Stage Fright?

For many of us performance is a critical part of why we are musicians. Some can be quite happy spending their lives with their instruments and never actually performing, however for most of us the process is incomplete without performing the pieces we work on. It gives us a sense of purpose, helps us set our goals and timelines, and reinforces our sense of being active participants in life through our connection to music. It is also a very different playing situation than what we face when we sit down to practice, or play through our pieces in the comfort of our homes, studios and practice rooms. When we step out on stage, we depart from our safe zones and enter a place where we know we are going to be judged and where we will ultimately judge ourselves. We are opening ourselves and sharing with a group of people who are often strangers, sometimes friends, and always our audience. We make ourselves vulnerable in many ways every time that door opens and we step out of the green room. This can be very exciting and rewarding, but often can just as easily be terrifying. Performance anxiety, otherwise known as stage fright, is something we all have encountered at one point or another. It is more than simply feeling uncomfortable before a performance and for some folks can create a seemingly impenetrable barrier to performing. It can range from a minor nervousness before stepping on stage to nausea, shakes, feeling lightheaded and temporary memory loss. I’ve known people who have experienced the full range and have tried all sorts of methods to alleviate the problem.

For most people the key to dealing with stage fright is focused preparation through practicing, and performing on a regular basis. The more often a musician performs, the easier it is to face the audience each time you step onto the stage, and if you have laid the groundwork through diligent focused practicing you should be fine. Some musicians, however, suffer from performance anxiety their entire careers, and some quit being active performers due to the stress they encounter from stepping out onto the stage. I’ve known musicians who have been prescribed beta blockers to help get them past this, others who use meditation, some who have rituals they follow on performance days, others who self medicate either through alcohol or less legal substances (which often leads to other issues), and others who have established comfort zones where they can function.

Generally we look at performance anxiety as something bad, something to be gotten over or past, a hindrance to performing at our best, but I think a certain amount of it is a healthy indicator that we are connected to what we are doing and value the end result. Sometimes we need to be nervous; it is part of excitement and we need that excitement to be happy. We look forward to the charge we get when we perform, particularly the excitement we have when we have those transcendant experiences where we have stepped beyond what we thought we could do and set a new bar to surpass. We are stepping outside of our comfort zones, taking risks, and hopefully reaping the rewards.

At this point in my career I rarely experience stage fright, but this is largely because I have found my own comfort zone through performing in groups, following a career that has mostly been performing as a sideman. As such, I rarely encounter intense scrutiny through sharing the stage with others and don’t have to step into the spotlight unless I want to. This has lowered my stress significantly. Also I sincerely enjoy working with other musicians and find it to be inherently rewarding to share the experience. However, the end result of this is the feeling that I am going to work at a job that I enjoy, but comes at a cost though, because I can’t honestly say that I find it exciting. I go out, do my job, perform, feel okay about it all around and there it is.

As a performer, I must say that I do not miss stage fright, but I do miss being excited and challenged on a regular basis, as an individual. This is what has led me to my current paradigm shift where I’m moving toward doing solo work and bringing a more solid focus on formal performance situations, somewhat akin to what I did as a classical musician years ago. This entails a different approach to preparation and performance than what I’ve been doing for the past twenty years. It also requires me to reassess and shift my self-expectations to a much more rigorous standard. This, I expect, will rekindle my sense of internal excitement and possibly anxiety as well along the way, but I am welcoming it whole-heartedly. It keeps me focused, and let’s me know I am alive. As such, I rarely encounter intense scrutiny, share the stage with others and don’t have to step into the spotlight unless I want to.

Making a Living as a Musician

Earning a living as a musician is not an easy thing to do at this point. Most local musicians who hope to earn enough to live on do so by a mix of revenue sources, usually through combining gigging with teaching lessons and often working in a music store. Frequently it’s a mix of the three. Some earn their living primarily from one of the three areas and often they end up with a day job that is entirely unrelated to music in order to have something remotely close to a “normal” existence.

