How to Play More Confidently on Gigs / Dealing with Nerves

Many of us are familiar with the feeling of getting nervous both during, and before an upcoming performance. This can start as soon as we get the call, and what would otherwise be a very good thing, becomes a source of agony.

Long before the show begins, we start getting self-conscious as to how we’ll sound. When we start playing, our hands get all sweaty, and our heart starts pumping. Maybe we crack a note right off the bat. Then another a few bars later. Soon we’re freaking out. Excess tension grips the body, and in an ill-fated attempt to compensate, we start pushing. Of course, this doesn’t work for long, and soon we’ve completely run out of gas…with half a show to go.

We’ve all been there, and it blows.

However, it doesn’t have to be this way. So let’s learn how to let some of that worrying go, better enjoy the moment, and play our butts off.

You Are Not Alone

I cannot speak for everyone, but I have certainly dealt with times of great insecurity as a trumpet player. From the end of 9th grade through grad school, I was very aware of the fact that I had developed habits which were holding me back. I was using two embouchure settings; one for lead playing, and one for “other” playing (which during that time got very little use), and while my lead setting did make certain things easier, it had its limitations. Despite these setbacks (bruised upper lip, brittle sound in the staff, trouble with articulation, etc), I held on to it because I was afraid of sounding bad.

Once I graduated from formal studies, I finally took a look in the mirror and decided, OK, it’s time to do this thing right. That decision was both terrifying and liberating, and the following two years or so were very trying.

During this period, I decided to still work full-time as a trumpet player (what else was I going to do?). I was playing gigs on chops that couldn’t cut the mustard, and I was struggling. Often, on my way to a rehearsal or show, I’d be riddled with anxiety, obsessing over how my chops would hold up. Many nights I went home with my tail between my legs, and some of those performances led to me not being asked back.

During this time, I also took my first long-term road gig playing a heavy lead book. Obviously, I was nervous about how I’d hold up, and in an ill-fated attempt to prepare, I anxiously blasted my face every day to “build up some steam.” Of course, this led to more problems than anything else, and once I recovered from the mess I had made, I still ended up splitting my lip twice during the run.

Accept Yo’ Self!

As much of an all-consuming pain in the *&% as it was, I wouldn’t trade that experience for the world. I learned so much more about what it takes to play the trumpet than I ever would have not having gone through it, and many of those ideas became the beginnings of this website.

One of the first things I learned was to accept where you are along your path as a musician. No matter how bad you think things are going, you are basically OK. You’re learning, and every step of the way serves to get you to where you want to be. In other words, no matter where you’re going, you start where you are.

It’s easy to forget the necessity of failure and identify with our results. If we have a performance that didn’t go as well as we’d hoped, we may start to think we “suck.” A single bad show and our imaginations go right to, “Maybe I should just quit,” or, “I’ll never be as good as so-and-so.”

But guess what? No matter how hard you try, you are never going to play a “perfect” gig – so start looking at the big picture. Learning is all process. It’s up, it’s down, it’s left, and it’s right. So chill out. You HAVE to sound bad to learn how to play great. And if you think about it, thank goodness we always have room to grow; otherwise this music thing would get very boring.

Build the Chops

Beyond all the kumbaya of accepting ourselves, one of the single most important aspects of playing the trumpet confidently is having the chops to do the gig. The trumpet is unique from many instruments in the fact that you have to lay a solid physical foundation before you can play music, or for that matter, get a decent sound. Even the top players in the field continue to refine their technical facility for life, because it leads to being able to play more music, better.

To start leveraging your practice time, and make greater gains in chop health, I suggest two things; get in the habit of journaling your practice, and focus your time on addressing your weaknesses, even if it’s just one skill.

Journaling your practice sessions has a profound effect on the learning process, and it brings heightened levels of awareness to your routine. This awareness helps you find what works for you, and focus your energy into achieving what you actually want.

Don’t worry about what to write. Just developing the habit of documenting is enough. What you log will evolve along with your practice sessions. The first 6 months or so of my own practice journal were basically pep talks to myself to keep me from quitting when the going got rough.

You can experiment with planning your sessions in advance, logging what exactly you practice, commenting on what you hear or feel, recording ideas, insights, and funny drawings…be creative! Eventually, you’ll hit a good style of learning for you, and find those concepts which are simplest and most far-reaching.

When you sit down to do some work, it’s wise to spend your time and energy addressing your fundamental weaknesses. Although practicing what you can’t do until you can seems like a pretty damn obvious solution for improving, players often fail to do it. Why? Because on some level we either fear losing what chops we already have, or we are afraid that we just “can’t do it,” and the practice won’t pay off.

For years I thought, “Well, my single tongue will just never be any good. Better keep my chops up by practicing these same old lip slurs I always do equally bad!”

