s some advice based on my real-life experience playing solo concerts.
Tip #1: Practice Enough
If you have driven your music deep down into your subconscious mind, your hands will know where to go – even when your brain doesn’t.
You’ll feel less scared.
A momentary slip-up can usually be recovered quickly if you have practiced enough repetition of a piece of music. Knowing this will ease your nerves.
You may feel distracted by the audience’s eyes on you, lights in your face, or a new sound on stage than what you are used to.
By practicing enough, you’ll have a certain level of “auto-pilot” that you can rely on.
Tip #2: Warm Up Before You Perform
Always warm up before going on stage! For me, it’s all about the warm-up – just like athletes do before a game.
Keep in mind, there is a fine line between “warming up” and “burning out” your chops before stepping out on stage.
Go easy backstage…get your chops warm and ready – but don’t play the gig 5 times before you get in front of the audience.
Your last 15-20 minutes backstage should be “full on” stage playing.
Tip #3: Leave Enough Time Before the Gig
Plan soundcheck, arrival and eating around your warmup time, not the gig time! I eat 3 hours before my gigs, to allow 1-hour soundcheck, then 1 hour warmup time.
Get there early enough so you are not scrambling!
And – step AWAY from your iPhones & computer crap at this time.
Tip #4: Staying Present & Your Self Talk
When we are scared of the stage we’re usually scared of
1) not being perfect
2) others judging us
3) screwing up a hard passage
When I slip up and make a mistake – I simply tell myself “come back” and I also forgive myself, gently.
Know that “beating yourself up” is TOTALLY unproductive – and it’s a habit formed offstage!
LET GO of the habit of “beating yourself up”. Just drop it.
START being kind to yourself – NOW.
Onstage and off – practice saying:
“I like myself!”
“I am the best!”
“I am freakin’ awesome!”
“I’m gonna kick butt today!”
“They love me!”
If saying this makes you uncomfortable, that’s good! That means you are driving new information into the subconscious. Keep saying these. It’s not inflating ego – it’s building self-esteem!
(You should hear what I say in my hotel rooms to myself!)
This adds up over time, and at the moment on stage that you slip, you’ll then say out of habit – “It’s ok, I’m awesome!” and get on with playing rather than digging yourself a hole of self-loathing.
Good self-esteem helps you perform better, and helps you realize your audience it there to appreciate you, not judge you.
The result? Less nerves and fear, more joy and confidence.
Tip #5 – Dealing With Mistakes
Mistakes happen – but please understand their size in the total picture. They are often way smaller than you think.
Like a little hole in your tooth where food sticks, your tongue finds it yet it feels a HUGE as the Grand Canyon.
No one knows about it except you!
Roll past mistakes and your audience will too.
But…keep the GROOVE. Don’t sweat the notes – but always keep your groove. This goes for classical music too!
Keep your groove and the audience will not even know a mistake happened.
When you KNOW THIS – you’ll be less scared of being judged, and you’ll feel less scared.
Practice “flow” and do “straight through” performances where you don’t go back and fix mistakes so you get used to the feeling of having to roll past them.
Tip #6 Start Strong & End Strong
It’s very stressful to get up and play just one song at a recital or jam session – much more so than doing an entire gig. I recently did a 2 song “gig” and it was hard!
Advice for single song performances, like recitals:
Play something simple that you can play well, with elegance and ease, rather than pushing your technical limits.
Your audience will delight in your “elegant ease” much more than watching you suffer and freak out!
Practice the end of your piece as a “chunk” – so that even if you have trouble in the middle – you can “see the light” at the end of the tunnel, and feel confident about where it’s going.
Very often, not having rehearsed the end of the piece is a huge source of stress. Chunk it down, and rehearse your endings.
Advice for playing several pieces:
Make sure your opening piece and your ending piece are strong – and comfortable for you.
Put trickier things in the middle of a performance, so you’ll be warmed up and more comfortable on stage.
Tip #7 Dive in, Do it and Keep at it!
