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On Stage Fright and Playing Under Pressure

by Pete Wernick

(Transcript of talk at Banjo Camp, Boulder Colorado. Transcribed and edited by Don Nitchie, originally published in Banjo Newsletter)

First let's not have any illusions that I'm going to tell you how to not ever be nervous when you play— it doesn't work like that. But I can tell you from my own experience— and I started from the same place that a lot of you are at now--there are definitely ways you can get over the worst of it.

There are three categories: Preparation, concentration, and breathing. Breathing is the easiest one and it's also the most effective one that I know of. I'll get to that in a minute.

Let's talk first about the nervousness itself. Here you are, worried that you're not going to play well enough— your stage fright starts because you're not sure you're going to be as good as you'd like and something from your life tells you that this is a threatening situation— your mother would withdraw love from you, or whatever... "That wasn't a very good lick, you know... I'm leaving." It's really hard to analyze what the big problem is with trying to play music in front of others, but almost all of us have that fear— I'm afraid of it too.

You have to remember that everybody makes mistakes. I've heard Earl Scruggs make mistakes, I've heard Bill Monroe make mistakes, so if I make a mistake in front of them, well, we're even. (laughter) Not really, but you know, hey, it's OK, you can mess up and then show that you can recover. In fact, some of the greatest applause you get on stage is right after you've had a bad mishap, but then you show that you can go on and it doesn't bother you that much. Like when a string breaks and I just barely get a new one on in time— it's sort of like "Pete has risen phoenix-like..." Audiences will give you a break if you have a problem-- just don't let it totally ruin your day and jolt you so bad. Just figure out where you're supposed to be and get onto it as soon as possible.

In any case, there's still this fear that something's going to go wrong, and the more you are aware of people looking at you the worse it gets. Even if it's just a couple of people, if one of them is someone you really want to impress you can get a full load of nervousness.

The first thing that happens in a fear situation is that some little button in your brain says "Oh...fear? I know what to do! C'mon adrenaline!" So now you've got adrenaline in your blood, and you're a different person with adrenaline in your blood. You're a lot stronger, you're not quite as smart, your hand is more likely to tremble...you can run faster, if that's something you'd like to do...(laughter). You're programmed biologically to be a stronger, faster person, but not a better banjo player. Adrenaline is now in your body and it's going to be there for a while. Even if you sat in your easy chair with people massaging your feet and saying, "Don't worry, you don't have to play"—it would still be there for a while. It would still be hard to calm down. Instead of having precise control over your hands, you are now strong enough to rip the strings off the banjo.

Now, realizing that you're handicapped, you experience another level of nervousness, like "Hey! I can usually do this, but I can't do it now! Everything is terrible and it's getting worse all the time!" It's a semi-panic situation. By this point, any adrenaline that had been stored in your body for an emergency has been dumped into your blood. That's your full stage-fright handicap situation, whether or not you're on stage, and adrenaline is a big culprit. You might stop dead and say, "I just can't do it..."

Now adrenaline is gonna come, no matter what you do. But just because it's snowy doesn't mean you can't drive down the highway. You just have to navigate more carefully and stay alert.

Breathing is a big help. I know that sounds funny, but just remembering to keep breathing will make a difference. It helps you deal with the adrenaline itself and knowing you have it as a tool will eventually help bolster your confidence overall.

Once you've got adrenaline you need more oxygen. Your cells are all pumping and the process uses up oxygen. So here you are, all tightened up and hardly breathing ‘cause you're scared, and you need more oxygen. Instead you're getting less. Bad news. That's when you start showing signs of oxygen deprivation, among which is, your brain blanks out, and you can't even remember what song you're playing, or how to start the song, or where you are in the song...That's your brain saying "I can't do much for you now, until you start breathing again..." So you need to be going (demonstrates slightly deepened, slightly accelerated breathing) as you play. It actually takes some practice to remember to respond to nervousness this way.

If you see me in concert sometime, you can be sure, that before I go out on stage, or before I take a solo that I have some worries about, I'm breathing more deeply, and that that's dealing with the adrenaline as it comes into my bloodstream. The adrenaline mixes with the oxygen and out goes the waste product-- you know-- out goes the bad air, in comes the good. I'm not saying huff and puff and gasp, but increase the amount of air and you'll get rid of the adrenaline that much quicker.

