Attending jam nights, or come and have a go nights are without doubt the best way amateur musicians and new bands can prepare themselves for a first gig or stage performance.
Busking is a great way of getting your self used to public exposure and can be quite a scary experience for those not accustomed to it, but for a beginner, nothing can compare to the terrifying experience of getting up on stage with your guitar for the first time, in front of a live audience comprised mostly of other musicians and performing across the whole venue at hugely amplified volumes.
You might be able to play perfectly in the comfortable surroundings of your own home, but it’s a completely different ball game when you’re suddenly flung in front of the lights with an unfamiliar set up in front of a bunch of strangers.
If you are not used to it, the stress of performing live (especially on your own) can reduce a confident player to a nervous wreck and is probably about 10 times worse than standing up in the middle of a wedding and doing a speech.
The thought of speaking in public terrifies even the toughest of people, so imagine how it feels to sing and play the guitar in front of a bunch of musicians and punters who are all drunk and probably much better at it than you.
Jam night audiences are usually pretty supportive to novice players.
Luckily, most people who attend jam nights are pretty supportive of anyone that has the nerve to get up and play. You can bet they have also been witness to many players in the past who have been absolutely diabolical and much worse than you. They will also be used to seeing people screwing up big time and should have some sympathy for your first time nerves.
A supportive crowd does help but it doesn’t solve every problem. I was speaking to a guy a few weeks ago who told me he had been playing for 15 years and although he could easily play anything he wanted at home to his family and friends, he could never get the nerve to play on stage in public. He said he tried it once at a family function and completely froze. Since then he’s never been able to bring himself to try it again. This guys nerves must have been pretty extreme, but not by any means uncommon.
The only way to beat this problem and deal with your fear of playing live is to get out there and do it again, and again and again. Until you no longer worry about it.
Don’t let this example put you off, I’m just trying to give those who think performing live is easy an idea of the obstacles an amateur musician must overcome to achieve a level where they can stand up and play comfortably in front of a live audience and look like they’re enjoying it.
Just like anything, if you want to be a success in your chosen field, you must be prepared to step out of your comfort zone and take a few risks to reap the rewards.
For most people their first few times on stage will be a very nerve racking experience. Watching other musicians performing well and knowing you’re up next up next can really set off the nerves, and when you get called up, your heart starts pounding, your throat dry’s up, your body gets really tense and your hands start shaking. You know you are in for a stressful few minutes.
Even people who have been singing and playing the same songs for years at home often completely forget their lines purely due to the stress of the situation. Those with perfect voices suddenly find their vocals quivering all over the place and struggle to stay in tune. It’s just something you’ve got to get used to and dealing with nerves and stress when you’re placed under pressure is all part of being a musician.
Nerves are not the only thing you’ve got to deal with. There’s no time for extensive sound checks every time a new player steps up to the mic so all you’ll get is a quick 5 second volume check to ensure you can be heard by the rest of the pub.
It’s only when you start playing you find that you can’t actually hear yourself sing cause you’re being blasted through the monitor with your own guitar set way to high, or that the mic volume’s been set really loud for the last band and now you’re being drowned out by your own vocal feedback.
To make things worse, the fact that your performance is amplified to a volume level that suits a large and crowded pub, means every little mistake, duff note and quiver in your voice and guitar playing is massively amplified.
You can never tell how good or bad you are going to sound but you can guarantee it’s not going to be the perfect set up you are used to at home.
Musicians often judge their own performances on what they can hear through the monitors or from behind the house speakers and assume that is what the rest of the pub is listening to. In actual fact, it is often the case that the monitor mix the performer hears sounds pretty awful but the P.A output across the whole establishment, will sound pretty good.
Hearing a performance from in front of the P.A provides a completely different experience to the listener than the artist receives when playing from behind the speakers hearing the mix through the nearest monitor. I’ve been told many a time by listeners at jam nights that a performance I’ve given sounded really good, when in actual fact from behind the mic at my end, I thought it sounded bloody awful.
Lighting is another problem you will most likely have to overcome as every pub or venue you visit will have a completely different lighting set up. At home you will be used to looking down at your guitar and finding your chords and fingerings in the certain ambience of say a 100w light bulb or side lamp.
In a venue or on stage, you could well find yourself in dim lighting conditions, virtual darkness, or with a number of large spotlights pointing straight at you. These can be shining in your eyes or reflecting off your guitar from every angle and can easily cause misplaced fingerings and fluffed solo’s because you can’t see what you are doing.
Gig lighting and stage setups can cause problems for novice performers.
The stage set up is also likely to be unfamiliar and you’ll probably have little or no room to perform or your mic height will be set to high or low and you could even be using someone else’s fx racks or pedals etc. All these unfamiliar conditions, stress and nerves amount to you having to deal with a lot in a very short space of time.
Don’t get me wrong, you will often find things sound great from all ends, everything goes well and the situation is familiar to you, but if you try a few different jam nights in your local area, you will find great variation in the way they are set up, the people that host them, the types of music played, and the audiences who come to watch.
It is being out of your comfort zone and coping with unfamiliar situations and surroundings while having to play through them that really helps you develop a strong core as a musician, and gives you the strength and confidence to go out and do a gig on your own.
Another thing jam nights throw at you that differs from a normal gig, is you are often forced to play straight from a standing start without any warm up or preparation.
If you perform a gig of your own or in private, you would generally give yourself ample time to warm up, tune your instruments and get a practice song in before you start. In a crowded bar, with the noise of a band playing, drinkers and instruments all over the place, it’s often impossible to do this, so when it’s your turn to play, all you’ve got time to do give it a quick tune, and off you go.
You will find that In any live situation, once you get through the first 3 or 4 songs, you will relax into a rhythm, your nerves will settle down and your playing improves as the gig progresses. The thing about a jam night is that you’ll probably only get to play two or three songs before you get kicked off anyway, so just as you start to get things under control and enjoy the experience, you’re off the stage.
If you are intending on becoming a serious musician, you can see this in a positive light as it forces you to get over your nerves as quickly as possible and not rely on a two hour gig to help you settle down.
The great thing is, just like anything, the more you expose yourself to these sort of situations the easier they are to deal with. Once you’ve got a good few jam nights under your belt, you will find getting up there in the spotlight becomes much less stressful, and as you learn to control your nerves and concentrate on your performance, you will really start to enjoy yourself and let your real potential shine through.
Even the most experienced and famous musicians still have to deal with nerves on a regular basis, and many never really completely conquer the problem, but constant exposure to the limelight in ever more increasing circumstances will teach you to relax, enjoy the experience and come up with your own ways of dealing with anxiety and the stress of performing.
Getting used to playing live is one of the most important parts of becoming a musician, and the whole idea is that one day, you will be good enough and smug enough to walk out onto a stage in front of 20,000 people and not give a damn.
In front of 20,000 people.
As you can see, learning and being able to play a song is only a small part of a musician’s life and it is vital you explore the other areas involved and sample the stresses and strains that we have to deal with on a regular basis to prepare you for what’s to come. It’s not as simple as strumming a few chords and calling your self a musician.
If you’ve never been to one before, give it a try. Go and learn 3 songs, pick a jam night out of your local paper and make a promise to yourself to perform those 3 songs live in front of a real audience within a month.
It’ll scare the hell out of you, but you’ll love it and it’ll make you a better musician.