My best piece of advice for performing, is that the first time you play a piece in front of people, it shouldn’t matter.
The first time you perform a song in its entirety that you’ve been learning shouldn’t be for a high stakes performance such as for an exam or competition. That is too much pressure. The first time you play in your live electronic duo shouldn’t be to a packed room of 150 people who have all paid $20. Playing to 20 people who you know and will smile encouragingly when you blast them with a slightly too loud hi-hat is a better idea. The packed room can wait.
The actual setup
I had a Piano exam around the age of 11 that was going to be on a Grand Piano. Up until that stage I had only ever played on upright pianos, and my wise piano teacher knew that the position of where the music sits on a Grand piano is higher. This could have caused extra stress and nerves for the real exam. A few weeks before the exam, I spent a few hours playing on the actual Grand Piano I was going to be examined on and was able to adjust to the much higher music location. When I arrived for the real exam, it was one variation I didn’t need to worry about. I passed the exam.
Now this is looking at the context of a performance where it is relatively straightforward, where it is just a Piano player checking that they can see the music and touch the pedals. Or perhaps it is a trumpet player ensuring they’re warmed up, in tune and have put in valve oil. Basic operational checks, like a Guitarist ensuring their strings are not rusty and the loose input jack is fixed. When you add any technical aspects, such as guitar pedals or amp variables, your preparation for performance should look like your real deal performance. I’ve have had students who haven’t used a fuzz or wah pedal enough to be totally confident, and then it adds another layer of nerves when they use it in their performance. Practice your instrument with the same setup as you will perform. This includes those who plug controllers into laptops.
There was a national competition I attended and one of the band members used a laptop, USB audio card and a hardware sampler/controller. The band walked on stage but couldn’t get the sound to work on the laptop and they spent 10 minutes trying. The musician hadn’t used the USB audio card much, and so didn’t realise that when you close a laptop, it defaults to the internal soundcard (I jumped on stage and rectified the problem). This problem not only delayed the competition, but more importantly the musician was visibly upset when they went to play. Technical setups such as modular synths, laptops or anything with more than 2 or 3 electronic sound sources require a higher level of confidence in their use to reduce nerves. Being consistent in how and where things are plugged in is less important than 15 years ago as USB and Laptops are becoming less temperamental. However, focusing on reducing the variables and thus things that could go wrong onstage will lower stress and anxiety. Then you can just focus on your performance, not the gear. (Note: updating software the day before performance is not a good idea. What happens if a little tweak of a menu location happens and you can’t find that parameter?)
Knowing your part.
Do I get nervous? Not if I know what I’m doing.
After playing music for over 30 years, I still get nervous, but I now know why. It’s down to two reasons:
I haven’t practiced my part enough and so I am only 80% confident I’ll get it right.
It’s that 20% of doubt that creeps in and affects my playing. If I can play my part totally correct at least 20 times in a row, then I know I’ll be fine. This applies for me playing in a Symphony Orchestra, busking on the street with friends, or DJing that great mix.
I don’t know what’s happening around me. This is because I am not totally confident of what is happening on stage with the other members of my band. For example, knowing the exact cues that the drummer will give when she is finishing her solo for me to start mine. In one of my bands, I do quite a bit of the signalling to move to the different sections, solos and improvised sections. It took a solid year of practicing what those signals were, including what to do when the others can’t see my raised eyebrows in low-light gigs, or when I’m wearing a cap and sunglasses! Once we felt secure in communicating with each other, then we all felt less-nervous and anxiety levels dropped.
There is a fine line between a performance having that spontaneousness from feeding off the crowd and each other, and the song collapsing due to key transitions being missed because the band members just didn’t know what was happening.
Playing in front of people
So if you’ve taken care of the above points, then all you’ve got to do is play in front of people.
When I’m working with individuals or bands in preparation for a competition that is judged on a single live performance, I ensure that they’ve performed their full set, as close to how it will be in the end, at least three times. I advise the first time be to 3 or 4 trusted friends and their teacher. The second time is in a more public space, but still controlled and with an encouraging crowd (students younger than them are usually good audience fodder). The third performance should be a high-stakes performance, such as a lunchtime concert, or assembly slot, but without the judging aside from the crowd clapping after each song. The important thing with this last performance, is to try and recreate all aspects of the performance. This includes walking on stage, talking to the crowd, changing guitars, changing synth patches and using stage monitors or in-ear monitors. At my school, we bring in a similar P.A sound system that the final competition will have, to give the students that experience of subs kicking in, the overall volume, and also to hear what it sounds like to have foldbacks, and FOH bouncing back off a wall. They have lights in their eyes, smoke machines, and are at one end of a big hall.
I know that performing three times is not ideal, but it is a good place to start in reducing nerves, anxiety and a fear of performance.
And remember, don’t make the first proper performance actually matter.
Martin Emo DJs and plays in 2 ½ bands on the Trumpet, Surdo, and in a Live Electronic Duo. He is currently studying a Masters in E-Learning at Victoria University, Wellington, NZ and is the National Facilitator for Te Kete Ipurangi Te Hāpori o Ngā Toi (Musicnet), an Examination Contractor for the New Zealand Qualifications Authority and a Music Technology mentor for EDnet and Midnight Music.