I’ve lived in many different parts of the country and in most places the average gig payment, if there even is one, is the same as what it was thirty of forty years ago. Most bar bands are making about $60-100 per person, if they are even making that. The International Federation of Musicians used to have an impact on this, but at this point they are all but inactive, only raising their collective heads when you’re dealing with high end venues that involve long term shows staffed by musicians such as musical theater productions, orchestral work, and the like. If you can get this type of work, then the pay will often be substantially better. There are so many folks who are willing to play for nothing that many venues don’t even consider paying the musicians. This in itself has had a major impact on the availability of paying gigs.

With gigs, if you’re paid you’re looking at several options. Sometimes the band/performers will be paid a guaranteed wage which is worked out prior to the gig. Sometimes there will be a small guarantee plus money that is collected at the door. Sometimes it is just the door, and if it’s a split bill, then the take from the door is divided between the bands on the bill, sometimes divided by time, sometimes divided by head counts, or some other variation. This type of situation is the lowest risk for the venue because they are only out the expense of having someone at the door, which they often do anyway to check IDs.

What you draw, in terms of a crowd, often determines whether you will be able to play at the venue again. That, and of course, how good your band is, how well they do their job, and how few problems they cause at the venue. Sometimes if the band is good, the venue will overlook a minimal draw and still have the band come back to play again. Sometimes the venue will attempt to dock the pay of the band if they don’t figure they can cover a so-called guarantee from the proceeds of the night.

Teaching lessons is also a source of income and can be a quite lucrative one if you have the skills to be a good music instructor. There are different ways people do this. Some teach out of a music store, out of their home, out of their own rental space, and some actually go to their students’ homes and teach them there. Each location has its own benefits and potential drawbacks. Each also involves the teacher essentially being a self-employed contractor. Don’t expect the music store to take care of your tax withholdings; you’re on your own for that! Anyway you look at it there are going to be expenses incurred that you’ll have to figure into your income, whether it’s payment for the room at the music store, rent for a private space, gas money, or whatever.

Working in a music store is another way that musicians put their skills to work. It can be either a good experience, or a bad one, like any other, and if you are prone to lust over gear it also can lead to potentially working to pay off gear that you have fallen in love with and decided you have to have, again and again. If you have poor impulse control this might be a bad place for you to work due to this. But there are often concrete perks. For instance discounts for the stuff that you regularly need, like guitar or bass strings. If you have good impulse control and don’t think that you need every cool guitar you come across this can be a good place to work. It also is a place where you can make contacts with other musicians, which can lead to further playing opportunities.

Any way you look at it, trying to make a living as a musician, particularly in a localized sense, is a challenge and it doesn’t look like the challenge is going to get any easier in the future. Some musicians do get the opportunity to make their living through schools, for instance elementary, high schools and colleges. Those jobs are available on a limited basis, if you have the right qualifications and educational background, and if you do have these you’ll probably end up having to relocate if you land one. It is also true that many public schools cut music programs first, so if you think there is going to be more security taking that route be aware that there are no guarantees in this world. Yes, it is time to get busy!

The Value of Practice

Some musicians are lucky; they are driven to practice by an internal need to do so. They do quite well on their own, providing themselves with goals and internal reasons for sitting down with their instruments. Other musicians need to have an external impetus for doing the work, whether it’s a collaborative work with someone else, a group project or gigs on the books. These folks need a reason to practice other than self-improvement. Sometimes this changes over time because we tend to change as we age. But sometimes what we thought was one reason, was really the other.

When I was getting ready to audition for music school and then while I was in music school I was a practice room demon. Prior to my audition I was working a minimum of three hours a day, every day. After I entered music school a five hour practice day I considered to be a short maintenance day. Most days I put in about 8 hours, and then did my homework for my various classes. I was driven to become the best classical guitar player I could be, and I thought that this was my internal drive. It was to a certain extent, but I was ferociously competitive with the other guitar players, often to a fault. I had my competitors targeted and being on par with or surpassing them was my most ardent and immediate goal.