“Do the thing you fear the most and the fear of death is certain.”
After many positive experiences onstage, you’ll get more confident.
Now I experience a “bleed over” from gig to gig. I can envision my delighted, smiling audience even before I play a note of a gig.
That’s why and how you’ll get more confident the more you do it.
Have fun. Now practice!
RELATED: 10 Tips for Healthy Guitar Practicing
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Heidi Browning says
Hi Adam, I couldn’t agree more with the above post. My 12 yr old Amber was having major anxiety issues over the weekend while getting ready to play her clarinet in a Disneyland parade. I used the same advice and such to help her gain control and reset her coping machanizm. Mind over matter. As scared as she was, She reached into her little Theta brainwave and she really pulled it together and preformed well and I couldn’t be more proud of her. Keep the great advice and light coming… Blessing to you and yours… 🙂 Heidi B.
Great news! Kids really need to be taught self esteem & confidence. Stay in touch!
Thanks for your advice on fighting stage fright. It is so much helpful and to the point
Glad you liked it, thanks Ted!
Jim sequon says
This is many years after you wrote this piece. Good advice is like good cake, it stays with you. I play the dog house bass in a Johnny Cash Tribute Band, our band us very very good at it. Well we always have trouble getting fill in guitar players ( most don’t know the Luther stuff.) so i decided to do the guitar stuff, I am very comfortable b
Playing the bass and have a lot of fun doing it. But the lead stuff I a freaking out over. I have a good 100 or more hours of practice in. I know the songs, I have played them for 6 years on the bass. So I will take you advise tell myself I am amazing for taking on such a project where I really didn’t have to. Thanks for this little blog
And performing in public is one of the easiest ways for them to learn it. When they’re very little, they are natural hams. Teach them a little song or dance, and they’ll do it all day long, wherever they are. As they grow, they might begin to become self-conscious. If you can recognize that and push them toward simple performance, they’ll get past it, and be set for life.
Single Malt Monkey says
Great advice, thank you.
Excellent advice! It means a lot to read this coming from a touring pro like you. I like the comment about one/two song gigs or jam sessions can be more stressful than full gigs — that has been my experience, too, but I didn’t know if that was common. Thanks, Adam! Always enjoy your posts.
Yep, concerts are easier than jam sessions!!! Rock on…
Heidi Browning says
I will and thanks again for the great post.
Great article! I liked the point you made about driving your music deep down into your subconscious mind. Sometimes I feel that I’ve forgotten a certain piece, but when I pick up the guitar, my fingers get to work automatically 😀
Allison Merten says
I’m just starting to perform in front of large groups of people, and I have been looking for ways to deal with stage fright. Your post was extremely helpful. You have excellent advice! Thank you so much for posting this!
i have a problem of shivering ,lot of shivering and biggest problem is sometimes i have a good control on myself but still my hands shivers and that sucks my performance (happens 5 6 times) what to do
Adam Rafferty says
Me too – so don’t feel bad. If I have not played a concert in a month, when I get back on stage I am nervous. Crazy, but it’s all a matter of habit & routine.
1) play live – longer sets. 45 mins. If you are doing 1 or 2 songs at an open mic, it’s all nerves & no fun.
2) play more often, once or twice a week if you can.
3) Practice being nice to yourself with your internal dialoge. Know that teh audience is behind you.
4) allow teh shakes to quiet themselves. Don’t fight against them!
Adam, I notice you occasionally ‘dyslexia-fy’ (thanks W. Bush) simple words like ‘teh’. This is interesting to me as to how the brain processes, and happens also- usually when I get ‘ahead of the typing groove’- to myself. (How about that for a run-on sentence?) Anyhow, I wonder if it might even help in arranging and practicing sometimes. Often when I’m needing to quickly rough out a piece or dust one off in a hurry as per request, it helps me to sort of: ‘think backwards while I play it forwards’. Anyhow, thanks for all you do, and for being such a thinking man’s musician.
