With a performance on the horizon to ready for it’s a given that every guitar player will be meticulously checking their instrument and related equipment, the questions they are asking themselves will be universal; how much life is their left in the strings and do they need a change, are all leads working, how are amplifier connections holding up, where have all my plectrums gone? Alongside time spent practicing material and improving the technical aspects of playing, this is conceivably the main focus of preparation for the gigging guitarist.
But only, it’s not!
How we think and how we feel has a huge impact on determining our state of readiness for the show and how we deliver during it. Nerves play their part in our ability to take to the stage and how we represent ourselves when we’re on it; dealing with loss of focus, displaying confidence, connecting to the material and to the audience, are all but a few of the contributing factors we must consider and be aware of as performers.
So what can be done?
Why aren’t there resources that can be referred to in the same manner as learning a scale or new chord? As with all aspects of guitar we can practice and improve upon each of these states of mind to ensure that we show ourselves in the most complete and effective way. In this series of articles coachinguitar will examine some performance technique’s common themes of this complex domain and consider how we can develop them.
Beyond the kinaesthetic (the physical aspect of playing the instrument) and the functional (equipment and logistics; where is the venue, what time is sound check? etc) aspects of being a performer there are other, more discerning musings that we are now going to address. Our cognitive mind isn’t only concerned with recalling parts and remembering arrangements it’s also asking more challenging questions of us. What if I can’t recall my parts, what if I forget those arrangements? This can cause anxiety to a debilitating level, however, first and foremost its important to remember that this internal interrogation is perfectly normal. It stems from a desire to do well and by acknowledging that we feel this way because of the importance that we ourselves have placed upon this idea, gives us a starting point for working towards balancing these thoughts and the repercussions that they can have. A more relevant line of questioning might be; why do I feel like this? Why do we as guitarists and musicians become so concerned that things won’t go according to plan on one single occasion despite all of the prior rehearsals being fine? Answering this will go a long way to conquering doubts and we’ll look at some of the many strategies that can be employed to ensure that we avoid sabotaging the oncoming gig and ultimately ourselves!
Doubts are born of fear.
Nerves arise from the idea that the performance, which we are about to give, for one imagined reason or another, will not go well. In response to this, fear places the body into a state that emulates its survival instinct; our basic fight or flight syndrome, thus ensuring we are best equipped to avoid any harm coming to us from a scenario that we perceive as being dangerous. The heart rate increases and the body becomes tense so that it is ready to move at anytime, we feel restless and adrenalized; this results in perspiration and dehydration. Our attention shifts to the periphery as we monitor our surroundings for threats; this makes it harder to focus on smaller, more intricate tasks. If you have previously experienced this you’ll be more than aware that these are not attributes conducive to being ready to go out on stage. To remove these effects we need to remove our fear, fear exists solely in the mind and if harnessed correctly can result in our becoming the most powerful performer that we can be.
Preparing the Mind
Lets begin by setting some real goals that are reflective of your dreams and aspirations. Write down what you want to achieve as a musician; think big and create the ultimate scenario, this could be anything from appearing on the cover of Guitar magazine/Rolling Stone to having your very own signature model custom axe, a legion of adoring fans or a gold plated mansion complete with guitar shaped swimming pool! Be honest with yourself, what do you want, how will you recognise success? Genuine ambition paired with real desires stem from the things in life which we’re supposed to have, ask yourself what made you pick up the guitar in the first place? Can you remember that feeling, the urge to play, what was it that you wanted to be able to do?
From all of these locate your top 3 either by prioritising the most important or by rating each out of ten, we’re going to be focusing in on these next.
See it, Feel it
Spend some time visualising each of these, what would it be like if these goals were realised? The more detailed you can make each vision the more powerful its call is going to be, think about where you are and add detail to those surroundings; can you feel the heat of the stage lights, what costumed attire are you wearing, who are you going to thank in your ‘teary-eyed’ Grammy acceptance speech? Document this, write it all down in a journal or even better create a vision board using images, colour, text, etc, indulging in your own creativity. This will serve as a reminder during moments when the panic sets in, make a ritual out of looking at your vision board; stick it to the inside of your guitar case to ensure you see it often, especially before a gig. This will re-frame the activity you are about to partake in; how big a deal does this show down the local pub now seem in comparison to when you are going to be headlining Glastonbury? Perspective; its powerful and often overlooked, create as many devices as you can that remind you of what you want and you will have them.
