‘Yes, the danger must be growing
For the rowers keep on rowing
And they’re certainly not showing
Any signs that they are slowing. – Gene Wilder (Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory)
Nerves, stage fright, butterflies, whatever you want to call it. It sucks right?
Maybe it’s your first band practise, first gig, an audition. Maybe someone is watching and it starts to play on your mind. The cute girl at school you like, your parents, maybe your Husband or Wife. Anything can kick it off.
But it can be completely random. I have had occasions where nerves strike at the oddest time and for no good reason. If it’s not dealt with, it can unravel into a bit of a mess.
I have heard many drummers say it’s easier to play large venues than small ones due to the perceived anonymity of the giant venue as opposed to the microscope at the club.
Wherever or however it strikes, it does pay to have some kind of routine or coping strategy to be able to fall back on.
The real fear is of course that you won’t play your best, you won’t do yourself justice. Or even worse, that something is going to go catastrophically wrong and you will embarrass yourself. That could be in the garage for some buddies or at Madison Square Garden. It doesn’t matter. The garage gig is as big a deal for a school age kid as a monster gig for a pro.
“I’m scared of audiences. I get shitty scared. One show in Amsterdam, I was so nervous I escaped out the fire exit. I’ve thrown up a couple of times. Once in Brussels, I projectile-vomited on someone. I just gotta bear it. But I don’t like touring. I have anxiety attacks a lot.” – Adele (Rolling Stone, 2012)
I’m going to share a really personal story that changed everything for me. I have shared this story with some students who were struggling with nerves or general anxiety over a gig or potential gigs. Names will be spared!
I wouldn’t have ever called myself an overly nervous player but this experience changed everything for me nonetheless. Here we go: ‘The night it all went wrong’.
It was fairly early on in my career. Drumming certainly wasn’t a ‘career’ at the time. But I did take it seriously and of course always wanted to play great.
I was doing a gig at a local club with an originals band. Nothing special or different about that. And i had some gigging under my belt.
As it turned out, a lot of people showed up. Far more than we expected and many of them were ‘there for me’. Either to support me, or check out if I could really play or just follow the crowd for a party.
The sad thing is this is all great stuff. I mean, it’s really cool that people came out to watch. That’s what we want! But something happened inside me that night. I didn’t cope with the pressure (self imposed), expectation (or expectation I was projecting onto them). I overcooked things.
We started off and I’m playing everything too fast. The band is giving me looks like ‘wooooah there’.
And I’m just bashing. I’m not ‘listening’, I’m not ticking off that checklist at all. Those primary and fundamental jobs as the drummer. Laying down great time and providing the style/feel required by everyone else to do THEIR job. The stuff that no one notices… until it’s not there! I’m being the subject of all those cringey drummer jokes!
2 songs into the show my hands are gone. Yes 2… I still had 8 or so to go!
I was holding my sticks too tight. Simple as that.
I was in a never-ending cycle. The heaving crowd feeding my ego/adrenalin. The adrenalin in my body screaming at my hands ‘HOLD ON TIGHT, YOU’VE NEVER PLAYED THIS LOUD’. The heavy handed playing fuelling the crowd (or so i thought). This thing was gathering momentum like a hamster on a wheel. The roundabout just kept going. Wonka wouldn’t let me off the boat! Next stop… end of the gig.
How did it all go so wrong? This gift of music, it’s not supposed to play out like this!
I was really pissed off. I told myself that no one noticed and I tried to forget about it.
But i couldn’t let it go. Within 7 or 8 minutes of very easy pop drumming i had unraveled. Nothing against Pop music. But what I was playing was meat and potatoes for sure, and well within my capability.
From song number 3 thru 10 or whenever this ordeal ended I had to hold my sticks like two axes. No fingers! Fingers were no longer part of my drumming arsenal. My hands had cramped into a locked position. I couldn’t make a fist, but I couldn’t stretch and extend my fingers out either.
Imagine caveman drummer. ‘ME HIT DRUM’.
It was very odd. But i hung in there. I Fred Flinstoned my way through the set, praying a stick didn’t go flying into the crowd. If it had… well i don’t know. Thoughts were racing through my head ‘If i lose a stick do i actually have to stop playing the gig?’. This added to the cycle of doom as i had to hold the sticks even tighter in my 2 baseball bats/claw grip. We already have ‘french’, ‘moeller’, ‘Trad’, i just invented the ‘Baseball’ and Flinstone’ grips.
My hands were incapable and not fit for correctly holding the sticks. I had nothing left. NOTHING!
In the end i have to guess that the band thought i just had an off night. I certainly didn’t bring it up with them. The crowd… well i guess they just thought ‘meh the band sucks’.
Let’s face it, the drums are important. And nothing, i mean nothing grooved all night. That’s for DAMN sure.
So much for all the stick control work.
All the pro advice I had swallowed on DVD’s or lessons just went out the window. GONE!
All that advice was playing in a the club down the street. It had gotten up and left my throne.
Immediate reactions: I was pissed. My stomach churned when I replayed the nightmare back in my head. I watched it play out over and over. I saw it all and it wasn’t pretty.
What was that!? So what happens now? Maybe I’m not cut out for drums? I mean what if this was a big gig? I stunk the joint out BIG style. I’m supposed to be going to music school at some point. Yeah right!
The ‘not cut out for drums’ thing. Yeah i thought it. And it shook me how a seemingly run of the mill gig gone wrong had turned my world upside down. It annoyed and concerned me how fragile my grip (no pun intended) on my playing and performance were.
I look back on this as a learning experience. What I would now call a game changer. An experience with hindsight i know every musician has been though (in some form).
I decided to truck on. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Acknowledge a turning point. I decided it was okay to be nervous and feel alive in the moment, but this was never EVER going to happen again.
Next entry. Practical steps to combating nerves.