The folks who I viewed as my “competition” were about a year ahead of me and when they graduated I found myself at a bit of a loss in terms of drive. I also was recovering from a major ego bashing crash and burn from my junior recital the prior year and found myself becoming increasingly interested in going fishing over spending eight hours a day in a cement box. I was out of both internal and external juice and wasn’t willing to talk to anybody about any of it.

I was accepted to graduate school my senior year, but decided instead to join the military, and go through officer training in the hopes of starting a new career. It was a bad match, but that’s a different story in itself. It wasn’t until after my stint in the army that I found myself slowly but surely being pulled back into music. I have found that I need to be a musician and that it is one of my core needs. I have also found that I am one of those musicians that needs external stimuli to practice. I need to have gigs on the books, and ensembles to work with. They help keep me focused on the things that make me function as a human being. Without them I am lost, not just as a musician but as a reasonably well-adjusted human being as well.

Practicing is important and really is a necessary evil of being a musician. Where you get the motivation to do the work doesn’t really matter. What does matter is self-knowledge, knowing what it takes to get you into communion with your instrument and to do the work that allows you to become a better musician. The need for this is great in our formative years, but even more so as we get older. When we are younger our muscle memory is sharper, so what we did a couple of days ago is easier maintain. As we age, our skills physically require regular upkeep, and will fade faster if we do not do so.

It is quite depressing to be faced with the concept of “I used to be able to do that but don’t have the ability anymore,” particularly when it is a skill that we value. I know this from hard personal experience. We might end up slowing down in our elder years but we still want to be able to navigate complex pieces of music, or what we could touch in our prime. If we’re lucky, at some point we feel our fingertips slip across greatness, but if we’re diligent over the years it is more likely that we will embrace our competence, appreciate what we can still do, and be able to enjoy it for our entire lives. This is what practice delivers and should be the ultimate goal of the ritual.

It’s a Matter of Time: An Ode to my Metronome

Musicians and metronomes go hand in hand, but most musicians hate using their metronomes. Some hate them so much that they refuse to use them, largely because they can’t handle the fact that they have such poor senses of time that they can’t tolerate the constant reinforcement that they have this shortcoming in their art.   A solid sense of time is invaluable in the performance of music, regardless of genre, and is a must have for any musician who wants to perform, particularly with others. Our relationships with metronomes all start with a certain amount of hatred, but with time we learn to love them for their reliable feedback and undeniable assistance in self-improvement.

My metronome is an old Seiko Quartz ticker. It is about the size of a pack of cigarettes, has a dial for adjusting the time, a light for silent running if you like, an earphone jack if you still want sound but not from its speaker, and a setting to generate an A 440 pitch for tuning. It was the last metronome I bought for actual use as such and has traveled all over the place with me. I paid $100 for it back in 1984 and is still ticking away today, 30 years later. Not a bad investment. At the time I was using mechanical metronomes, which I like but always seemed to all too quickly develop problems, whether it was a seemingly uneven beat or a different sound for the tock, tock, tock; when it swung one way it was deeper pitched than the other which bothered me. It’s not too surprising that they were burning out on me because they were always being transported from one place to another and were in use for at least four hours a day, every day; slightly less in the summers when I was back at my parents’ house.

I almost got arrested for it at Cleveland Hopkins Airport. I had been practicing and had to go drop someone off for a flight. A friend asked me to her because I could drive a stick shift, which is what her truck had. I tucked my metronome in my jacket pocket, took my guitar back to my room and then headed over to her place to drive her to the airport. At that time unticketed folks could accompany travelers, or meet them, at their gates as long as they went through the metal detectors. I went through, forgetting about my little electronic device and set off the alarm.

