Do you suffer from the musicianly variety? Calm yourself down, turn to page 11, and feel lots better. OK now?
Stagefright? Brrr — it's not much fun, as we know, but is there anything that can be done to lessen the problem? Jon Lewin has a drink with some chaps who know a bit more about it than most.
ANOTHER BONA night at Le Bar Wang niterie and gossip cellar. I'd got my favourite corner table, a pint of fine British ale on expenses, and old mates Dave Stewart (the brill keyboardist, rather than the one with the beard) and Jakko had dropped by.
We'd just seen Jakko on TV, playing Eduardo The Mad Latin Guitarist in French & Saunders, and we fell to talking about stagefright. It's like waiting to get your head kicked in, Dave had said. I remembered that it used to make one member of the Moody Blues physically sick every time they played live. Which is a lot of stomach contents over a 15 year career.
"It's also supposed to be the reason that Andy Partridge refuses to let XTC tour anymore," I concluded, historically, taking another slurp.
"When I first started," Jakko reminisced, "the fear was all-consuming. Like the wires had been cut between the brain and fingers. Overall control goes."
"I used to find that it would stiffen up my playing, and stop me enjoying what I was doing," Dave said. "And generally it gives you a tendency to play too fast."
"Maybe I get it worse than you, but it makes my palms all sweaty, and it does funny things to my memory. And it can make your hands shake so badly you can hardly play," I enjoined.
"Yeah, but you haven't gigged as much as us," said Jakko. "It does tend to recede a bit with experience. And there are lots of other things that affect how bad it is. I've always found it's much easier to deal with if you're backing someone, and have something to hide behind."
Dave agreed, and added, "What really worries me is the gear, and how reliable it's going to be. If you're sure it's all going to work OK, then the fright goes quicker. It should wear off after two or three songs anyway..."
At that moment, I noticed Ian McNabb taking a stool at the bar. We called him over and invited him to join our discussion — after all, The Icicle Works virtually live on the road. When I came back with Ian's drink, he and Jakko were discussing how nerve-wracking live TV was, particularly The Tube. Jakko had appeared as guitarist with the Inspirational Choir, and Ian had been on three times with The Icicle Works.
"I was absolutely terrified," Ian confessed. "But what I find tends to happen is that you're more conscious of appearance, looking good and relaxed. So all the intricacies of the guitar playing go..."
"Yeah, interrupted Jakko, "Having the cameraman an inch away from your fretboard doesn't help..."
"...y'keep the guitar slung low, you don't look down or you lose eye contact with the camera, so you leave out all the difficult chords..."
I looked across but Dave Stewart's face showed no flicker of shock. Ian continued. "I'm a firm believer in having 'a certain attitude'. You've got to communicate that to your audience — if you go onstage nervous, the audience will know."
But how can you stop going on stage nervous, I wondered? I know about deep-breathing exercises, about keeping the mind occupied with some physical task (so long as it isn't mending your own amp ten minutes before you start), but is there any professional trick for saving your nerves? The short answer is no, my companions agreed.
"But it is a good thing in some ways," the Scouse Icicle Worker explained. "Nervousness breeds adrenalin. Like by the time you get to the 15 or 16th date of a tour, you're pretty much playing on autopilot, and you need that shot of nerves to wake you up a bit."
Jakko offered little further consolation. "It does recede once you gig a lot: the rigid fear goes. But drink doesn't help, that just blurs everything."
"Yeah, Dutch Courage just makes you sloppy. If I drink before we play, I don't stop at just a couple of drinks, I have five. Not good."
Dave helpfully suggested tranquillisers, and was despatched to buy another round. Drugs in general were dismissed as a no-no — particularly for curing stagefright.
We discussed the efficacy (though that wasn't the word we used) of psychological cures. Jakko reckoned it was all a matter of putting the performance into perspective, of telling yourself that this was just a Tuesday night pub gig. But that's no help when you're playing the ICA, the A&R men are in the audience, and you know you're being recorded for live broadcast, I countered.
Jakko went all Zen. "You have to psych yourself up, examine your ability, know what you're doing, and be confident." Dave passed him his drink quickly.
Ian? "No, that works. These days I'm really confident — sometimes I surprise myself. But even then, it can still be hard, like the time we were supporting Dave Gilmour and The Pretenders in America... we were playing this ice hockey stadium in Quebec, and we ended up having to do a soundcheck in front of 20,000 people. What can you say to them? Y'have to behave like it isn't really happening."
Dave leant forward. "I don't know about you guys, but I find the big gigs easier than the little ones. With Bill Bruford I once played to 25,000 people, supporting Cheap Trick in Denver, Colorado. It was a bit like a Nazi rally..." his voice trailed off at the memory. "Anyway we were on this stage, 30 feet up, and we could hardly see the audience at all — they were just like one big partying molecule. The smallest gig I've ever played was to three people, and that was much harder — it's far less easy to bluff when the audience are right up close to you."
"You're absolutely right," said Jakko, coming down from his higher plane. "The bigger the venue, the harder it is to be subtle, so it's also harder to make obvious mistakes." We all nodded in agreement, some of us from positions of less experience than others (ahem). "The most nerve-wracking thing I've done was an effects pedal demo up in Aberdeen, playing to 200 people in a room above a pub, on my own with 12 or 13 footpedals." Jakko's drama school training began to surface as he elucidated. "Two hundred provincial musos, all resentful of this southern musician with a plummy voice, and all this nice shiny new gear... there was such an air of resentment coming off the audience, a mood of 'go on and impress us, y'bastard'. Needless to say, in the middle of the first piece, I trod on the wrong pedal and completely ruined everything..."
And there we leave Le Bar Wang for the evening, Gentle Reader — conclusionless, I'm afraid. Stagefright is just something that we all have to put up with — relaxing exercises can help, but there's nothing that will solve the problem at a stroke.
But there is one little tip we can pass on — the next time you're up in front of the microphone and your brain develops a mental block about the words to the next verse don't worry. Don't try to confront the problem: think of something else, and trust your mouth to remember the words on cue. The knowledge is in there — just relax and trust your memory to find its way out. S'easy.
Feature by Jon Lewin
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