Thank you and yes, I need to get my typing groove in the pocket 🙂
David Pike says
I find it helps to talk to the audience first. Just a couple of sentences about the song focusses me and also lets me find a calm place. Do things that make the audience feel like a group of friends, and maybe some of their friends that you don’t know, but might want to know. Just chatting a few seconds can take you there. Relaxes the audience too.
Each time you practice, think of one new thing you know about the song, the artist, the composer, when or where it was written or recorded. Something in the news at the time, or about the composer or artist. Who else covered the tune, how your arrangement is unique, Something similar that happened to a similar artist. You get the idea. You’re turning dead time while you check levels, check the tuning, etc. into relationship building. Meanwhile the audience turns awkward silences into reverse relationship building.
I can often get the host to turn down the audience lights during this introduction time. I can begin identifying and connecting with the audience, making them possible new friends, rather than anonymous critics. When the spotlights come back on, I can imagine them as they are. We humans tend to identify the unknown as a threat (Psych 101), but those known to be non-threatening become part of our comfort zone.
Done right, it changes an anonymous, sometimes unseen audience into a living-room group of friends.
I also get the shakes and when I was performing, I got into the habit of stiffening up all my muscles and jumping up and down while the muscles were tense and then shake it off, like when a dog comes out of the water. This seemed to really reduce the shakey hands. It’s kind of like what athletes do just before stepping onto the field.
John Horne says
Great post.I used to shake like a leaf playing in public and even got nervous just rehearsing with people I respected. There was basically only one cure for me and that was to play in front of people as much as possible. Not just for polished performances either.I practiced where family, friends, and passers-by could hear me screwing up and realized that most either didn’t notice or didn’t care.
I finally realized a few years ago that the nerves were a result of enormous unrealistic pressures I placed on myself to “be awesome” and “impress people.” This realization came about when I had the opportunity to play an original arrangement for a world-famous guitarist and flipped out during the performance because I so badly wanted his approval. I reverted to tremors, memory lapses, and butterflies but it want his fault. It was all me. So now I work hard and just try to relax and have fun when it’s time to perform. No more pressure to impress. Most people don’t understand truly what we do anyway…
There ya go John….we live, play and learn!
Fraser Anderson says
Dude…. you must be psychic!! I was thinking it would be cool for you to post something on this. I have got it big time!! The tips you gave are great…
Felice Castelletti says
great post !
Practice works for me .. it’s the better solution for stage fright, it makes you honest with yourself and with what you can do and what you still can’t.
Doing your homework always pays off !
Bob Lohse says
I believe that as well. I prepped for a fiddle contest for a month. Until the songs were just automatic. I did make a mistake or two but like Adam says “keep the groove” and the audience will never know. I won state championship on that performance. I took up drums. Just tried to “keep the groove” The rest of the band was amazed at how i did at playing,”after just 2 weeks” on a totally different instrument than something with strings on it. I played on the road for 10 years. Didn’t play lead at the time. I hired a guy to do that for a week. Watched him all the while. I said to myself,”I can do that”. The next week I was the lead guitar player. I did the same when I learned to play bass. Learned the basics the week before. Went and played a job with a band. They never knew I only started the week before.
Never had “Stage Fright”. If you do the best you can, play through it, no one will ever know. I went to a Charlie Daniels concert years ago. Hung out with the piano guy before the concert. He told us that Charlie didn’t think he was good enough. That is why he plays with his hat down low. When he looks up, the lights blind him, so he is at ease once again. He went on later that year to win song of the year for Devil went Down to Georgia. He never thought he was good enough for that award. But, look what happened… He just played through it and it all worked out for him. He knew no one was there to judge him.
JIm Greeninger says
One other idea: Practice with your eyes closed or in the dark. This came in mighty handy when I did my Carnegie Hall performance years ago. A lady was sitting in my line-of-sight in the first row. She was swinging her crossed leg way out of tempo with the music I was playing. I closed my eyes and played the entire performance that way. I was also able to concentrate fully on what I was doing.
