From A Stagefright Trainwreck To a Triumph

Getting ready to play at the Opry! All dressed up and smiling, but inside my guts were churning.

I was so nervous! I’ve always struggled with terrible anxiety when performing for an audience, and I was about to do it again. Now, this was just “practice”. In a week I was going to perform one of my piano pieces at the Grand Ole Opry, as a finalist in the Enlightened Piano Radio awards. No way I would miss that opportunity, but it was a big leap up from the bars and back rooms I was used too. My friends in Axen Club Miami let me play for them during a meeting as a trial run, which I appreciated. I could get my nerves out in a relaxed setting before a friendly crowd.

I shouldn’t even be nervous for this, I thought. I’m only playing one song, which no one knows but me (because I wrote it). I practice daily. These are friends who want to support me. That’s what I kept telling myself logically.

But nerves aren’t logical, are they?

My anxiety brain kicked into overdrive. I’ve had so many bad performances, despite practicing hard. I’ve picked one of my longest and hardest songs. Yes, these are my friends… and I want their approval. They’re finally going to hear me play after months of listening to “the music school guy” talk about it, so I’d better be good. Damn, It’s easier to play for strangers.

Well, the nerves won and that performance was a trainwreck. Fellow musicians, you probably know what those feel like. Missed notes, memory slips, couldn’t seem to control my fingers, stopping, starting over, stopping again. It was a scratched, broken record of a performance that I just wanted to end. My friends were generous because that’s how they are, but I was mortified and deflated.

This was a week before I had to play on a prestigious stage for a much bigger audience. Should I play it safe and choose a simpler song? No, the song I chose represented my style. Equal parts bombast and beauty, all tied up in a Classical bow. (Big nod to Beethoven). Amongst a roster of other performers whom I anticipated would be mostly New Age I wanted to fly a different musical flag.

So, instead of practicing to play perfectly I practiced to allow for errors. That may sound defeatist, but doesn’t the pressure of perfection often make things worse? By anticipating my nerves I could prepare for them. I chopped the music into sub-sections and drilled them. If one section was a dud I could move seamlessly to the next, and the performance wouldn’t suffer. (I still do this and give students the same advice. Don’t just play a song through start to finish).

And….it worked! Despite the same awful nerves when the big moment came I played well. Not flawlessly, but a steady performance with no major errors. I didn’t win anything that night, but it felt good just to have showcased my music on a big stage.

(Also, credit to the other pianists, there was more variety than just New Age music…but no one else did a Heavy Metal breakdown!)

The song I played was From Andy, the last track from my album, Solo Piano Destruction. I made it the last track so the end of the album would summarize my musical vision: instrumental music which pushes boundaries beyond typical New Age sounds. There is Heavy Metal energy, singable melodies, and technique which I hope the Classical masters would approve of.

Now, let me be clear, I don’t really want to “destroy” New Age music. On the contrary, I enjoy it sometimes. I’ve written some of my own New Age-ish pieces and will write more. (The “New” in my song New Bach Etude is a reference to New Age music). I just feel that the genres of instrumental music, especially piano and guitar, are becoming over-saturated with one sound. I like relaxing music for a bit, but then I want to rock!

As a “Thank You” for reading this and taking an interest in my music, here’s a free download of FROM ANDY (If you’re wondering, the title is a reference to the guitarist Andy McKee. The initial inspiration came from him).

If you’re interested in the full album, as well as my “Fingerstyle Acoustic Guitar” album, please CLICK HERE

Thanks for your support!! – James