The following is an excerpt from the Modern Drummer book Mind Matters: Overcoming Common Mental Barriers in Drumming, by Bernie Schallehn.
A+ Practice, C- Performance
Q: In the past year I got a chance to play with two different “name” performers. The rehearsals went well, and I thought I was prepared. But during the actual performances I felt my drumming was barely adequate. Moments before going on stage, I was psyched and I didn’t have stage fright, but I just couldn’t turn it on. The artists seemed satisfied with my playing—no negative comments—but I walked away believing I’d turned in a C-minus performance. I’m trying to figure out what happened. Can you help?
A: Sure. You’re just not good enough. Does that nail it? If you had an instant visceral reaction to that statement—like a punch in the gut—then my guess is probably spot on.
See, there’s a part of you that had the self-confidence to accept the gig; you believed in your abilities enough to say yes. You also sailed through the rehearsals with these known musicians using that same part of your brain. But when it came time to play the gig, another part of you was operating. We’ll call that self-doubt.
First, as I always recommend, try to recall any inner dialogue that you were aware of just before the gig. You mentioned that you were psyched, so that inner-speak was probably quite positive and powerful. But were snippets of any other words or phrases in your mind expressing self-doubt?
If you’re in your late teens to late twenties, this self-doubt is a result of what some psychologists have termed “the imposter syndrome.” You think you’ve got the world fooled into believing you’re a good drummer. You may have spent 10,000 hours woodshedding (which is known to be the minimal amount of practice time required to “master” a particular skill), but some part of you still insists on believing that it’s not enough and that you’re a fraud, eventually to be found out.
If you got the call to play with two well-known artists, I’m guessing you have a pretty good reputation and will have other opportunities to dazzle your audience while backing up a “name” performer. You’ve obviously prepared yourself physically—through practice and rehearsal—so start to incorporate some techniques that will prepare you mentally. Try these:
1. Close your eyes. Picture a screen. On that screen, place memories of all your “sizzling” drum performances—times when you played great. Make the images big, bright, and in colors that really pop. Imagine stepping into at least one of those experiences, and relive the glory. See what you saw, hear what you heard, and feel what you felt at the time.
2. On a 3×5 index card, write the following sentence: “If I can do it in practice, I can do it in performance.” Keep the card with you until these words are committed to memory.
3. Check your physiology as you walk on stage at your next gig. Keep your shoulders back and your head held high, and wear a smile—not a phony one. If you get in touch with your love of drums and drumming and you appreciate your hard-earned chops, that smile should come naturally.
4. If you end up tuning in to a scared inner voice that doubts your ability, reassure it with a confident, knowing voice. If the scared voice persists, refute it with facts—facts based on real-life experiences that prove you’re a good player.
Regarding your C-minus gigs, give yourself credit for getting the job done. Granted, you didn’t strut your best stuff like you had hoped. But it wasn’t a disaster either. You probably just played it safe.
“ A+ Practice, C- Performance” originally ran in Bernie Schallen’s bimonthly Modern Drummer advice column, Mind Matters. The series was developed to offer creative advice, strategies, and solutions for mental issues that are common among aspiring musicians. A number of Bernie’s MD articles, along with exclusive, previously unpublished material, have been compiled in the book Mind Matters: Overcoming Common Mental Barriers in Drumming.