I started learning bass relatively late in life – I was nearly 40 – and it took a while before I was confident enough to look for a band to play with. I wasn’t really sure what sort of music I wanted to play, I just knew that all those hours of lessons and practice needed to be put to some use. But what would happen when I stepped onto a stage for the first time? I’d heard stories of people so badly struck down with nerves that they were physically sick – would that happen to me?
The first band I joined was with three Polish lads who were into thrash metal. Not really my sort of music, but I got to play loud and had to learn to use a pick (plectrum) as they were really fast. The bassist and the drummer in any band have to work together and be tight: my problem was that the drummer didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Polish, but we got by. The main reason for that was that he was an awesome drummer, very consistent, on the beat all the time, and it helped my playing a lot. We rehearsed every week for over a year and I have to say we were not bad, though we didn’t play any gigs in that time. Then the lead guitarist got ill, then the drummer damaged his arm, and things came to a crashing halt for a while, so I went looking for another band to fill in while I waited for them to recover.
I met the drummer and singer of what was to become my main band one night in a local pub, having responded to an ad in a music shop. We got on well so I went round to their house to start learning some of their songs (they’d already written and recorded an album together) and at about the same time we added a guitarist to the lineup. We started rehearsing and after the third or fourth session I was told we had a gig in a couple of weeks! I was nowhere near ready (I felt) and still struggling with the intricacies of some of the songs, because the drummer had written them and he was a big fan of bands like Rush and Dream Theater, so the basslines he’d written reflected that. His drumming was also like that, and he was again very consistent and on the money, so it was easy to lock in to when I should be playing what. Talk about in at the deep end! But it didn’t stop me sleeping and I felt pretty calm about the whole thing.
Anyhow, after another rehearsal or two, we ended up in Oxford at the Port Mahon pub, the venue for our first gig as a band, and my first ever. (The rest of the band had literally hundreds of gigs under their belts each.) There were three bands on that night, and we sat around listening to the first band, all very calm and relaxed. There were maybe 30 or 40 people in total, mostly members of the other bands and their friends. Then it was our turn, and still no sign of stage fright or nerves. It seemed the most natural thing to get up out of our seats, on to the “stage” (it was some rickety chipboard sheeting about 4 inches higher than the rest of the floor) and it’s fair to say that the venue had been lacking TLC for some time. We started playing, and still no sign of nerves: the buzz of getting applause when our first song was over was incredible. We started the second song, and at some point I looked down at my left hand and saw that the fingers were shaking – but still playing. It’s hard to describe, but it’s like my hand was nervous all on its own, because I didn’t feel the least bit phased by it all. Maybe I’d been posessed by Thing from The Addams Family!
Our set, which was only 30 minutes or so, seemed to flash by, and when it ended I felt a massive rush. I’d done it! Played my first ever gig, got through it without making too many mistakes and thoroughly enjoyed it! And to cap it all, when all the bands had finished, the number of people who were amazed to hear that had been my first gig and complimented me on my playing made me feel about 20 feet tall and invincible. I thought to myself “I could get used to this!”, and I have to say that nerves never seemed to affect me with that band, even when we played in front of 1500 people at the opening of a festival, except once.
We were asked to play at the O2 in Oxford two days later, supporting Shawn Crahan from Slipknot and his side project, Dirty Little Rabbits. I wasn’t too worried about supporting such an iconic figure (he’s The Clown in Slipknot, and I’m not really into their style of music), but I got really nervous about playing the same stage that some of my favourite bands had been on, to the extent that I didn’t sleep much the two nights before the gig, my heart was pounding and breath was racing. Try as I might, I couldn’t calm the nervousness. Even setting up and soundchecking was quite nerve racking, which was surprising because a) I’d done this loads of times by now and b) we were playing upstairs at the venue, so not event the same stage as my idols. Once we got on stage to play though, the nerves had gone and we just rocked out.
I still remember thinking at one point, as I was standing on the very edge of the stage in front of the monitors, staring out over the crowd, that I was a bass player and should be standing in the shadows at the back, so what was I doing all the way out front?
It was a great gig! We played there again, shortly afterwards, supporting Misstallica, and there were no nerves at all – how strange is that? (We’ve split up as a band, but the photo at the top of this blog is from one of our gigs, and you can check us out at http://14ten.net/)
There was one other occasion where stage fright / nerves should maybe have cut in. My ex wife played in a 60s covers band, and I’d been to see them lots of times. (Their bassist was hugely experienced, had played in countless bands for the best part of 50 years, yet still got really nervous before any gig: he always seemed surprised that i didn’t.) One Saturday they were due to be playing in Banbury and she’d gone to meet the rest of the band in the afternoon to start taking equipment to the venue, when I got a call from her. Their bassist was seriously unwell, and they asked me to step in for him. I had 4 hours to learn their 2 hour set, all of which were songs I’d never played before. So I spent the afternoon working on those, then off to the gig and soundcheck. At that point I found out that the two hardest songs for me – We’ve Got To Get Out Of This Place and Stand By Me – were in a different key to the one I’d learned, so I had maybe half an hour to work out how to play them “properly” before we were due on.
After all that, I got up on stage, and played – and not a shred of nervousness. I guess I’d figured out that there was nothing to lose, that I could only do my best at short notice. What really helped I think though was that again the drummer was very solid and dependable, so I locked in to what he was playing and away we went. It was one of the best gigs I’ve ever played at: we had people dancing from start to finish, my two “tricky” songs went down well, and I got a special round of applause when it was announced I’d only stepped in that afternoon.
I don’t know why some people get stage fright and some don’t. I know I’ve had that when doing a presentation at work, yet when I’m with my band there’s pretty much no sign of it. Maybe it’s the relative anonymity of being in a crowd rather than all on my own. I think I was also very fortunate in that a portion of every lesson I had involved jamming to different musical styles with my tutor and a drum machine, and that gave me the confidence to play multiple genres. I do know that playing to a crowd of people who are up dancing and singing along is one of the best feelings there is though!
I thought I’d share a couple of tips that I think have helped me avoid (too much) stage fright:
- Practice, practice and practice some more, playing different genres of music, ideally with other people
- Know your scales and play them often
- If in doubt, play the root notes – just keep it simple
- If you’re a bassist, try to lock in with the drummer – his snare or kick drum are ideal – the two of you are a team after all