Also, practice a good smile while you play. It will make you and everyone else more at ease and enjoy the performance more.
luciano oliveira says
Congratulations and thanks for the tips. I get very annoyed when I error.
I know this is not a good attitude and so these tips are very
precious from now on!
Great post, thank you Adam 🙂
Kenny Roberts says
You ARE the man, but you already knew that! I have been playing since I was 13 and I’m 53 now. It feels like I have been reinvented even just learning the first part of I’ll be there. Everyone in my house starts crying, LOL. You have made it fun again and I thank you my friend. Kenny
Really appreciated this one Adam. Often play 2 or 3 piece jam nights and sometimes think because it’s only a very short performance maybe don’t need to warm up or practice so hard. Wroonggg.! Even more important because you have a much smaller space of time to get ‘in the groove’ and to leave the impression you want to. Also the warm up extends the session and is part of the overall experience. (The problem however can be finding a quiet corner in the pub to practice in!).
I will definitely be taking note of your advice in future.
Great post, do you mind if I use it on my website?
Just give me the writing credit an a link back – feel free to use it!
John Citarella says
Yup, great advice Raf. If a pro like you still gets nervous I don’t feel quite so bad about it . Practice is the key. getting the piece deep into your subconcious is the only way I ever get any comfort level with playing in front of folks. Love getting your emails so please keep on keepin’ on !
Graham Sampson says
For me, half a beta blocker 30-minutes before show time really helped calm my nerves. I only play one song once a year for our school Christmas show.
When I prepare for a gig I practice to cope with distractions, so I don’t get thrown off balance by a little disturbance in the audience or a piece of equipment going }#%^>. I practice this by playing my songs while hearing something complete different over the headphone or deliberately using the wrong guitar with the wrong open tuning.
Marcio Lara says
Hello Adam, I met you on youtube here in Brazil and immediately turned me into a fan. I admire the way her fingers gently glide the guitar, and their versions are magnificent. People like you bring beauty and joy to the world. And motivates me to continue training even if my ability is distant light years of his talent. a big hug
Wow, thank you Marcio!
Susan Janke says
Thank you for this article. I get so freakin’ nervous when I play in front of other people it is almost debilitating. In order to get over my anxiety I have joined a couple guitar playing groups so I can practice more. Your suggestions on how to approach the piece of music, and how to organize the song selections is very helpful. Thank you for sharing your knowledge – I know I am getting better from the things you have taught!
Noel O'Sullivan says
Adam I cannot thank you enough for your advice,
I do not play very much in public because of this fear,I am playing in a pub tonight and I have found your article very comforting, so much so that I am even looking forward to it with a small bit of nerves,and I really want to enjoy the gig,If I can get over this there will be lots more work for me.
Thank You so much Adam.
Jack Mooney says
Valuable “real world” advice, thanks. The shakes are triggered by adrenalin, and if have them, you can calm them down by filling your lungs with a big belly breath, and holding it for 20 seconds or so. Of course, you could prevent them, if you follow Adam’s advice.
Douglas Lichterman says
Thanks for this excellent article Adam. I just had a major recital and I wish all the students could have read this article first. Next year I’m handing it out!
Gregory Mikat says
This is REALLY good advice. Listen, I was a music major at University of Michigan and had to give it up because my performance anxiety was literally too much. I seriously wonder if some of your ideas could have changed things, especially warming up before a recital. I never warmed up. Nobody ever suggested it. Now that I think about it, I don’t even practice well until I warm up. I’m such a DoDo Bird! Now my life is dull and meaningless, my dreams are shattered and my destiny lays waste before me. (OK, maybe that was a little too dramatic.). Anyway, thanks, bud. Rock on!
This is clearly an old posting, but I am SOOOOOO glad you mailed it to me. When I was playing the banjo it was fairly stress – free. For one: I was not alone on stage. For another: common people just don’the know if they are hearing a good banjo player or a mediocre one; they just get excited to hear one – for about three minutes after which the novelty wears off.