I remembered that I had my metronome in my pocket and when I pulled it out the security folks all stepped away from me, and asked me suspiciously what that thing was. I was still in my young smart assed days, and stopped just short of saying, “it’s a thing that goes tick, tick, tick.” I fortunately read their stress levels and realized that they were seriously concerned and if I joked about it I was going to end up not getting home for a while. I told them what it was, what I used it for, and showed them how it worked. At that time my explanation was sufficient and we were off to the gate. Today, I probably would have been in lock down while the feds ran background checks on me, and my precious metronome would have been destroyed by a bomb squad. How times have changed!

I was separated from my metronome for the three and a half years I was in the military, but otherwise it has traveled with me all over the country, year after year, residing in desk drawers, on shelves, and even in my underwear drawer at one point. It seems to run forever on a nine volt battery and has taken its share of tumbles from tables and out of my hands, even glancing off and denting guitar tops along the way at times. It is loyal and always performs its duties with timely perfection, despite the physical abuse it has suffered, and the occasional verbal abuse from its owner when working through a tricky spot in a piece.

I still use my metronome, particularly while working on scales and exercises. It is an invaluable tool that can be relied upon to always tell me the truth, regardless of what I want to hear. It provides me with a sense of security in my sense of time, at least musically, and the time spent with it has paid dividend after dividend in live performances, both solo and in the various ensembles, bands and groups I’ve played with. So, be kind to your metronome and love it for what it is, what it does, and what it tells you. The time you spend with it, pays off in kind.

An Introduction

I am a musician and have been in one way or another, since I started learning how to play guitar way back in 1971, as a hyperactive 9 year old. I started off with Mel Bay’s Guitar Method and went through the first four books in my first year of lessons. After that I started classical guitar studies and was playing some of the war horses of the repertoire by the start of fifth grade whereupon my classical guitar teacher took me to play for his teacher; they pronounced me a child prodigy and sentenced me to practicing five to six hours a day. I was 11 years old and more interested in playing outside with my friends than spending more than 45 minutes a day with my guitar so my parents consulted with one of my father’s colleagues from the music department at the college where he taught and determined that it would be best to run with my own decisions relating to the instrument. I started taking rock lessons briefly after that, and just as briefly later my rock teacher announced that I was beyond his skill level. I struck out on my own, later taking some rudimentary jazz and theory lessons from another local guitarist.

When it came time to look at colleges I decided that I wanted to go into music, so I quit my high school swim team, picked up my $60 Yamaha classical guitar and started spending three to four hours a day practicing classical guitar. About eight months later I auditioned and was accepted to a conservatory and spent my college years studying classical guitar performance and music composition, culminating in a BM with a double major. My senior year was rough, due to a major bout with depression; the end result of which was not going on to graduate school, like I was lined up to, but instead joining the army and heading off to basic training and officer candidate school, followed by three years of being an infantry officer.

After getting out of the army in 1989 I went back to undergraduate school, picked up the requirements for an English major and then applied and entered graduate school to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing, focusing on poetry. After graduation, my wife and I moved to the desert southwest for further schooling on her part, and I started practicing classical guitar again on my loyal Khono 30. Shortly thereafter I switched directions and started playing pop, folk and rock/blues, and picked up a bass.

We moved again in 1997, this time to Delaware where I dedicated myself to playing in bands and pursuing a career as a working musician. This continued and has ever since. In fact I’m still performing to date and pursuing that dream, but I want more and have for some time. For several years I’ve been yearning to return to the classical guitar and have had some flutter starts, before detouring off into one project or another with the end result always boiling down to the same thing, a feeling of disappointment and some disillusionment with the state of my playing.

We currently live in Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago, and last spring I took a leap I’d been contemplating for a few years, joining the Chicago Community Classical Guitar Ensemble, which is led by Julie Goldberg. I’m still working as a bass player, currently with The Blues Mavericks, and as a guitar player as the opportunities arise, but am refocusing my personal performance work to creating and performing on the classical or nylon string guitar. I will be posting to this blog site on a semi-weekly basis, keeping track of my progress and issues that crop up along my journey, which will, hopefully, help me to keep on keeping on, and possibly help others in their own musical journey along the way.