Quite Frankly My Dear…

Not a depiction of the nervous musician and me

I was chatting to a musician the other day about nerves. She was horribly afflicted (visibly quivering) and eyeing the awaiting stage with a sense of dread.

The conversation ranged a bit, but ultimately boiled down to a rather glib sounding piece of pep talk. In my view, the secret to a good performance is…


Which does warrant some expansion.

You are a performer, and nerves are part of the job. A lot of people never get over it really, no matter how experienced they get. Even veteran hands sometimes get a touch of the yips when faced with the unfamiliar – whether it’s a new venue, new material or new collaborators. Newsflash – it’s normal.

I also think most will acknowledge that nervousness is not only healthy, but useful. It tends to sharpen you up. As long as it sharpens you up and doesn’t cripple you – it’s a totally natural “fight or flight” response. “Oh my God, why did I agree to do this?” is a common occurrence in pre-gig thinking – I sometimes get flashes of it days in advance.

The macho bullshit doesn’t help. Nor is nervousness a sign of inexperience, and don’t ever let anyone make you feel that way. “Hey, what’s wrong with you – why are you shaking?” “Hey, what’s wrong with you – why are you not shaking?”


Accept that the way you’re feeling is normal and accept also that nerves are to be acknowledged and managed rather than supressed. The whole point of cool is that you aren’t pretending to be cool, you just are. Above all, don’t get into the feedback loop – don’t fear fear.

Some people use chemicals or other tactics to cope. The chemical approach is well documented, but people resort to all kinds of things. There are sometimes bizarre rituals and superstitions involved.

I once knew a conductor who would drink salted milk to make himself vomit before a performance. Claimed he’d learned it from an eminent German bloke. I politely declined an invitation to sit with him in his dressing room while he was preparing…

Oh, and the “imagine they’ve got no clothes on” approach has never really worked for me. But it might for you.

Excitement, Anticipation and Apprehension are three sisters from the McStress clan. Panic McStress is the black sheep of the family… If he turns up to the party, cousin Jock McLaughter can usually put him in his place.

Of course, we aren’t machines and we can’t just reach into our heads and turn the “Caring About It” setting to 58%. But a little of this thinking can definitely help.

If you care too much it’ll screw you up and if you care too little you’ll screw it up

Well, could be worse. At least I don't have to play Giant Steps in E...

Oh well, could be worse. At least I don’t have to play Giant Steps… And my left hoof was sore even before this lion started trying to eat me…

In a sense this is my rather earthier version (I did actually express it in earthier terms than here) of what Kenny Werner has described as the ideal state of mind for performance – alert relaxation. Don’t fight yourself, let yourself play.

It’s not a matter of life and death. Don’t forget Monk’s sage advice to a young Coltrane – who wasn’t so much nervous as fretful about making mistakes: “We can play again tomorrow.”

Or, as I said to the quivering musician the other day: nobody’s going to shoot you or sue you if you futz up your solo. That’s even if they notice.

It’ll be gone with the wind… And when you take this approach to “making mistakes” you tend to stop making so many.

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Posted in a) Soloing Scales & Modes, c) Musicianship, e) Rants & Ramblings

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We play every month at Toulouse Lautrec in Kennington, South London.

Fri Mar 30th 9pm, £15 (£9 adv)
JLT feat Duncan Eagles ten sax 

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