Also what's happening is that you're now exhibiting control. You're telling yourself "Hey, I'm not helpless-- things aren't getting worse and worse-- it's just a snowy day and I'm navigating in a difficult situation. I'm handicapped, but I'm still in control." That's very important. A combination of knowing how to deal with it and knowing you know how to deal with it. That's what confidence is. You know you can deal with the situation, even though it's difficult. You can't just tell yourself to be confident if you don't have good reason to be. It takes some experience to know honestly that you can face the challenge. If you walk in saying "I know I'm going to get adrenaline and I know I'm going to deal with it"--then you don't get so much adrenaline in the first place. That's how important breathing is. It puts you back in the driver's seat a little bit. I'm not going to say it's magic, because it's still going to be hard, but this will definitely help you stop the spiral of things getting worse and worse.

OK, so that's breathing. Now we'll talk preparation. Preparation means picking what you're going to practice and really practicing to the point where you trust yourself with it. If you know you're going to be playing for someone, then you can prepare. In this case I'm going to ask you to play your arrangements later on today. So there you are, sitting in your room thinking well, I'm getting it, this is really great, but I wonder, can I do this while everyone is looking at me? That's a good question. You might not be able to. How can you insure that you can? Well, you just repeat it so many times that after a while you won't know how not to do it.

I like to tell the story of my first banjo contest, for which I prepared very diligently— I had learned this pretty involved Don Reno tune. I had an exact way of playing it and played it over and over and over again, about an hour every day for about a week. Then I almost didn't enter the contest because at first the only two players who entered were easily the best around. No one else wanted to play. They both got up there and said come on— this isn't a contest with just the two of us— somebody else enter! Then another guy entered and didn't do so well, and that gave me my nerve back. I said all right, if he'll do it, I'll do it! I got up there and had the effect of seeing my hand quaking about a full fret's worth. If I didn't have my hand on the neck, it was going like this: (demonstrates), and I was freaked out; I was insane at the time. But I didn't know what else to do, so I just played the tune, and got through it pretty well. It left an impression on me that I could be that nervous, be insane and have no idea what I was doing, and things still came out because I had programmed myself so thoroughly.

That's what preparation can do for you. Just keep practicing until you can do it ten times in a row without flaws. If you can't imagine how you could do that, than maybe you should pick something a little easier, just so you have the experience of being able to play something perfectly. Pick the easiest thing imaginable and learn to play it perfectly, so if someone asks you to play at their party, that's the one you play-- the one you know you can play. Don't do one you're not sure of. Don't give the adrenaline the chance to say "Aha! I've got you..." It makes sense to have at least one tune that you can depend on that way.

We're all put in these situations where someone says "Oh, you just got back from banjo camp...I want to hear what you can play..." There are a lot of social situations, like dinner parties, where they'd like you to play the banjo-- there's usually someone there who'll say "I've always loved the sound of the banjo." And you're the one who's going to give it to that person. And it might be the host of this very nice dinner, and if you "nervous" your way out of it— "No, I can't do that" (in weasel voice)--then you're losing a way to reciprocate. People expect that you have it in you to do that. They really appreciate it. It's not so much the quality of the music, but that you're offering the sound of the banjo. Find a way to be ready to accept such an invitation. Don't play a whole lot-- you can wear out your welcome pretty quick-- but a song or two, yes. People are very grateful. Let yourself be an ambassador of the banjo.

In that kind of situation I go right into Cripple Creek. It's a tune that's very easy to follow, for someone who's never heard it before. It's easy for me to do, no matter how out of shape or distracted or cold I am.

At a jam session if someone says "Let's let the banjo player play one," don't be taken by surprise. Understand that that's going to happen, and be ready for it. Have a tune in mind, or more than one, that other people will know, that you can play decently. Practice them before the jam session. Then when you get asked to pick one, you can hop right into it without a lot of stalling, and you feel like you're in the driver's seat.

Here's a very valuable way of preparing yourself mentally. When I started playing in contests I had a hard time with nervousness. So I got this thing going where I'd be sitting on my bed practicing, doing Method-Acting. In Method-Acting you close your eyes and actually believe you're somebody else in a different time and place, like Abraham Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address, or whatever. That's what actors are trained to do. I would just sit there with nobody around and imagine that I was about to play at a contest in front of two thousand people. I could get myself really nervous, all by myself. I could actually get my heart pounding and everything else. When they build cars, they stress-test them, they put them under load to see if they break or not. Well, if I could get myself that nervous, so I was quaking, and still play--that would give me some confidence. Yes, I'm going to get nervous, but I've been here before, I can navigate, driving down the snowy road...

