many years I would have private classical guitar lessons. I would
get on a bus and go to my guitar teacher's house and watch him warm
up and maybe play through something he was working on. Then he would
ask me to perform what I had been working on that week. I was a diligent
student. I worked bloody hard. And I have an inbuilt competitive thing
that has been with me for a long time, and won't go away. But it is
this that also drives me to do my best, and hopefully succeed.
So I would practice hard during the week because I really wanted to play well and have my teacher tell me that I was doing great. After all, everyone wants a pat on the back for their efforts. We are only human. So I would start performing and I found myself getting a little nervous and making the odd mistake. Once in a while I would stop completely because I liked to play from memory and I just had a total blank. This frustrated me so much because I knew that my teacher was going to critique me on that day's performance, not the prior week's practice session at home.
This happened time and again. It was a major frustration. Of course he knew what was going on. He had been there year's ago. Another time I remember while at music college, I performed a piece in front of a small audience. I felt really cocky and started to play, then I got a little sweaty and somewhat self conscious. All of a sudden I forget the next part of the piece I was playing. I stopped, tried to pick it up but the same thing happened. After the third time I fumbled through it and reached the next part of the composition and played through to the end. Why was this happening I kept asking myself? From time to time I even remember looking at my fingers and saying "have you any idea what you are doing at all??"
I had discussions with fellow students and with my guitar teacher and the same conclusions were met.
1) Inexperience playing in front of people
2) Not knowing the piece well enough
It came down to this every time. Once I got out of music college and started performing live shows similar things happened, except I was becoming more professional so I started to learn how to combat these things. I was becoming more experienced playing in public.
So it became a huge lesson when I learned that a public performance is massively different than playing by yourself at home. Everything changes. To this day I can practice at home 'til I'm blue in the face and everything will be 'on', but if I step out of the house and go to a gig that night, everything changes, no matter how warmed up I may be.
The secret is to stay calm. Whatever it takes. Understand that there are many other psychological things going on at a live event, but when you play the music you must stay 100% focused. Try to block out every distraction, which is really hard, but this comes with experience. But most of all, know the music you are playing so nothing can go wrong, because this is something you are in control of.
Experience is something you just have to get. The more you play in public, the more that playing live is no big deal. If you don't play in public at all, trust me, when you do you will be in for big surprises. You'll wonder where all that training disappeared to. I don't mean to scare you (if you are not a live player), just know that the sooner you start doing it the better. There is no way around it.
So how well do I have to know the music you ask? I remember my classical guitar teacher saying to me back in the day that I should be able to pick up the piece and play it fluently from any section in the music. That's tough to do but he was on to something. Let's say you are playing a jazz standard, say "Have You Met Miss Jones". If you know the piece well enough I could ask you to play it from the B section and you would play a 2-5-1 into Bb and you would be up and running.
Know the music inside out. Learn a standard in all keys. Know how to play the melody alone. Then learn the melody and chords together. Play it with a bass line. Learn to play through the changes unaccompanied in time.
If you do learn the music as well as you possibly can, then the rest is down to experience. If nerves ever set in with me now I don't care about them. I let them be and get on with it.
Whenever you see a great player on stage playing their heart out, just know that they've been doing it a while and they know the music really well.
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