We’ve all dealt with nervousness and anxiety at some point in our lives. Thinking back to my childhood, I know I can name a whole bunch of piano recitals, plays, public speaking scenarios, and more when I remember that paralyzing fear. I know you can relate, so I won’t waste time listing off more examples. Whether your most anxious moments in life were music related, school related, or work related, you know what I’m talking about.
Today, however, I’d like to address the fear and anxiety often associated with performing on an instrument. You’re getting ready for the performance, and you know you’ve prepared well. But you can’t get rid of that nervous feeling deep down inside where a little bit of fear dwells. This is the “what if I mess up and can’t recover?” kind of fear. This is the “what if I don’t sound good and nobody likes my playing?” kind of fear. “What if I play the wrong part of the song?” “What if I forget to go to the bridge after the second chorus?” etc. etc. etc….
I’ve done a lot of performing in the last 10 and a half years that I’ve been playing, and I even majored in percussion performance in college. I can’t say I’ve 100% conquered this, but I’ve learned a lot of helpful ways to deal with this struggle. I’ve especially learned one big tactic that helps tremendously with getting rid of nervousness and anxiety.
I remember playing over a dozen piano recitals as a kid. I took piano lessons from 3rd grade all the way through high school, and I usually performed 2 or 3 times each year through recitals, concerts, or competitions. I remember absolutely hating having to play piano in front of people, and I recall my main goal being to “just get through the piece… just get through the piece.” I would finish playing and barely remember my performance. “I survived!” I would think to myself as I walked of stage. “Whewww. That’s over.” Then I’d keep up my practicing and do the same thing again soon.
This kind of just get through it and come out alive on the other end mentality actually serves to make the anxiety worse. I’ll explain this a little more…
When I got to college, I began performing on mallet instruments. If you’re unfamiliar, that’s marimba, xylophone, and vibraphone primarily. These percussion instruments are laid out much like a piano, and you strike the bars with mallets. My childhood piano skills came in handy when learning mallets, but the childhood piano-anxiety also came along for the ride.
I was preparing for my junior recital, and I was learning two very challenging mallet pieces. Both were four mallets (gripping two mallets in each hand), one piece on marimba and the other piece on the vibes. One afternoon I was practicing in the concert hall at school. (If you’ve never heard a marimba in a large concert hall, check it out. It sounds very cool. I’ll link a video at the bottom of this email.) I was enjoying listening to the sound of the marimba as I practiced, and it occurred to me in that moment that I was enjoying listening to myself play. This wasn’t because I sounded particularly fantastic. It was more just because this was a great piece of music written for a great instrument…and I was playing it in a hall with incredible acoustics.
This was when it hit me. If I can deeply listen to myself while I perform, I’m much more “in the moment” than I would be otherwise. And being in the moment distracts me from any kind of fear of messing up.
This was the total opposite mentality from the childhood piano recitals. Instead of running as fast as I could across the swinging bridge to make sure I arrived alive on the other side, I was now pausing in the middle to look down at the river and enjoy the view. I had stumbled upon a very important strategy for eliminating performance anxiety.
I tested this technique on my next performance, and it worked pretty well. Did I play perfectly? Probably not. (Nobody’s ever perfect.) Did I have ZERO nervousness? No…There was still a little bit there.
But was I more focused? YES. Did I enjoy the music more? YES. Was I “in the moment,” playing the very best that I could? YES. That’s the point here.
Adhering to the strategy of digging in and listening while performing ridded me of the crippling, paralyzing type of anxiety that will really mess with you. Re-adjusting my mind to where it actually needed to be focused worked wonders for my mental state while performing.
Of course, you can apply this same strategy to playing the drums. In a way it’s a lot easier to relax and enjoy the music while drumming, because you have other bandmates around you to listen to. If you’re in doubt about how good you’re sounding, or you’re worried you’re going to mess up the arrangement of the song… just sit back and listen. Focus your mind and your ear on everything you’re hearing, and you’ll forget to worry about all the things you were worried about before.
Now this can be a pretty deep discussion, and we could talk all about ways to be super prepared for a gig so that logically and rationally you have nothing to be nervous about. But at a fundamental level, this mental approach we’ve discussed today is one you need to always adhere to in order to relax and enjoy playing.
Let me know what you think! I don’t want anybody to be held back from music because they’re too worried about making mistakes. Tell me how this strategy is able to help you out.