The real reason for stage fright

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Alone means dead

So why do some people get nervous when they play in front of other people while others become excited? As I stated in my last article the fundamental reason for nervousness is the fear of being rejected. And the fear behind that is the fear of dying. Human beings are dependent upon each other and a thousand years ago, being left by yourself meant being dead. Without other people you couldn't survive. Just like a deer without it's flock would be defenseless when confronted with a predator.

But since some people don't feel so nervous when they go on stage there must be other factors that determine how nervous we get. This article and the next is about these factors and what to do about them. Because you can't change the basic programming of your brain. You where born with it. And it's not going to change unless you have brain surgery. But the most essential determinant of whether or not you get  nervous is why you go on stage. Why you play the guitar. So why are you spending time learning how  to play that darn thing? And why do you put yourself in situations where you get this uncomfortable feeling of anxiety?

When the stakes become too high

There are really only two reasons why anyone would do that:

1. For significance
2. For fun

If your primary motivation comes from the  need to feel significant, then, to the degree to which that is your driver, you will feel nervous and anxious when you play in front of others. Because you attach your identity to the skill level you're on, your brain goes "I am as good a person as my level of skill" And when you get on stage your brain will think "This is it, this is where I prove my self to be worthy off the admiration of these people!" And the scary alternative emerges  also "This is where everyone could reject me massively and I could die!"

"What others think of us would be of little moment did it not, when known, so deeply tinge what we think of ourselves"

Paul Valery

When significance is a big part of  your drive, the stakes becomes too high for you to perform well in front of others. The consequences of not performing well becomes linked to survival and when that happens your brain  switches in to  "fight or flight mode" It responds the way it would if you where confronted with a wild tiger or some other predator: You can either take on the fight, or you can run as fast as you can. The more nervous you get the more this basic instinct takes over. And this instinct, this primitive part of the brain, can't play the guitar.

Lizards play like robots

And how well does that go with being creative? The answer is simple: It doesn't. The more anxious you get, the less creative you'll be and the less present you'll be in the moment.  So not only does your skill level seem to drop radically, you also loose your capacity  to be creative. And being creative is a fundamental prerequisite for playing music. Even the simplest chord progression needs your full artistic attention if it's to come alive in your hands. When you're anxious your playing becomes automatic, robotic and uninspired. Because the oldest and most reptile like parts of your brain takes over.

This is not to say that you can't have a desire to impress people and still avoid being too nervous. It is only when the need to feel significant becomes too big a part of your motivation that you get in trouble. This happened for me years ago. I started out playing guitar out of nothing but sheer passion for country music. Yes that's right,  I began playing guitar because I wanted to play a lap steel guitar that I had heard in numerous country songs. My dad told med that I should start by playing classical guitar and  then I could advance to the lap steel when I had some skill.

That sounded like an OK plan to  me but as time went by, the old six string and other types of music caught my interest and I never got to play that fret less country wonder. But then I hit puberty and playing guitar became a way to feel significant, impress girls and make  friends. It found out that playing guitar (An activity sufficiently rewarding in itself) could help me get other peoples admiration and respect. What was once a source of pure fun and joy became a tool to get something else. Having fun wasn't so important anymore and my performance anxiety rose to terrifying levels. It got so bad that when ever I got on stage my skills almost disappeared. After a couple of these experiences I quit. I  took along break from playing in front of an audience because I didn't think I was cut out for that sort of thing.

Two Great Alternate Picking Exercises

Playing four notes up and down is one of the hardest alternate picking exercises because it involves a double string shift. One thing is shifting from string to string it's another to have to go right  back again and do another string shift right away. Hence the term "double string shift." In this lick I've given you a longer pause between the strings shifts and this makes this lick a lot easier than if you where playing the first 6 notes over and over again.

Where as the first lick was somewhat easier to play than the traditional four notes up and down, this exercise is harder. It's great for practicing "double" string shifts, because there are so many of them. You only get a pause of 3 strokes before you have to shift to another string once again.

What are you trying to achieve?

How about you? How much of your drive comes from the urge to impress people and inflate your ego? And remember it isn't bad to be motivated by a desire to make people go "huh!!??" it's not wrong to want to show people what you can do - because you show them what's possible for them also. Be as honest as you possibly can when you answer that question because you can't fix something you don't want to admit to.

"All charming people have something to conceal, usually their total dependence on the appreciation of others"

Cyril Connolly

One thing is  for sure: If your anxiousness impairs your  ability to have fun when you play in front of other people, you are trying to get something from playing guitar that it can't give you. Until you allow yourself to play the worst solo of this century and still feel great about yourself, you wont be able to kick the habit of being anxious on stage. But challenges like these don't go away just by writing or talking about them. In my next article I'll give you some specific exercises you can do to annihilate this limiting emotion so that you can be your best at all times.