The thought of making a mistake so bad that it ruins an entire show is something that keeps a lot of us up at night. When my old band was unexpectedly asked to open two big sold out shows in my hometown a few years ago, I literally wasn’t able to sleep the nights before out of fear that I’d blow it. Luckily, my bandmates and I played well both nights, and none of the disasters I lost sleep over materialized. Unfortunately, show meltdowns do happen to musicians, whether it’s rooted in the preventable performance mistakes or something purely psychological. Here’s some advice on how to avoid them:
Prepare, prepare, and then prepare some more
I’ll kick this off with the most obvious and important piece of advice. If you’re musically unprepared for your shows in any way, then you’re inviting major trouble on stage. Stuff like playing the wrong chord progression, forgetting lyrics, or missing drum entrances are things that can kill your confidence and, subsequently, your entire show, even if it’s just one glaring mistake. Preparing adequately essentially comes down to removing any amount of uncertainty from your performance. If you’ve got a shred of doubt when it comes to your set, rehearse over and over again until it’s gone. If you’ve truly mastered your set in rehearsal and still feel uneasy, then your issues are psychological and can’t be addressed musically.
Communicate with your bandmates and plan for mistakes
No matter how much you practice, show mistakes are inevitable. Rather than approach a live performance with an “it’s either perfect or it’s utterly horrible” mentality, planning ahead for mistakes is a far better option. What does that look like? It could be anything from committing with your bandmates not to stop playing after a mistake in a song or developing preventative tactics like eye contact to help entrances go smoothly. Nailing your set in the comfort of your rehearsal space is one thing, but performing on stage in front of people is another. How you practice and the way you plan shows with your bandmates needs to take nerves and potential venue-related sound issues into account.
Get out of your head, don’t take yourself seriously, and be kind
For lots of musicians, nervousness during performances is a major show-destroying issue. If you’re new to playing music in public, things will probably improve as you gain experience. But if you’ve been playing live for a long time, you might need some extra help. Finding a balance between wanting to play perfectly and leaving room for inevitable mistakes is crucial, as is being forgiving to your bandmates and yourself when someone falls short. It’s also important to remember that the audience is almost always on your side and wants you to succeed. Rather than seeing a sullen, self-hating musician on stage, they want to be moved and challenged by your performance. There’s no easy way get out of your own way if you struggle with performance anxiety, but focusing on your audience will help.
Since you’re (hopefully) not a robot, you’re going to make mistakes here and there when you play live. Luckily, meltdowns can be avoided with practice, communication, and the right attitude.
Patrick McGuire is a writer, musician, and human man. He lives nowhere in particular, creates music under the name Straight White Teeth, and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.