Tonic Musical Director Jason writes about his experiences with performance anxiety.
Jason Gale (Photo: Russell Whitehead Photography)
Throughout my life as a live musician, whether as a hobby or as a job, there have always been anxieties around performing. As a kid, this was just the nerves you would expect before performing as a new musician, and it never put me off wanting to do it. Sometimes the lead up to playing live wasn't fun, but the buzz from the performance always outweighed the nerves.
Slowly over time though, performing as a live musician at gigs became more than just a bit of fun. Without realising it, the pressures started to hang over me. I've always been someone who struggles with a lot of noise before a show (unless alcohol is in the mix, but that's another point). So on certain shows I'd find myself getting stressed before going on stage, and then feeling anxious for being antisocial, because I just wanted to concentrate and keep my mind focused. Combine that with alcohol always being on rider lists, and you have the perfect recipe for developing a reliance on alcohol just to feel more relaxed before going on stage. Although this is only intended as a few drinks to build camaraderie as a group, there comes a time when it gets taken too far, and will be detrimental either to your performance or your mental health. You get stuck in a trap where you feel more on edge if you don't have a few drinks before stage time.
I have personally had one major period in my career where my anxiety around live music (and just music as a job in general) got so bad that I didn't want to do it anymore. I would dread travelling to gigs, the social element before gigs, the setting up, and the waiting around. This got to the point where my brain was consumed with a constant internal dialogue of ludicrous ideas of how to get out of performing so I could just go home. Even though I knew there was no way out, I couldn't stop thinking about it. This was not only exhausting, but detrimental to how I handled the social environment around me... again adding to the worry of the whole event.
During this spell, being on stage just felt like a countdown to the last song. I'd constantly people-watch to see if anyone was laughing at me, looking like they weren't enjoying themselves – I was searching for anything negative I could use to justify my worries about performing. Certain types of gigs were worse than others – for the ones that I feared the most, I would shake for most of the day and hide away until the last possible moment before going on stage. Conversations were too difficult and I couldn't even pretend to be interested in anything anyone had to say. I found it particularly difficult if a band I was playing with had a dep (stand-in) musician. I always felt the need to try and help deps through the gig as much as I could, so I often stayed up late the night before, double checking that I knew the arrangements inside out so I didn't have to concentrate on what I was doing live as much. If something didn't go quite right during the performance, I'd take that as a failure on my part, regardless of whether there was something I could have done about it. I think I've always wanted to make everyone else feel stress-free during a performance, and I have put this before my own wellbeing, which definitely adds to my performance anxieties. There was just too much information going on in my head, and it felt like everything and everyone were moving way faster than I could cope with. For something that most musicians love to do, I think it's quite surprising to some people that live performance can cause more worry than enjoyment sometimes. The pressures that performers put themselves under – essentially to please others – can completely take away the pleasure of doing it altogether. The ‘buzz’ can become the moment you finish the set and don't have to be ‘in character’ any more, rather than the performance itself. Music didn't cause these issues for me, but it also didn't help at the time. Ultimately, live music did help in the end though, when my mental health had the energy to enjoy it again. I think there will always be anxieties around performing live – not all musicians are extroverts, even if they outwardly perform on stage to express themselves. There will always be nerves, whether it's because you feel you're not rehearsed enough, or you have a different line-up, or you're exhausted. The important thing is how you deal with them – which generally starts with looking after yourself first.