By: Josh Lucas
Fear is the mind-killer.
What, you’ve never read Dune?
Okay, they may not be exactly the same, I would argue that “fear” and “doubt” are at least first cousins. Doubt feels to many of us like a fear of messing up, or fear of being “seen” in our most vulnerable state. Doubt comes from not fully believing in one’s own ability.
To doubt oneself in the midst of a performance is a one-way-ticket to Awkward City. Trust me, because I’ve been there–and it still hits me from time to time. So what do I do when the panic strikes?
- First, practice your toughest parts every day until they aren’t tough anymore, and practice them every day leading up to a show, or tour. There’s no substitute for practice, and making sure your chops are really choppin’ it up. I don’t recommend panicking and practicing tough parts in the “Green Room” before the show, because you’ll freak yourself out. We’ll talk about what to practice there in the next “Pre-Show” section.
- Don’t reach too deep into your bag when you improvise. And the reason I’m putting that here in the “Planning” phase, is because if you don’t remind yourself of this daily, there’s a very high chance you’ll get to the show and really go ham to the point that you eventually paint yourself into a corner. When that happens, you get closer and closer to what we’re trying to avoid–feeling weird onstage.
- Load-In Unless you’re running late (that never happens, right?) start by taking a few essentials in, and talk to someone who works at the venue. Sometimes you’ll know who’s in charge, and sometimes you’ll have to find out. At least for me, I’m not the only person in my band who books the shows–in fact I rarely am, so I often go into these situations blind.
It’s best to take care of this part straight-away, because let’s face it–there’s a little anxiousness that builds when we’re in an unfamiliar situation. The sooner you meet that anxiety, the sooner you can move on–and it will make the rest of the night go a little better, in my experience, since I’ve already conquered a tiny anxious moment.
It’s a small gesture, but it helps–don’t rely on your bandmates to figure stuff out for you, and don’t shrink into your little artist’s shell. Get awkward immediately, and learn to deal with it. I have social anxiety, too, so I’m giving this advice to you, and myself, from a place of understanding and love–but it’s gotta be tough love, and we’ve gotta get over it, or else we’re gonna have to stick to playing in the bedroom.
Anyway, after that load the rest of your stuff in.
Then take a few minutes to walk around the venue, take it all in, and look at the stage from a few different spots. Spend some time onstage, and feel what that’s like. By this point you’ll be much more oriented, as you’ll have loaded in your gear, you’ll know how much space you have to move onstage, and you’ll feel more at home in the venue.
Plus, years from now, you might want to look back and remember this gig. And I’ve played a few cool venues over the last 20 years that I wish I remembered better.
- Relaxation After loading in, I might take a minute to find a quiet space. Lots of venues have a “Green Room” where bands or artists can relax before and after the show. If you haven’t warmed up, grab your guitar and loosen your hands up with some simple exercises such as the ones found here. (link)
- Meditation This part takes a little discipline, and I obviously don’t mean meditation in the traditional sense. What I mean is you should take a few moments to look inward, and give yourself some reassuring words and thoughts. Visualize yourself nailing your favorite part. It’s all good. Relax. Find a mindstate to keep yourself in during the set. After that, see if you should remove your inner monologue entirely. No more talking to yourself, no more reassurance, no thinking about the hot bartender (you rascal). It will help you to maintain the focus you need for the entire performance. You need to be in the moment without any ego. No “trying,” just “doing.”
- Get the blood flowing. There’s a certain feeling that’s hard to describe when I’m “locked in” to the moment. I think of it as a sort of “runner’s high.”
I know it sounds weird, but hear me out. When I’m playing basketball, for example–I can’t go straight onto the court and dominate. Maybe when I was a teenager.
But I’m 33 years old as of the day I’m writing this. I need to stretch, and then I need to warm up. I’ve noticed that when I’m practicing by myself, and I go pretty hard for that first 15 minutes, that by the time I get a drink of water and come back to the court, I feel like there’s fire coming out of every pore in my body–I feel like I can do anything I want.
That’s the mindstate I try to recreate when I’m playing live. I’ve got to be adrenalyzed, and ready for anything.
Do some jumping jacks, some push-ups. I know–we’re guitar players, and if we wanted to be athletes. . . yadda yadda.
But we want to succeed as musicians. Get the blood flowing however you like, and then warm up your fingers before the show. Play slowly, get those fingers moving, and don’t play anything you’ll be playing during the show! You will get psyched out.
During the Show
- Focus Learn to live in the mindstate you’ve just developed, and sustain it throughout the show. Focus all of your energy into the notes that you’re playing, and into your performance. Make a connection with the audience. Some artists use eye-contact. Others are in their own world. If you’re in control of your energy, it doesn’t matter which category you fall into–the audience will feel it.
- Living in the Moment Well that’s a little vague, isn’t it? It’s a cliche that we hear all the time. It goes hand-in-hand with focus. Don’t let your mind wander, don’t let your inner monologue say a single word. Live inside the notes you’re playing; live inside the energy you’re creating onstage.
- Letting Go But how do I keep my mind from wandering? First, when you’re playing–don’t ask yourself for too much. Stay within the realm of things that are in your wheelhouse. This goes back to what I said in the planning section: don’t reach too deep into your bag when you’re improvising. Why am I saying this now? Because you have to let go of thoughts like, “I want to show ‘em that I can–”
That’s playing too deeply into your own ego. Only go outside of your comfort zone when you’re really feeling it, not thinking it, and those are the moments that you’ll blow someone away. You’ll embrace the unknown. It gives me the feeling of vertigo, but in a good way.
A few moments where you’re standing on the edge looking over the cliff can be exhilarating. If you spend the entire set on the edge of a cliff–eventually it’s like, “Get me off of this cliff.”
And that’s it!
If you do some mental and physical preparation before your show, take in your surroundings, and live inside every note that you’re playing while you’re playing it–you will absolutely succeed. Doubt won’t even be a thought that crosses your mind.