Got Nerves? Practice Being Nervous


Nerves. They are the bane of a musician’s existence. We all have been in a situation that made us nervous. It’s nothing to be ashamed about nor ignored. The truth is what we do is risky and takes guts and along with putting yourself out there comes nerves. Everyone experiences being nervous differently. And they may even manifest themselves differently as you grow (mentally / physically).

I’ve always felt pretty comfortable on stage. I always got excited about performing, but never nervous to the point of not being able to function. Until recently. I was in a pretty low stress gig when suddenly my chest painfully tightened to the point where I couldn’t breath, my heart started racing, I started shaking and sweating, and all I saw was black. I don’t remember anything that happened for probably 5 seconds (and I was soloing!) I came off stage a tad bit flustered and tried to put the incident behind me. Until a few weeks later it happened again at another gig. What I started to realize was that the gigs that I “cared” the most about (for whatever reason) sometimes made me the most nervous. Well, crap. What do I do now?

I started to make “being nervous” part of my practice routine.

This may seem a little counter intuitive. Why just work on not being nervous at all? Because it doesn’t work. The second you tell yourself “don’t ________” that’s exactly what you do. Try it. Don’t think of a pink elephant. (Now, tell yourself to stop thinking of a pink elephant. Not working, is it?) Telling yourself “don’t be nervous” just might make you more nervous!

Let me give you an example of how I might incorporate being nervous into my practice routine.

Just like anything else, you don’t have to spend an hour being nervous. A little goes a long way. So, let’s say I’m working on a tune that I want to bring to a jam session. (One of the more nerve wracking musical situations.) I work on the tune like I normally do – see my How I Learn Tunes post for that process – but towards the end of the session I get myself nervous.

  • I close my eyes and visualize a performance situation that might make me nervous.
  • I imagine the other musicians I’m playing with and who’s in the audience.
  • I imagine playing the tune.
  • I imagine getting lost.
  • As much as possible, I try to create that feeling of being nervous.
  • Then I force myself to perform – exactly like I would have to on a gig.
  • I make a point of being aware of what it feels like to be nervous.

What I found after doing this for a while was that being nervous, even debilitating nervous, could come and go without phasing me too much. At a recent gig I called a tune off too fast and as soon as I started to get nervous I recognized the feeling, rode out the emotions, and let it pass. Practicing being nervous has made it so that being nervous is just another part of the performance experience… and not such a big scary deal.

Couple of other things to consider:

1. Often time nerves surface when we know we are not prepared to do something. We admit to ourselves that we are going to do badly, because we know in our heart of hearts that we didn’t prepare like we should have. We’re not ready and we know it. Often we just have to do it anyway. Being as prepared as you can be will often help relieve nerves.
2. What we eat and drink can also affect how we feel. Downing a Red Bull right before a stressful gig might not be the best idea. Listen to your body when it comes to nerves. Some foods may help while others may make things worse. Being aware of this can help you make the right choices.

Thanks for reading. Let me know what you think and if this helps you. Also, leave a comment with your favorite way to deal with nerves.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *