Learning not to fret about playing guitar on stage [Column]

For Better or Worse

May 20, 2014|By Cathy Drinkwater Better

I was invited to join the classical guitar ensemble at the local community college. Maybe "invited" isn't exactly the right word. Two other adult classical guitar students with whom I'd performed in the past, coaxed, sweet-talked, and flattered me into joining

The director tried to allay my misgivings by assuring me that the material wasn't beyond my abilities (HA! I thought.), and he promised that I'd have fun.

My own instructor — apparently in on the plot—encouraged me to join.

For a couple of days, I bounced between "I've already missed three rehearsal sessions and I'll never catch up!" and, "With a little extra work, I'll catch up. And it's a great opportunity!"

In the end, I opted to go for it and attended my first practice the next evening. It was great to see my friends again, and I met the other guitarist in the group, a super-nice guy with lots of performance experience. Best of all, our talented, laid-back instructor made me feel right at home from the start.

Everything went along fine for a while. I didn't even mind practicing so much at home. But about a month into it, it hit me. We're rehearsing so hard for a reason: the concert we had to give in May. And that's when the stage-fright hit and it all went south.

Now, when I say "stage-fright," I don't mean a slight case of nerves or butterflies in the tummy. No, I mean a full-blown performance anxiety so crippling that, whenever I've had to play classical guitar for an audience in the past, my hands refused to take orders from my brain and my insides felt like they'd turned to liquid and were all heading for my shoes. Sometimes I'd just sit there onstage, clutching my guitar and staring, catatonic, into the stage lights.

The first few times I'd played for people, I'd had to fight the urge, with all my might, to bolt from the stage, then run out the front door and down the street, screaming. If I didn't faint first, that is.

But I'd made a commitment, and I was determined not to let my fellow guitarists, or our patient director, down. I'd have to face the "Five Stages of Stage Fright" head-on and get through the concert without embarrassing myself or the group. Or my husband, who has attended all of my recitals and performances without ever resorting to earplugs (no matter how much he wanted to).

Stage one of stage fright: denial. "I'm not really a member of a guitar ensemble. I dreamed the whole thing!"

Stage two: anger. "What was I thinking?!? Have I learned nothing from prior performances?!? I'm an idiot!"

Stage three: bargaining. "Lord, if you get me through this without my messing up too badly, I'll never cuss when I make a musical mistake again. Not ever!"

Stage four: depression. "Why the long face?" asked Doug, three days before the concert. "Waaaaaah!" I cried and burst into tears.

Stage five: acceptance. As every time before, I packed up my guitar and headed for campus. At 7:30 p.m. I walked onto the stage with the rest of the group, sat down, and played. And I lived through it.

As a matter of fact, I was so bummed when it was all over, I can't even imagine not signing up for guitar ensemble next semester. Maybe I'll even stop working myself into a froth over the final performance.

Nah, that's never gonna happen.

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