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George Whitty on Overcoming Stage Fright

 

One topic that seems to come up fairly often in my messages and video exchanges here at ArtistWorks is our good old friend STAGE FRIGHT. It's a bit of a theme in the video exchanges, particularly, so I'm going to take a few minutes and discuss my experience with it and how I got rid of it.

One fine summer day in 1992, I had my first rehearsal with the Brecker Brothers.  I'd helped them produce "Return Of The Brecker Brothers" earlier that year, and to my incredible delight, they asked me to join the band for the tour.  But to my knowledge neither Mike nor Randy had heard me take a solo;  I think they'd heard I could blow, but hadn't heard me much in person other than doodling around on the recording sessions.  So, on this day, we set about rehearsing "Above and Below", a fast Latin burner.  And we played the head, Mike Stern took an extended smoking solo, Randy took an extended smoking solo, Mike Brecker took a VERY extended smoking solo, and then everybody looked at me.

I'd been playing, and playing well, for years, but never at anything like this level.  And I have to say that I kind of really just choked;  fits and starts, couldn't get a line going to save my life, and getting tougher with every aborted idea.  And of course, the minute we seize up like that, now we've just compounded the problem:  we've "proven" that we “fold" when the heat is on.  And thus began about 2 weeks of head-tripping whilst on that tour, with me knowing that I could rip off a great solo on that tune in the privacy of my headphones, but freaking myself out when I was onstage.  I got to where I was kind of dreading that tune on the gig, and it was one of the first ones.  

Finally, one night in Vienne, France, in probably the most beautiful venue I've ever played, an ancient Roman outdoor amphitheater, I managed to uncork a really good one;  even the road manager noticed later:  "So you finally got a good one out!"  This was a couple days after I'd nearly gotten electrocuted to death onstage in Aarhus, Denmark, so maybe I had a sort of "the hell with it, I could just as easily be buried in a potter's field in Aarhus right now" attitude.  So playing well was possible, but it wasn't going to be easy :-0.  

What the hell was going on?  Why was I just so incredibly comfortable unwinding a great solo playing with the R&B band I'd been playing with, but my fingers turned into 10 frozen fish sticks playing with this incredibly great band?  As it turns out, there's an excellent resource that I wish I'd had at the time, a very well-known book written by the great pianist Kenny Werner called "Effortless Mastery".  And Kenny, in this book, gets right to the heart of the issue:  

effortless mastery

We burden ourselves down miserably when we look at our playing as a way of validating ourselves:  if we play great, we "are great", if we play poorly, we "are poorly".  And that is a truly crappy way to play, with one (or more!) lobes of our brain dedicated to worrying away on that wholly unnecessary issue, our whole operation so top-heavy with the anxiety that how we play is the measure of our self-worth that it stands little chance of making the passage without capsizing.    

Kenny's book leads the reader, via an enclosed CD, through a bunch of meditations that are designed to de-couple these two things:  how we play, and what we're worth.  A lot of musicians, of course, got into music partly to try to validate themselves (one of the best-known musicians I ever worked with told me he got into music because "it was the only way to reach his dad"), which maybe worked a bit because it drove a hell of a lot of practicing, but then became a straight jacket onstage.  

So the "secret"?  We need to get that burden off our backs, this notion that if we don't play well it reflects badly on our core being.  And this takes a lot of un-doing, especially if we spent a lot of our childhood saying to ourselves "Yes, if I can get to where I play as soulfully as George Duke (ha!), I will prove myself a soulful person".  But  it is do-able.  Sometime in 1996 I finally stopped caring as I realized that it's basically not possible to validate one's core being by playing music well, started going onstage hoping for the best but being OK even if I "crashed and burned", and suddenly found this huge font of creativity waiting to be unwound every night.  And I started tuning in to great musicians who are willing to put it out there even if it does “crash and burn”, and seeing how playing with the confidence that comes from that comfort actually INOCULATES them from the dreaded C&B. 

I used to go down to the 55 bar, a well-known jazz dive in New York City, and watch Mike Stern play with his trio.  Mike's been doing this gig for at least 30 years, and it's kind of his workshop.  And some nights, Mike, who is still one of the world's great jazz students even as he's long been one of the world's great guitarists, would be working on something new.  And he'd take a bunch of runs at it, sounding remarkably lumpy for one of the most fluid musicians ever.  Who cared?  That’s the sound of a genius workshopping something.  I've always loved playing in David Sanborn's band;  Dave himself is a great improviser,  a true musician's musician who really goes for it every night.  He says "If you play a wrong note, just play it again".  And he's right.  

In a similar vein, I once visited the Keilwerth saxophone factory in Germany, and the final step is this guy who engraves the horns by hand.  And it was pretty mesmerizing, after the whole horn is built, he just chisels all those great designs in there freehand.  And I had to ask him “Man, so what do you do if you screw one of these up?”  And his answer cracked us all up;  it’s a great principle by which to live your life:  “Oh, if I mess zis up, I just make zis into a flower or somesing”.  GIVE YOURSELF PERMISSION TO HAVE A BAD NIGHT, RELAX and GO FOR IT!  

