Performance Anxiety – Working Through the Stage Fright Phenomenon to Build Confidence as a Musician or Performer.

Hi bloggers, aside from my ‘day job’, I am a part time musician. I’ve done lots and lots of paid gigs. Some of them have been very exciting and interactive, some of them have been in small pokey venues with hardly enough room to fit a band on the stage, and some of them have been in the outdoors on the back of a stage with hundreds of people watching. Asides from paid gigs, I’ve done lots and lots of open stages, open mics, and jams. So I thought I might like to share some of the experience with you.


So my first performances in front of people in a venue were back when I was a student at Uni. This was in about 2000. I had been dabbling in the guitar for years at that point, and one thing or another kept me from developing the networks and or skills to get up and put on a decent performance. So I put an ad up somewhere and met a guy named Ken who was an absolutely phenomenal guitarist. The thing about Ken was, although he had ‘studied’ guitar for an intensive period (like 6 years of 4-5 hours practice a day), he did not have live playing/band type experience. So, we teamed up.

We practiced/jammed a few times at my place, and after a very short time, we headed out to an open mic in the city that we lived in, and put on our first set. To be honest, I don’t recall the exact first set we did. I know we played a few times in that venue. I was super nervous, like hands shaking, lacking confidence, mortified at the prospect of messing up. My singing experience was very limited. I was more comfortable with the guitar really, but rest assured, you get up in front of a pub full of people, and your skills can dry up like a puddle in the Gibson desert. Such is the effect of nerves.

Acoustic headstock

So several performances followed that first one, and I was able to gain some inkling of the feeling of performing, and being on stage, and getting things mostly right. It was a total buzz, I loved it. We got some good feedback, some people said they couldn’t believe we’d been jamming for only a few weeks, because we sounded so cohesive.

So there’s the first lesson, folks. Working with competent people, and rehearsing your material many times over makes for a good performance. Notice there are two points there:

  1. Competent musicians will make for a decent performance. There is no substitute for a good skillset IF you want to perform well. You don’t have to be SRV, you do need to be fluid with chord changes and the general mechanics of YOUR performance. Notice that I’m not saying be technical and fancy, I’m saying be competent with the material that YOU are presenting. My philosophy – a simple performance done well is way better than a technical performance done badly.
  2. Rehearsal makes ALL the difference. I actually found that getting on stage, I could shift my mind to think well, this is just like practice in the lounge room, no big deal, right?

So this story is far from over. I continued to write my quirky songs and find any opportunity to get up on stage. I moved around a bit, and found other people to jam and practice with. I did some open mic things on stage on my own. One of the most special opportunities I had was to be invited to perform at the Scone (NSW, Australia) rugby clubhouse in the Hunter Valley, where I was living at a time. This venue was an old clubhouse, and the local school served a kind of dinner, and various performers from the community played. It was fun, supportive, but certainly intense for a performer. Imagine a room full of people, having dinner, and all eyes are on you. You have an acoustic guitar, the PA is projecting your guitar sounds and voice to a packed room. It was exciting and scary.

I think I did maybe two of these events. How did it go? Well, at one point I remember clearly, I fucked up doing a song by Australian Crawl (Reckless). Its a beautiful song and translates very well to the acoustic guitar. At some point, I lost it, and had to humbly apologise and say I’m going to leave that one right there. Guess what? I didn’t get crucified, nobody threw stones at me. In fact, one guy I talked to actually said he did a little ‘yes’ with a fist pump under table, why? because he realised that it made me appear vulnerable, and subject to making mistakes, and he felt that allowed him to feel better about the whole performance thing. It was really meant as a supportive gesture so it was cool.

So there’s the second lesson: you will make mistakes. Accept that. If you take yourself too seriously, you will ruin the experience for yourself and maybe for others. I took myself too seriously. Maybe a little too perfectionistic. I’ve done dozens and dozens and dozens (100’s?) of live performances, and while some have gone very well, some have been shit, and none have been perfect. If you can laugh off a mistake and look like you are enjoying the performance, people will be ok with it. Easier said then done.

Fender Tele

 So fast forward, new town, new job. When I moved I was on a mission to join a band. An absolute burning desire have to get it done no matter what kind of deal. So I teamed up with a bass player and a drummer. Turns out the bass player, although good, was a musical Nazi. He was just an abusive bully with a big mouth. I jammed with them for maybe 6 months, and it was a formative period for me in both playing electric guitar in a band, and a steep learning curve. We didn’t get out of the farm shed but that was ok because it was all a learning. At some point I made a decision to leave that arrangement because I’m not up for taking a bunch of shit – this is supposed to be fun.