That being said, I have been terribly uncomfortable playing guitar for any audience.
I’ve been planning Christmas songs for my sweet great grannies at the nursing home that employs me, and my nerves have already begun pestering me as December approaches. It should be the easiest gig IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD, as the little old ladies all adore me (it is mutual) and they are often hearing impaired.
Your advice is perfect ! I don’the know why our “self – talk” is so often negative. Life is supposed to be fun, and music is supposed to be both “life” & “fun”.
Thank you again Adam !
Adam Rafferty says
It’s Nov 2017 and 2 nights ago I was having anxiety about upcoming gigs, and that’s weird – as I have done 1000s of concerts.
This actually all goes way back to the negative messages we heard from parents, teachers, boy scout leaders, whomever….and the current musical life is often a perfect petrie dish for those old voices to brew.
I’d say – practice and record yourself. You’ll be amazed….what FEELS imperfect often sounds great. All you need is melody and groove, and a lot else can slide.
Make the people happy!
Thanks a lot for the post. It was helpful. I recently had my guitar exam and I ruined one song completely because I was so nervous. I like what you say about being kind to yourself. Mistakes happen. So I need to forgive myself and move on.
I’ve been hoping to find something like this for ages, just what I needed to read. I have only ever played to an audience once and I was so nervous it was really difficult to play, almost crippling. Without the warm up and some kind words from an experienced friend I don’t think I’d have got through it. I realise now that I gave the audience way too much power over me, which is illogical, because if they are going to judge they need to wipe their feet before they tread on people. The fear was out of proportion, and can see that I had also been way too critical of my playing, it had to be perfect, not realising they wouldn’t hear the mistakes if I keep the groove as you said. Thankfully, as mentioned, the hands took over because I was 100% focused on the audience. As it happens I played my own composition and it made someone cry, not what I expected at all. It turns out I’m a far better player than I thought, so I feel more confident as I go forward. I can’t afford lessons, and probably don’t need them, but thanks for all the free stuff, the articles, videos etc, very interesting all of them.
Great article! I love all your advice, it almost always strikes a raw nerve and I go ‘yeah, that does happen me.. so does that.. and that!’
I have a question if you have time – how does a ‘stage-virgin’ know when they are ready to get on stage?
Funny you should comment on this blog post. I actually addressed the question again TODAY (6 yrs later 🙂 ) in a brand new podcast episode – check it out here, as there may be different and hopefully good info.
Regarding “how do you know when you are ready?” I could give you a million things to check, but that would be an overly prepared approach. If I had to pick one piece of advice, I’d say play your easiest piece – the one that will likely be most successful performance wise.
Just dive in & do it. You’ll learn more from your direct experience than an article 🙂 That said, take a listen to the podcast, and enjoy the journey.
Duncan Lance says
Stage fright can be very hindering for some performers, so it is great to get some suggestions on how to overcome it. It is especially nice that the article gives some advice on how to properly handle mistakes. After all, a mistake on stage can kill a performance if you let it, so it definitely helps to know how to adapt it into your performance instead.
Chris Kalafus says
Hey Adam, I’ve played 1000’s of gigs but always with bands so the nerves never really bothered me but when I started the solo thing I had a few freak out moments. I’ve applied a lot of your techniques but what seems to works best for me is telling myself to find the zone. “Just relax, you got this, get back to what you know”. Then take a deep breath and DON’T PANIC! Lol.
I actually panic more when recording which is stupid because you can always fix it.
Thanks for the article. Happy New Year!
My mom – who was a great musician and performer – used to quote what she called the “90 percent rule”: (1) 90% of the audience doesn’t know the difference between a mistake or perfection UNLESS you signal your mistake; (2) for the 90%, when a mistake happens, don’t signal, breath, smile and keep going; (3) the 10% who know the difference have been there and will forgive you if you keep your nerve, keep smiling and keep moving; in fact, they will admire you for it.
Adam Rafferty says
Absolutely GP – your mom nailed it!