3. The Psychology of “Playing Out”:
Here’s the stark reality: first you learn how to play (or perform in some other live discipline). Then you learn to play or perform in public. The two are not the same thing. Not at all. You’re faced with a whole new learning curve, even now that you’ve worked so hard to accomplish whatever level you’ve attained at your art.
…Unless you’re one of the lucky ones. Some people don’t seem to go through this phenomenon, but the vast majority do.
People will say, “Just play like you’re in your living room.” But you’re not playing in your living room. You really can’t fool your brain that easily. You’re acutely aware of the fact that you’re in public, maybe under some lights, you’re amplified and every note can be heard, hopefully there are people in the room to hear your music, but then again, they’re why you feel uncomfortable, outside of your comfort zone, feeling the judgement about every aspect of yourself ~ how you look, act, and of course, sound. Maybe you’re imagining this judgement and it’s all in your head. But then again, maybe not. You’ve put yourself on display, and even if they’re not trying to judge you harshly, it’s human nature that they’re judging you, simply by the very fact that you’re the only one(s) making all of the sound in the room and, well, you’ve put yourself on display. Maybe there are very few people in the audience, playing to a nearly empty room. This can be even more uncomfortable. In a full room, folks are interacting with each other, or it just seems like a blanket of indiscernible faces. In an empty room, you can feel even more exposed.
Perhaps you’re a novice musician, and it feels scary to put yourself out there as a publicly performing artist. Perhaps you’re a bit more advanced as a musician, and therefore there is a certain pressure of expectation to perform as a professional. Have you been fooling yourself? Now that you’re hearing yourself through others’ ears, maybe you’re not as good as you thought you were practicing in the living room.
…And on and on…
All of these thoughts and fears need to be tamed to even begin to play as naturally and comfortably as you do in your practice space, in your comfort zone.
How is this accomplished?
There is the long way home, of course. Trial and error. Fake it ’til you make it. And that’s what most of us do. Not many want to admit that they have these fears. We all want to project confidence, and none of us wants to admit we’re scared. It’s just music (or performance art.)
I’ve been playing in front of people for so long that I really hardly ever get nervous about playing shows anymore, but I’ve had literally decades to get used to it, build confidence, and therefore, build positive reinforcement. I love performing in front of others. It’s one of my favorite things in life, and I can truly look at it as a service to my community. This is one of the best strategies to getting comfortable and displaying your true self in your performance: having and nurturing a deeper meaning or purpose for it. But that’s a bit more advanced.
First, I find it’s best to put yourself in a comfortable, supportive environment: a party with friends, an open mic where the performers are all supportive and encouraging with one another.
Once you find yourself there, in the hot seat, as it were, it’s important to provide yourself with as many aspects of your surroundings as you can that are what you’re used to at home in your practice space: use your own instrument. If you sit when you practice, don’t try to stand to perform. Keep it consistent. Stand at home if you plan to stand on stage. Even smaller things like practicing with a strap on your guitar if you’re going to perform live with a strap. You may not even notice things like this, but if you practice slumped on the couch with no strap, just cradling the guitar in your lap, and you get good and comfy in this posture, you’re going to feel completely uncomfortable and out of sorts if you then stand up with the instrument hanging from a strap, in front of a microphone stand, in front of an audience.
I also find that having some sort of ritual is very helpful, and you should perform the ritual before practicing and playing out. Your mind recognizes the ritual as something that naturally happens before you experience playing well and comfortably. Again, you want to build positive reinforcement with yourself and your feelings.
What are the rituals? Obviously, tuning up your instrument can be one, warming up your voice in a set way can be another, wearing a particular hat or piece of clothing can help, (almost like a uniform). The rest is up to you to find your own, but we’re looking for consistency and the building of steady, good habits.
If you have the good fortune to become accomplished enough to start getting your own gigs, even the act of loading in and setting up the gear is a big part of ritual that helps get you into the zone. (I’ll write an entire blog just on this aspect later.)
But above all, try to tame the ego. Forget about the judgement, from yourself and others, and rather, try to concentrate on your greater self, the meaning of sharing music and art, your light, your higher power, (I’ll write an entire blog on this later as well.) It’s also important to realize, portray, even act out, the meaning of the lyrics of the song you’re singing or the words you’re reciting. And most of all, try to have fun, come from a good place, and BREATHE!