Hilarious…

Trumpet players can be some of the nuttiest people around. Often, all it takes is one day away from the horn to get you inside your head freaking out about how your chops are going out the window.

This simply is not true.

The fact is, if you’ve practiced a particular skill enough, you can lay off of it (practice-wise) for a very long time, often years without losing it. Sure, you might get a little rusty, but you are certainly not starting over*.

Before I get too carried away, in the beginning stages of playing, a well-rounded routine is invaluable. Varying your trumpet “diet” will keep your chops healthy and advancing. However, if you’ve been playing for 10-20 years, I’m here to tell you that if you stop practicing EVERYTHING except that one pesky weakness you’ve been secretly holding onto all this time – you will only get BETTER!

To make strides in your technique all you need to do is develop a practice habit, and have patience. Identifying a hole in your playing, and spending five minutes a day of slow, deliberate practice with attention (compounded over time), is enough.

Embark on a challenge to practice your greatest technical deficiency five minutes a day, X amount of consecutive days. Anywhere from four weeks to 100 days is enough to get you going. The rules are simple, all you have to do is practice for five minutes a day, and if you miss a day, you start over. This simple, straight-forward method of habit development requires a minimal amount of willpower, and produces tremendous results over time*.

*Even if you hate it every step of the way – you can do this at least ONCE in your life. Follow through with your plans, people!

Get the Listening and Playing Experience

Once you’re laying a solid physical foundation for your trumpet playing, you need to put those chops to work playing music. Learning to play any musical style is simple; all you have to do is listen.

Finding the best-of-the-best recordings for whatever style of music you prefer is pretty freakin’ effortless in this age of information. And if you don’t know who to listen to, ask other musicians. Put a post out on Facebook or Reddit. Soon you’ll have more suggestions than you know what to do with.

Once you identify which ensembles, writers, and players you like the most, follow their trail of recordings. There is so much wonderful information available at our finger tips, and if you are reading this post, you can find excellent musical examples to model yourself after in the next 10 seconds.

Recordings are awesome, but it also helps to get out of the house and go hear the best live performances you can. This will teach you more about playing than you can imagine, and once you can wrap your ear around what other musicians are doing, you’ll become much more confident in your own abilities. You might even catch yourself thinking thoughts like, “Hey, I can do that!”

Eventually, you’ll find yourself ON THOSE GIGS! Start putting yourself out there, even if only in very casual playing scenarios. Stretch yourself slightly, even though it’s uncomfortable at first. One of the fastest ways to learn how to play is to play with musicians who are better than you.

Learn to Deal with Performance Anxiety

Here is a simple truth about performing as a musician:

You will get nervous.

There ain’t no two ways around it. Ask every player you know, and I’m confident they can relate at least one situation that rattles their bones. Interestingly, these situations that make our palms sweat and heart beat through our chests are different for everyone. Some are nervous in front of large crowds, others freak out in smaller, more intimate settings (I used to practically black-out during college placement auditions). Some of us have trouble playing for our families or musical educators, and many of us have a mini-stroke before playing an exposed lyrical solo, or while improvising. I’m also willing to bet that most of us get nervous around more experienced musicians who we’d like to impress.

Oh, and here’s another good one – Ever had to play taps at a funeral? Talk about nerves!

It’s cool though, because we are all playing the same game, and are in this thing together. We just need to find ways to deal with those issues. Some people have great success by learning to mimic those situations which make them most nervous. For example, you can start taking more auditions, ask people to listen to you perform a piece, or start improvising with friends in a low-key setting where you don’t mind messing up.

I deal with anxiety by practicing something until I understand it, and know I can do it, or don’t care if I can’t yet. Analyzing the fundamentals of playing, and defining how I make a sound, has given me a nice protocol to fall back on when I start getting jacked up on adrenaline.

So find what it is YOU need to do in order to feel more comfortable putting your sound out into the world where it belongs.

You’ll be glad you did.

A Brief Recap

  • We are trumpet players, and we need to feel comfortable playing. Otherwise, things can get messy pretty quickly.
  • You are not alone, and everyone deals with performance anxieties at some point, in some situation.
  • Recognize that you are on a path, and just because you play like crap one time, or a thousand times, it makes no difference. Keep moving forward. You are learning.
  • Solid chops are a massive part of the confident-trumpeter equation. Build yours by logging your practice sessions, and spending your time improving your weaknesses.
  • Embark on a one month to a 100 day challenge, practicing your greatest weakness five minutes a day, for X amount of consecutive days. If you miss a day, start over.
  • Listen to the records, the great musicians around you, and take gigs! Playing and listening experience will help tremendously with gig jitters.
  • Accept that you are going to get nervous. Since it’s going to happen, you need to address it head-on, and find ways to cope with it that work for you.
  • You Rock!

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James Blackwell