W. Mark Akin

Guitarist: Instructor, Performer

Nervous Wreck

We've all been there.  We walk out on stage and begin to play.  Then the nerves kick in.  All of a sudden our hands are shaking, our heart rate is elevated, and all we want to do is just get to the end of the piece without falling off the rails.  Sometimes we make it.  Sometimes we don't.  And we walk off stage feeling smaller than speck of dust because, quite frankly, that performance sucked.  These moments are defeating and the more they happen, the harder it is to get back on the horse, so to speak.  So what is there to do?  How can we conquer these nerves whose only purpose is, seemingly, to beat us down?  Well, here are 2 solutions that I've found to be the most helpful to getting used to (not totally eliminating) nerves:

  1. Practice more

  2. Perform more

These may seem obvious, but let's really dissect what I mean by these techniques.  

1. Practice more.  Rather, practice SMARTER.  You want to go on to the stage feeling that you've done EVERYTHING in your power to prepare for this performance.  Have you practiced the piece with 8th notes/16th notes = 60 bpm?  Did you swing the rhythms?  Did you do the opposite swung rhythms?  Have you prepared each right hand finger on the string before you play the note?  Are all the left hand buzzes gone?  Did you practice by starting at a random point in the middle of the piece instead of the beginning each time?  Did you practice starting at the very last measure, then adding the penultimate measure, then adding the measure before that, the measure before that, etc? When we practice intentionally, rather than just playing through the piece over and over again, we build CONFIDENCE.  We can walk out on stage confident, knowing that we've practiced every conceivable technique that we can think of.    Confidence eases the nerves because when we arrive at a difficult point in the music, we can think to ourselves, "This section is going to be great because I practiced it so many ways that I can play it in my sleep."  Rather than, "Oh geez, here it comes.  Let's hope for the best.."  

2.  Perform more.  Like anything else in life, the more we do it, the better we get at it.  Therefore we need to practice performing.  When we perform, we (or at least, I) tend to go to a bizarre state of mind of hyper-awareness and zoning out.  It's not the most comfortable state of mind, to say the least.  So the more we throw ourselves in to that state of being, the more we begin to get used to it, then the more we can overcome it.  My grad professor Tom Patterson called performing a "smelting process."  Smelting is when you take raw iron, put it into fire to get super-heated, hammer it out, cool the iron, then repeat.  After a while the iron becomes hardened steel.  So my advice here?  BECOME STEEL.  Indestructible and razor-sharp.  Perform for as many people as you can. Get some guitar buddies and have a performance group a few times a week.  Play for your family during the holidays.  Go downtown and play on the street for random strangers.  Make like Nike and just do it.  

The famous contemporary composer Eric Whitacre recently said, "The terror of performing never goes away.  Instead, you get very, very comfortable being terrified."  Indeed this quote has merit.  So the smarter you practice, and the more people you perform for, the more you will become steel and be comfortable with being a nervous wreck.