As I’m gathering my thoughts for today’s blog, I cannot help but think of an episode of The Jackie Thomas Show from the early 90s, where Jackie [Tom Arnold] decides that he is going to pursue his life-long dream of being a rodeo clown.
He goes through rodeo clown school, and even ends up in the ring during a bull fight.
This is when he has the horrible realization that he is afraid of bulls.
Over the decades, I have set foot on some intimidating stages. I have also been in some intense recording situations with people who have more knowledge and experience than me. This is how one learns, but you have to get over the fear first and jump in.
I have never been afraid of these types of situations, for a variety of reasons, which I will get into later. But I have met some people who suffer a great deal of fear when it comes to being a musician. This fear would manifest itself in a few different ways. Sometimes it can be almost impossible to detect, or it can be confused for something else.
This fear can paralyze them, which has a rippling effect on the band.
THE PRE-SHOW PANIC
This is probably the worst type of panic for a band, because you’ve made a commitment to a venue and a promoter. People are in the audience and paid to get in. The club owners have expectations. Your band’s reputation is on the line.
And then, someone in the band freaks out. “I can’t go on the stage! I just can’t!”
This happened more than a few times. On one occasion, it was the drummer who panicked. My work-around for this was to present ourselves as being “unplugged.” It did not fit what we had prepared, it did not fit the evening, and it was a semi-disaster.
On another occasion, I had to flat-out tell the promoter that we could not go on because we had a band member just not show up. I covered for him, and for us, by saying that he was “on his way to the hospital” after a car accident on the way. After that, I dismantled the band.
There was also a time when a band member tried to hide it by getting wasted before the show. He had tried to drink enough that his fear would go away. Unfortunately, he also drank enough to fall face-first onto the stage half-way through the second song in our set.
All of these people were really good on their instruments and had other things going for them. This makes it all the more tragic. New bands typically start out on small stages, so I’m not certain how to avoid this potential disaster.
My stories above may provide some work-arounds. Sometimes you have to take the hit. Depending on the situation, taking this hit can mean losing your big chance.
Other instances of fear had less of an impact, although they did hinder progress.
On about half a dozen occasions, I had met musicians who had gone through a lot to get where they were. They’d gotten their instruments, maybe took lessons, and became good at what they did. They eve relocated to Los Angeles in order to take their shot.
In a few of these instances, I was the person renting the lock-out facility, where the band would rehearse. Everyone would leave their gear in there, for convenience.
Then, things would get strange. They would suddenly have excuses for why they could not rehearse. The most bizarre one was a guy who said to my face, “Every second that we do not rehearse is a second that all the other bands get an edge over us.” I told him that was good to hear, and that we should go rehearse now.
“Nah. The game’s on. We’ll do it later.”
THIS IS WHERE IT GETS CONFUSING
Was he lazy? That was my first thought. He was talking a big game, but then wasn’t backing up his own words. The conflict in what he said and did was obvious.
I made plans with him to meet at the lockout the next day in the afternoon. He agreed, and I left him to his game while I went to the room and rehearsed on my own.
THEN THINGS GET WEIRD
The next day, I show up an hour early to warm up and get ready. I’m so into my own playing that I suddenly realize that our meeting time had passed, and he had not shown up.
I go to a payphone and call the house. No answer. I work for a few more hours, then call again. Someone answered, and they told me that he had decided to “go back home.” He did not explain why.
I asked what should be done with his guitar, amp, and pedals. They did not know, as he did not mention it. I kept his gear in the lockout for six months, waiting for him to get back to me, before I came to the conclusion that he had abandoned his gear. I sold it.
HOW I KNEW IT WAS FEAR
He did not seem like a lazy person, as he had put a lot of time into his instrument, as well as lots of effort to relocate to Los Angeles.
HOW TO SPOT THIS FEAR
Over time, I took on a few different techniques for band member auditions that help weed out some potential issues.
Musician History: Has this person performed on a stage before? They can potentially lie about this, but it is worth asking [bonus for photos]. Also, do they have any recordings under their belt? Finally, do they have any references? References can be tricky, because nobody will give you a reference who will say bad things about you. Information can be helpful.
Two-Phase Audition: Break your auditions into two sections. For the first phase, it’s a night spent at a bar having drinks. What do they drink? How much? This helps you to learn more about them on a personal level, before they set foot in the audition room.
During the second phase, which is where they play music with the band, have a dozen or so friends show up. Make sure they understand that this is not a fun social gathering. No drinking or partying. You want them to give the audition a serious listen and be writing down notes. Let the person auditioning know that there will be notes and critiques.
This will put some real-life stage pressure on them. How they handle this, and if they can handle it, can determine whether or not a future fear-driven issue will arise.
HOW TO COPE WITH THIS FEAR
Maybe you are the person who wants to be a musician, but also has issues with fear. Adequately addressing this fear before things get serious is a good idea. It keeps you from wasting your own time, as well as the band’s time. It also makes sure that fear does not get in the way of what you would like to achieve.
Being Well-Rehearsed: This can help, although it did not help my old guitar player who ran away so fast that he abandoned his own gear. I think his case was rather extreme. This definitely helps me.
Run The Show: Having the songs down is one thing. Rehearsing the show will give you more confidence. This means EVERYTHING, including when songs will be back-to-back, when there will be breaks between songs, and even when the singer will address the crowd. Yes, he should even rehearse what he is going to say.
Running the show is a something that I took away from my experiences in marching band. When the show is second-nature, you don’t even have to think about it. That is a relief!
Get Professional Help: Do not believe that you will grow out of it, or that it will magically go away once you get to the big-time. If big enough, this issue will actually get in your way, which would be tragic. Truly crippling fear never helped anyone.
Do Away With Negative Thoughts: Thinking about all of the possible things that could go wrong will only spin you down into that dark spiral faster. Accepting the fact that both good AND bad things will happen, and that these things do not matter, can go a long way toward dealing with this.
Let Go of Perfection: Not only are you going to make mistakes, but most likely nobody will notice or remember.
Do Not Take It Too Seriously, and Be Entertaining: Being a musician on a stage should be more than just playing the music. Performance and presentation are everything. Be goofy sometimes. Practice having fun.
Invent a Persona or Character: This helps to remove the ego, which can be fragile and can drive that fear. What if people don’t like me? What if this or that? These are the thoughts that push you down into that hole.
The truth is that, no matter how good you are, there will be people who do not like you, or who do not like what you do. It’s a fact of life. When you have a persona in the mix, you can separate it from yourself.
So if some people do not like it, then they’re having an issue with your persona, and not you as a human being. Of course, the truth is that they do not really know you as a human being. This fact means nothing to a person who is entrenched in fear. Logic is not soothing.
IN THE END
Being a prepared musician, running the show, building a persona, ending negative thoughts, and having fun with it all will go a long way. You’re a musician on a stage, not a heart surgeon in a hospital struggling to save someone’s life.
When you have fun with it, the audience will join along.
OH, AND ABOUT THAT PESKY RECORD BUTTON
Recording can be scary. Just remember that you will get a chance for second takes, third takes, and beyond. Even if you give a solid performance, a second take might be required as a “safety.”
YOU get to decide when it’s ready to ship.
Sometimes mistakes get to stay because they bring a human element to the fold, or maybe because the listener may never notice.
There is a mistake in this recording. There are also a good number of mistakes on this iconic album. Try to find it. Trust yourself. Don’t worry about it.