Practice, again and again. If while practicing I notice that I'm messing something up, I'll start concentrating on that part. Instead of that being the weakest part of the tune, I want that to be the strongest. So I practice it with a metronome set faster than I'm supposed to play it, I practice it looking at the ceiling, practice it while watching TV, while walking around in circles not looking at the neck of the instrument. All of that fits into preparation. You figure out the situation you're going to be in, you practice what you're going to do, and you practice it under conditions that simulate the difficulties you might have. If you can do it well consistently, even under load, you have a much better chance of doing it well in real life.

The last topic is concentration. Concentration is a funny thing, because sometimes you don't really need to concentrate to play well. You learn the thing well enough and there's nothing bothering you. Well then, you can almost be looking around the room and just enjoying yourself. Sometimes that's when you play your very best-- when you don't have to work so hard for it. But we're assuming that you'll sometimes be in a situation where you're not so sure of things and you can't just get into that carefree mood and expect everything to work out. That means you have to put your mind into the position where it can be the most possible help instead of the problem.

The problem can be: Here you are playing the way you normally play, and then you see somebody walk into the room that you are worried about impressing, or... something occurs to you. It used to be that I'd be playing along merrily, having a pretty good time, and then I'd look up and see somebody tape-recording the show. I'd immediately start thinking about them listening back a month later, or making a copy for their friend and saying "I'm surprised that Wernick can't get through this break here," or maybe they're saying the opposite--"This is a really neat break! Listen to this!"

Here I am, trying to play, and I'm thinking about totally the wrong thing. Instead of thinking about what I'm supposed to be playing, I'm thinking about some dude with a tape recorder. I could even have played something really great, and I'd be thinking "Gee! That sounded really great!" What should I be thinking about? The next second of music that I'm about to play. That will help me play better. I might be thinking "Gee, this is going pretty well. I wonder how I'll do when I get to that tricky ending?" That's not going to help me. It's not going to help me do the ending any better, and it's certainly not going to help me do what I'm about to do. You put your mind right on the cutting edge of what you're about to play and don't think about anything else.

It's pretty hard to tell someone not to think about something. Kevin— don't think about a cow. Don't think about a cow. Don't! DON'T!!! (laughter) Kevin's just got to say HORSE HORSE HORSE HORSE HORSE. Keep thinking about a horse. If he's got enough of a horse in his head, then he won't think about a cow. So as soon as you notice something saying "Uh-oh! Who walked into the room? (gasp) Why it's that great musician! That beautiful girl!" Whoever it is, say, THE NEXT SECOND OF MUSIC, THE NEXT SECOND OF MUSIC, THE NEXT SECOND OF MUSIC .

If it helps you, just put a bubble around yourself— do the opposite of what I was talking about before. Now imagine that you're back in your room and there's nobody but you and the banjo. If you're playing with someone else, pretend that it's just the two of you practicing. I used to do that with Hot Rize. We'd be on TV or something, and I'd be nervous, but maybe the night before we were playing a some bar with people sleeping at the tables. So I'd look over at Nick and think, "Oh yeah, it's just like last night, no big thing." If I could do that, I could tune out the fact that there were TV cameras all over the place.

Create whatever construct you can to avoid distraction. The best thing to do is just think about the next step in the music. It's like listening to a radio. If someone walks in with their own radio turned to a different station, then you just turn your station up louder. Don't listen to their station. Turn up your station. That's what concentration is. You pick the thing that you should be thinking about and you make sure that you only think about that. It's hard when you're in a room full of people distracting you. Just think about what you're going to play, just like you did when you were all by yourself in your room. Also, don't forget to breathe! (laughter).

Anyway, those are the biggies. Preparation, concentration, and breathing. The more you use these tools, the more confident you will be in them. I make the analogy of a plumber walking into a house where there's water pouring down from the ceiling and water all over the floor. An inexperienced plumber or a non-plumber walks in and says it's hopeless. Burn it down and start over. An experienced plumber says this is a mess, but I've got my toolkit. Just leave it to me.

So once you're used to using the tools of preparation, concentration, and breathing, you can walk into the situation and it doesn't scare you so much. It's a pain, but it's not going to kill you.

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