To say that I suffer from pre-show nerves is like saying that when you get hit by an atom bomb it hurts a bit.
– Ozzy Osbourne, I Am Ozzy
At the dawn of our lives, for a few years in early childhood, we all dance and sing freely – just for the enjoyment of it.
After that brief, sweet, naïve time, self-awareness kicks in. We naturally develop the fear of looking silly in other peoples’ eyes, and by age 11 we lose the joy of singing.
Performing music in front of crowds is so scary that some of the best performers smoke, drink, get high, or vomit out of sheer terror before every show – for years, sometimes even decades. It takes a toll.
I hope that as musicians, we can find ways to cope with the anxiety of performance without turning to self-medication that harms us over the long term. Sharing our trials and tribulations openly with one another is a great place to start.
In this post and in the sequel to follow, I’ll be laying out the four scariest songwriting milestones I’ve faced – and offer some insights on how I survived them.
Scary Songwriting Milestone #1: Performing for anyone
For many musicians, the first-ever performance is low-key – usually they play a cover song for a tiny audience of family or friends.
This first step out is worth celebrating: It’s your first small step into the limelight, however small that limelight may be. The feeling of eyes and ears on you can be both frightening and thrilling.
It’s common to get nervous and make mistakes. Through repeated experience you learn that mistakes are nonfatal, and hopefully each performance gets a little easier.
Of all the instruments, one of the scariest ones to play in front of others is your own voice. Long after I’d grown unafraid of playing guitar in front of friends, singing in front of an audience still scared me.
The keys to overcoming performance fears are practice, preparation, and repetition. The better you train and practice, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to give a passable performance despite the adrenaline shakes and the roar of blood in your ears.
Be kind to yourself, learn from these mistakes. Every forgotten lyric line, missed chord change, and off-key high note makes you stronger. Wear those scars with pride.
Scary Songwriting Milestone #2: Having your creations critiqued
Offering your creative work to other songwriters and asking them to criticize it is a serious step, and it can be scary, even if it’s friendly and constructive criticism. I’ll never forget sitting in a college Creative Writing course, scratching notes and swallowing the lump in my throat while a circle of fellow writers scratched their heads over a piece I’d written.
I’d written this piece from a place of deep feeling. But my baffled readers – fifteen of them – confessed one by one that they just didn’t get it.
Having a piece of my writing flop in public was embarrassing and awkward and painful. I felt a real sinking sensation in my gut. But I also learned a lot from what my fellow writers said about the piece’s problems. The experience made me a better writer because I got feedback on what wasn’t working.
When you offer your creative work to a critical audience, you open yourself up to hearing that your song or your lyric isn’t as good as you hoped. It stings, but you learn. You get the kind of feedback that helps you make the critiqued song better (or helps you make future songs better).
If the thought of receiving constructive criticism makes you nervous, check out this post: Receiving Critique Doesn’t Have to Feel Like a Strip Search. My best advice for surviving critique is to remember that, like a doctor visit, it’s temporary discomfort that is ultimately good for you.
No matter what, learn your lessons, lick your wounds, and keep on writing.
Creative Commons photo by Raphael Strada