There’s the third lesson: some people are arseholes. Some are not motivated. Some are not dedicated, and there is everything in between. Like any human relationship, if the people are not respectful, committed etc, it’s not going to work. This is normal, and it takes time to cultivate these arrangements.

So I got a call one day – from the drummer that I was jamming with before. He had a band that he wanted me to play lead guitar in. They had a gig – new years eve, and that was tomorrow night. ‘WTF? You want me to do a gig tomorrow night, and I don’t know any of your stuff. No way, I’ll come over and jam but there is no way I’m going to get up on stage and do that!’

So I went over there. We jammed for a bit, and I played along to some chords I was reading off some printed sheets. We got it done – I went out with them the next night to a country pub and we played on an outdoor stage. We were shit, but guess what? We got $400 that I couldn’t believe we actually got paid for this, but it felt great having my share – $100 of Australian currency in notes, pressed into the palm of my hand.

So here’s lesson four: these guys, had played live before, and thought it was quite normal to find/get a gig and perform. The point – its a mindset shift. You just need to decide that ‘this is what I/we do’ and then you make it happen.

So over the next two years, we put a LOT of practice in – like many full Saturdays from about 9 to 5 pm. We played a LOT of shows. Various locations, pubs, taverns, back of truck flatbed trailers, rodeos, ag. shows, etc. On average, we were out there every second weekend or so for one or two gigs. We did one weekend where we did a Friday night, a Saturday night, and a Sunday afternoon – all in different regional cities. Man, that was exhausting. So this band taught me a lot about performing, singing, playing in front of crowds, etc.

We played one place at a rodeo, and there were maybe 300 people there, and they were rowdy, drunk, etc. I was so nervous. So was our main singer, she was shaking. I thought if we fuck up here, they are going to throw bottles at us. There had just been a fight between two guys and the cops who were hand to hand combatting these guys until reinforcements came and they locked them up. I digress but the point was that it was intense. So the good news is, that from the opening riff of ‘Let me be There’ (Linda Ronstadt?) the party got started, and my nerves settled somewhat.

Acoustic bridge

Stick with me, I’m going to wrap this up!

So years later, I have been in a few bands, and done lots more performances. I played at one of the jams in the city I live in, and it was a very intense scene too. Venue was always fully packed, with people who played music – a peer crowd. Just the kind of place that will test your wits as a musician, because naturally you want to impress. Some of these performances were the most intense, but after doing like, dozens of these events, I got more used to it, even excited about playing there. In fact, the band I am in has hosted the jam in that venue several times as the ‘house band’. Now THAT is something, because when I walked in there a few years ago, I almost crapped my pants because the scene was so intimidating – we ended up owning that stage for a few performances, and I had the feeling we lifted the roof off a few times. Of course there were some forgettable numbers we did too.

Lesson five: at a point, your nerves will subside somewhat. You should feel a kind of excited apprehension, maybe even a little nervous when you go on stage – that’s normal. It gets fun when you can become fully confident. This is the point approaching arrogant rock star. Fully confident varies, I’ve had it, it can be fleeting, and sometimes, can’t explain why, you will get up and you will be a bundle of nerves, even though this is your 256th live performance. I don’t know why. Typically, I would allow the first set – and I mean like an hour of playing, to let my nerves settle, but really, this normally happens in the first couple of songs.

I played a festival in BC (Canada), sharing the stage with some very notable musicians. We were the local band in the town that had been invited to play. Let me tell you, I was so nervous before the performance that I felt like I forgot how to play the guitar. I’m sure that sounds kind of odd, but the point is I was so nervous that I couldn’t think about words, or chord changes, or lead breaks or anything. The good news is that we got up and did a solid performance. One young guy from one of the other bands came up to me and said ‘yes, yes, you know what I’m talking about.’ He didn’t even have to articulate it – he was saying we did a great performance and he really appreciated it.

So if you got this far, thanks for sticking with me. Performing is a buzz. Singing is food for the soul, and I can attest that you can reach into peoples hearts and minds with a good performance and that is a profound experience. If you’re thinking about it, just do it, get off your arse, and get up, be ready to prepare, be ready to be nervous, and be ready to make mistakes. Forgive yourself, its just music!



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