Performing makes you a better player, even if you don’t have any interest in getting up in front of an audience.
The idea of people listening might just make you nervous. Even seasoned performers can still get the jitters before they walk on stage. Some suffer from stage fright through entire successful careers. But if you don’t see yourself as a performer, just the thought can be terrifying.
Other people hear your playing differently than you do, though. Most of us are far more critical of ourselves than any listener might be. It might feel like playing for an audience puts your performance under a microscope, but in fact you’re the only one looking through that lens. Every mistake is magnified, and every detail that didn’t come out the way you intended. Most of the time, though, you’re the only one who hears it. And in most situations, even the most obvious mistakes are more forgivable from the audience than from the stage.
Not every performance is American Idol or the Olympics.
Of course we want to do the best we can. But we’re so accustomed to watching top performers in a high-stakes environment that it’s easy to lose perspective. Those top performers got to where they are by holding themselves to a consistently high standard, but they still have to overcome fear of failure every time. As with many other things in life, the only way to conquer that fear is to fail.
At this point some of you might be saying, ok, but I’m not interested in being a performer. But your playing can really benefit from getting up in front of an audience, whether you have any long term desire to perform or not. Here are three big lessons you can learn from stepping out on a stage, even if you fall on your face.
1. Keep going, no matter what.
Every time you play a song, it’s a performance whether anyone’s listening or not. Begin at the beginning and hope to get to the end. When you’re practicing alone, you’ll probably stop and try to fix the mistakes as they happen. You can’t do that in front of an audience. The overall flow of the music is more important than any missteps along the way! But takes practice to be able to make a mistake and smoothly keep going without getting derailed by the error. You need to be able to make corrections if necessary, and stay on course when things go wrong. (No outfielder want to bobble a fly ball, but what really matters is that you get it to the first baseman in time). Having an audience gives you an imperative to keep going and make it to the end of the song.
2. You need to really know the music.
The all-important corollary to item 1. There are a thousand things that can go wrong in the midst of a performance, from mild distractions from the audience to outright obstacles like broken strings (or worse). You might not be able to hear yourself, or be blinded by stage lights, or forget the words. But none of that matters (again, see item 1).
When these distractions happen, you quickly realize whether or not you really know your music. If you haven’t absorbed it fully, it’s hard to keep going when something interrupts your concentration. But when you do know the music well enough to be able to pick it right up at any point, you’re able to go deeper into it. Your playing can become more expressive and subtle, the lyric more meaningful. This level of familiarity with the song should be a goal in itself.
3. The connection is meaningful.
Once you get past the nervousness enough to actually notice the people listening, something amazing happens. You perceive the music differently when you have an audience, because you start to hear it from the listener’s perspective. And when they feel something, you feel something back. A performance is actually an energetic loop: the energy that comes off the stage comes back from the audience and feeds the performance.
One reason songwriters perform at “writer’s nights” in Nashville is that a performance is a test of the song. Not just in terms of the overt audience reaction, but also in the experience of the performer. If there’s a part of the song that’s forced or unfinished, you can feel it when you hear through a listener’s ears. Some of this is pure self-consciousness and can be another distraction (see item 2). But when you’re sure of yourself you’ll be more able to convince the audience too. When you’re not, you’ll know there’s more work to do.
Most of all, playing for an audience is extremely gratifying and FUN! It makes playing music into a larger shared experience, and creates a connection between everyone in the room. On the largest scale that shared experience can include thousands of people. On even the smallest scale it can be intimate and meaningful.
I run a monthly performance night at my studio in Nashville for players and singers that aren’t yet comfortable getting onstage. When you’re just getting started, it’s intimidating to try to develop your skills onstage in a setting where the bar for talent and skill is so high. The event I host is an opportunity for beginning players and performers to get their feet wet, and the response has been amazing. The need for it was clear, but I didn’t expect just how much people would enjoy and appreciate the opportunity. It’s become one of the most enjoyable things I do here for that reason. If you’re in Nashville and think this is something you would enjoy, I encourage you to get in touch. But no matter where you are, I encourage you to find an opportunity for yourself. Start with an audience of one and build from there, the benefits and the satisfaction are the same. Then as you grow, your enjoyment will grow too.