For about five years, I played hardcore/metal music in Grand Rapids, MI. One of the popular music venues that catered to local bands in the mid-to-late 2000’s was the adolescent-friendly safe haven: Skelletones. Before I played on their stage, I grew up spending as much time as I could mingling with aspiring bands and the off-beat, we’re-so-counter-culture-we-hate-counter-culture crowd. At 15, the only dream I had was to play on that stage. At 19, I got my chance. The difference between Skelletones and other small venues I had played was the novelty of playing where I found my love for music. It was the winter of 2008 and Mirf, the owner of Skelletones, was talking to my band on stage from the sound booth, adjusting our mic levels during the soundcheck. That is when it sunk in: This is real. My hands started trembling so badly I had a hard time tuning my bass. This is it. This is it, I kept thinking.
When I have to speak or perform in public, my heart beats so hard I swear I can feel my brain rattle. My vision goes blurry and blood turns to cement. I step outside of myself and only watch myself “react”. This is probably because all my energy is going directly into my head, throwing it into overdrive. I think about everything all at once: My bass is in tune--I think--but what if it’s not exactly tuned right with the guitars? My hands are sweaty, really sweaty; and why is my mouth so dry? What happens if I puke? That’s pretty metal, I guess; so if I puke I’ll just go with it. Oh! I have to remember to talk about our Myspace page. Am I blinking? ...because I can’t feel my face.
Overthinking leads to fabricated fears. In this case: fear is a homemade monster rings true. Often, creative people are at a higher risk; creativity can backfire because when you are exceptionally creative, thinking of compelling negative outcomes is easy. What if I knock over an amp and it falls on the drummer? What if I hit a light with my bass when I swing it around my neck and it starts a fire? Is it possible to puke and evacuate my bowels at the same time? What if we play so badly we get booed offstage—I’ll never be able to to come back here.
On stage left, towards the top of the ceiling, is a sign that I had never noticed before; you can only get a good view of it from on the stage. It says: “don’t even THINK about it.” Mirf and Skelletones knew exactly the right words at the right time. This prompted me to do five important things--which I continue to do when I am nervous to speak in public.
1. Slow down: Focus in on a single point in the room to put where you are in context. Often, this will slow down your thinking and help you become more mindful of where you are and confirm what you are doing. This will bring you back down to reality. For me, focusing in on one concrete object gets me back in my body and in control of my breathing. I think, I am here, this is what I am doing, and I am in control of my body. For example: I am here at Skelletones; I am playing music I love; I can feel my body and can feel my hands on my guitar, and I am in control of my body, breathing, and future.
2. Validate your support: Whether you are on a stage or talking to someone new at happy hour, remember that no one important to you wants you to achieve your creatively imagined fears. Think, I am surrounded by people I trust and love. In this case, my bandmates always had my back and the crowd was full of people who were looking forward to watching me succeed.
3. Confirm your skill: Give yourself some credit. Think, I have practiced this and know my way in and out of this topic (song, poem, sales pitch, research topic, etc.). You have all the right information inside of you.
4. Ask: What is the worst thing that could happen? Honestly? Too often, stress distorts our ability; we overestimate the probability of something going wrong and underestimate our ability to handle (or adapt to) an unexpected challenge. If something does not go according to plan, you will recover. And if you don’t recover, chances are most people won’t notice or won’t care.
5. Remember: Recall a time when you were nervous and the feeling afterwards. It’s never as bad as you think it’s going to be, and you end up realizing that you were nervous for nothing.
“Don’t even THINK about it”. When I read the sign, I found my breath again and calmed my racing thoughts. Nobody died, I didn’t puke on stage, and the band and I ended up having a decent show, good enough to be invited back to play the following month--which was still nerve-racking, but I had the tools ahead of time to put my body at ease.
I don’t know if I will ever be completely calm before I perform or speak in front of an audience, but I am learning tricks to build my confidence. If you are uncomfortable or nervous, acknowledge the feeling and turn it into a positive, because that feeling of apprehension is a growing pain to self confidence. Our fears are never as bad as the reality of our outcomes, and the more your practice in front of your "audience" the more confident you will be.
Good luck, and remember: Don't even think about it.
Andrew J. Wilt