Alright, I'm aware that most of you reading this have mastered the basic essentials of breathing, and those of you who haven't.. well, you probably have more pressing concerns right now. But stay with me, I'm going somewhere with this.
Nerves are often a huge problem for a musician. The best cure for them? In my opinion – experience. But that's a catch-22 situation – curing the problem of nerves by doing the thing that causes your nervousness in the first place, and that can be highly stressful for many musicians, especially those just beginning their performance careers.
I strongly believe that the combination of nerves and adrenaline, the emotional highs and lows that come with a good gig or a bad one, are what lead many musicians down the road of drug and alcohol use. This can be in the form of “a couple of pints to take the edge off”, or beta-blockers to inhibit stress, all the way through to the cocaine-and-whiskey combination which Stevie Ray Vaughan legendarily used as a morning “pick me up”. The result, all too often, is an untimely death and a waste of talent – Hendrix, Robert Johnson, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse... the list goes on.
So how to deal with nerves without the chemicals? Well, first off, nerves tend to accelerate the heart rate, so we'll start with a simple breathing exercise to slow it back down again. Close your eyes and breathe in through your nose, counting to four as you do so. Now hold that breath for another four beats before exhaling smoothly and evenly, counting another bar of four beats as you do. Now gradually extend to groups of five, six, seven and eight beats. This forces your heart rate to slow down and helps moderate the tempo of your thoughts.
Nerves affect concentration by crowding out coherent thoughts with mental “white noise”, so next let's try a simple meditation exercise. Set a timer on your watch or phone for two minutes. Now sit up straight, palms flat on your thighs and keep your mouth closed, breathing through your nose. Clear your mind and focus on the sensation of your breath going through your nostrils. Your goal here is to stay completely stationary and silent, thinking of nothing but registering the sensation of breathing.
If you find that you can't manage two minutes, start with one minute, or even thirty seconds, and gradually build up. What you are doing is effectively training your mind to resist distraction and focus all concentration on the task at hand, precisely what nerves stop you from doing.
These exercises help – just as surely as a good technical warm up routine ensures the fingers are in good shape to do whatever is asked of them, a mental warm up like I've outlined here serves to ensure concentration, focus and clarity of thought are maintained throughout the performance.
The more successful performances you get under your belt, the more assured and comfortable you will feel in a performance situation, whether it's gig, recital or examination, and the better you'll be able to handle nervousness without having to resort to alcohol or drugs.
Just think of all the money you'll save.
Next time – mental rehearsal, and how to think yourself to guitar playing brilliance...