Far better to launch something interesting out there and not stick the landing than to jitter your way through your bag of tricks;  I immediately found, once I got to where I relaxed, that I was using those lobes I'd previously dedicated to my anxiety to LISTEN TO THE MUSIC AROUND ME and to LISTEN TO MYSELF and that from there, I could see a multitude of clear paths forward as my playing unwound.  I knew I was on to something when, on a tour with Chris Minh Doky and the Nomads, there were several gigs where the band and I were so well-connected that we'd all stop together on the breaths in my line, and the audience would bust out laughing.  

If you find that you're too nervous to put what you do out there, or if you find it's taking way too many beers to put it out there, it's time to get your self-esteem unhitched from how you play.  Or how you do anything, to be honest!  I HIGHLY recommend Effortless Mastery.  Randy Brecker once told me the book had gotten him over a major writing block.  Here's a little bit of one of the chapters, I'm paraphrasing, but who other than a jazz piano player could come up with this (note:  DO NOT ACTUALLY TRY THIS!):  

"Go to your kitchen.  Get yourself a plastic bag.  Put it over your head and tie it tightly around your neck and start breathing.  Now.  Does it really matter if you played a great solo last night?  Does it really matter if you didn't get the gig you auditioned for last month?  Does it really matter if Cecil Taylor is for real?"  

By the second Brecker Brothers tour in the fall of 1992, I was playing pretty confidently, enough so that even with all the cameras on and us filming a live concert video (The Brecker Brothers in Barcelona), I was able to play pretty well on "Above and Below" as you can see here:

Part of that came from watching Mike and Randy work it night after night;  both of them have this extra gene that made them incapable of playing "ordinary things", and sometimes that led to a sort of "difficult birth" as they played, even for them (Mike once got offstage and asked if I'd noticed that he'd played the whole set playing no more than 3 eighth-notes in a row, just a little challenge he put in front of himself).  And watching them go for it even though we were all sure the "jazz jury" (a  bitter horde of skeptical fellow musicians that was most likely imaginary) were deducting points for every bobbled line or squeaked note or incomplete thought was very inspirational.  Randy's sense of humor onstage was also great at unhooking the GRAVE CONSEQUENCES of what I was doing, also;  there were times that what he was doing was so funny that I and another musician or two had to stop playing for a couple minutes.  

So stop and consider ways to feel OK even if you just don’t play well this night, or this week, or this month.  If you need help, check out Kenny's book.  Music is meant to flow through us when we improvise, not to be extruded through a mental obstacle course that we erect ourselves.  And to be honest?  There might be no better vehicle for working on your stage fright (trust me, we have ALL HAD IT!  Well, maybe not Herbie Hancock!) than ARTISTWORKS VIDEO EXCHANGES.  

Yes, there's a red light on, but it's just the red light on your phone, and you are guaranteed an empathetic reception from a musician who's walked a mile in your shoes.  The more you send?  The less you'll care, and the more effortless will then be your mastery.  In fact, I recently posted, in one of my welcome messages, a pretty sucking version of myself blowing on "Spain" by Chick Corea, just to illustrate what it sounds like if I am really practicing, rather than just waxing my canoe.  And it ain't pretty, but people can think it's awful and...I DON'T CARE!  I am aligned with the forces who go for it and would "suffer the consequences" were there to be any, but...there are rarely consequences.

Instead, there is clarity and fun and communication and a flow of music.  And yes, I can sometimes stink up the joint (sorry Copenhagen Jazz Festival 2012!), but if I go down, it's not gonna be because I torpedoed myself with anxiety, it's gonna be just an off night, but I died trying to play creatively.  Give yourself that permission, but don't give up the head space of "I could have an off-night, an off-week, an off-year, but I'm not going to lard down my playing with issues of self-worth".  And get out there and go for it.  And send it to me as a Video Exchange!  

As a final thought, I'd like to share something that Herbie Hancock told me one night a few years ago.  We were premiering an orchestral arrangement that I'd written for him with the Calgary Symphony, and Herbie, as he always does, did the Nicherin Buddhist chanting practice in the dressing room before the gig.  He asked if I'd like to do it with him, and I did (and 4 years later haven't stopped), and after we finished, I asked him what he chanted for.  His answer says a lot about how the Truly Effortless Master thinks:  he didn't chant that he would have a good gig, or that the arrangement worked well, or for a standing ovation, or that the hotel had a good chocolate ganache on the room service menu for later.  This is what he told me:  "I always chant that the audience have a great experience, and that the audience and I are one". 

Let’s all go groove THAT way.  Send along any thoughts and experiences you’ve had, and we’ll all make our mastery more effortless!

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George Whitty teaches jazz piano online at ArtistWorks. Click the button below for more info and free sample lessons!

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