So tonight it’s show time, whether this is down the local boozer with an array of patrons; some rowdy hecklers, others apparently disinterested or venue with half decent stage, lights and in house PA, the drill is pretty standard. Several hours before taking the stage you’ll lug your gear in and set up the space, sound-check then hang around killing time; drinking a few beers and having a laugh, before ambling on stage with the desire to create something which resembles all of the rehearsal which has gone before with a little bit of extra ‘magic’ on top. This time is an opportunity to prepare your mind and gather your thoughts and it can be beneficial to how you approach the performance and how well you play during it. All gigs are different, begin by considering what this space and this group of listeners offer and in return what can you offer to them?
Finding Focus in a Ritual
A set of pre-gig rituals will restore a feeling of familiarity and some modicum of control to proceedings. Managing an audience and navigating sound issues are a huge expenditure of energy, creating a show is a pressure within itself; connecting to the material and those you play with, projecting this to those who are listening and interacting with them, knowing that you’re about to step into this space can pull at your focus. The first component of your ritual is to remind yourself that you have prepared fully for this show and feel safe in the knowledge that muscle memory can be relied upon, it knows what to do even when you think you don’t. Self-reassurance is a useful tool in conserving energy and retaining a sense of cool and calmness, ask yourself what it is that you came here to do? The desire to share your talent and spread your message through your medium of songs and music, to entertain others, all equates to an offering of time and energy and this is to be revered. You are contributing your creativity and this is to be honoured; firstly by yourself, to ensure that you find contentment in this sharing and representation of the work. Why do you do what you do in terms of playing, why have you come here in this moment to share that with others? Never lose sight of how making music is its own reward and it doesn’t need the validity of others and don’t sacrifice your own joy for that of the listener. Robben Ford likened as such“Music to me is joy. That’s the word that describes music to me,” and he is very much aware of his reasons for playing; “Music is always a confirmation of something that is true, it’s about sharing,” he says. “I think that is a very comforting thing to humanity, that they share something. It’s like, I’m not alone in this. Therefore it has a direct connection to beauty, joy, enlightenment.”
Calm and in Control
The fight/flight feeling will begin to spike during this waiting period right up till you walk out ready to play. Try to embrace this sensation, owning your fear will heighten your senses and adrenaline will see you action ready, harnessing this can result in a great show. Dare to go for that big fill, line, high note, reach for greatness and have no regrets. Challenge yourself to show yourself and leave it all up there. Impact upon your space, if there is a green room or dressing area you may want to light incense, set the lighting to a more relaxed vibe or utilise a musical playlist. This could be calming, music which inspires you, tracks that remind you of your love of it, puts you in the zone which could then become more energised and motivating closer to stage time. Working with the breath can have direct results on our mental and physical states and if you are aware of heightened heart rate, perspiration, and agitation then taking a few moments to do so can alleviate these symptoms. In one simple form counting breath can help to induce calm; try inhaling whilst counting to 4, holding this for a count of 4, exhaling for a count of 4 and holding this for a count of 4, repeating for several minutes. Meditative practices are useful not only in the calming of the physical body, which improves the effect of nerves, but also in honing concentration. Clearing the mind of all unnecessary thoughts and remembering that your only responsibility at this current time is to play will prove beneficial, did you leave the oven on, oh well, set fire to the stage just in case! If your anxiety is building to critical levels and time allows, then get out of there, split from the venue for a moment; take a walk, breathe the air, get your playlist mobile or even some guided breathing or meditations.
Take another look at your vision board; ask yourself where do you want to get to with this music, which step on the journey to success is this show? Narrow this approach to the here and now; see the show played out in your mind before a single note even sounds, what does the best possible version look, sound and feel like? What will you do to ensure that this vision is realised? Expect the best; raise your standards and try to meet them, and above all go searching for that ‘joy’ that belongs to you, it is the return for the creative offering you are about to make that you deserve.