How to Handle Criticism and Avoid Stage Fright as a Guitar Player
Critics and Stage Fright
When you play guitar in front of other people you open yourself up for dissection, criticism and, sometimes, some pretty harsh comments. It goes with the territory, and if you want to make it as a creative person, in any field really, you need to learn how to brush off the haters and continue on with your vision.
It’s not easy. Many young guitar players experience stage fright, worried that people are going to judge them or even laugh at them for their playing. It can even drive them to quit.
Sometimes even friends and family members, the people you count on for support, can wield the sharpest words. They may not understand what you are doing, or they may even think they are being helpful, but when they seem critical of your music it can really sting.
Playing in front of strangers comes with pitfalls, and that's just how it is. At the very first gig I ever played I recall our lead singer announcing the band members one by one. When he got to me, I remember people applauding. I also clearly remember one lone voice shouting, “You suck!”
It's kind of funny thinking back on it now, but at the time it really bothered me. A hundred people were cheering, and many came up to me after the show with good things to say. Only one person was a jerk.
So why did the words of the jerk resound with me more than the support from the rest of the crowd?
Unfortunately, we creative types also tend to be pretty sensitive. It’s an unfortunate trick of nature that those who are most compelled to share their talents with the world also have the thinnest skin.
I’ve learned a lot since that first gig, and in this article I’ll present some ideas that have helped me to deal with those who have let me know how unimpressed they are with my playing.
You Can’t Make Everyone Happy
The first thing you need to realize is that you’re never going to please everyone. In fact, if you are trying to please everyone you are doing something wrong. Music, by nature, is subjective. Like politics and religion, it’s also something that many people feel strongly about.
Some of the most unique guitar players in history took heavy criticism for their approach to the instrument. When Hendrix first hit the scene there were many traditional guitarists and rock music fans who only heard a pile of noise in his music. Some people will tell you Eddie Van Halen’s playing amounts to nothing but a bunch of tricks, and that Yngwie cares more about showing off than writing decent songs.
These guys are some of my personal guitar heroes, and to me and millions of others they have been hugely inspirational. But they also endure a whole lot of criticism and negativity, and there are plenty of people out there who can’t stand them.
Learn from those great guitarists. If you want to be the best musician you can you need to follow your vision, and ignore the critics. You’ll find there are those who love what you are doing and are willing to follow you to the ends of the Earth. If you are doing it right, you’ll also attract the attention of those who wish you’d fall off the end of the Earth.
Back so many years ago during that first gig, I knew I was a decent guitar player. Maybe the guy who heckled me just hated the style of music we were playing. We were a progressive metal band on a bill with some hardcore bands, and he may have just wanted us off the stage.
This was also the early ‘90s, the dawn of the dark ages of guitar when anyone who dared play guitar solos was beginning to come under scrutiny. I sometimes played several solos in one song. A lot of people would have really hated that, especially in the hardcore community.
So it was him, not me. Right?
If you want to be the best musician you can you need to follow your vision, and ignore the critics.
It’s Not You (Or Maybe It Is)
Of course there is another possibility: Maybe I did suck! At least in this guy’s mind.
Compared to most guitarists I was a pretty good player, but certainly there were better musicians out there. Maybe I just wasn’t up to the standard that this guy expected. It’s true in music and just about everything else you do in life: No matter how good you get, there is always someone better out there.
For a veteran guitarist it is hard to take. You know you’re good. You work hard. You practice your butt off. You get up on stage to play the music you worked so hard on, and you get slammed.
It’s even worse if you are a young guitarist struggling to get better. It can be disheartening when other people criticize or speak negatively of your playing. Maybe you haven’t been playing very long and you know you have a long way to go. When someone tells you that you are a bad guitar player, you know they are right!
In either case, I think the solution is the same. Though it’s tough, we need to learn to gauge our value as a musicians against our own standards, rather than the criticism we get from others.
And above all else, don't let other people stop you from following your dream!
Establish measurable goals and work hard to achieve them. Maybe you want to learn all the patterns of the major scale, or maybe you want to write a song a week. Work hard on those things, and as you achieve them you’ll reinforce to yourself how good you are at this guitar thing.
Record yourself. This is a valuable tool, especially for younger players. Pick a benchmark riff or scale and record yourself playing it, then forget about it. Record yourself playing the same riff or scale a month or two later, then dig up the old recording and compare.
I bet you’ll see a big improvement, and you’ll know for sure you are improving, no matter what anyone says. Using goal setting like this you will clearly see your progress, and anyone who tries to bring you down will be wasting their breath.
We need to gauge our value as a musicians against our own standards, rather than the criticism we get from others.
Consider the Source
You don’t need a degree in psychology to see that there are a lot of angry people in the world today. Some of them want nothing more than to bring you down. Maybe they are jealous because you’re able to learn an instrument and they never had the courage to try. Maybe they resent you just for being up on stage. Maybe they are just rotten people for reasons you’ll never understand.
You can’t let those kinds of people get to you. No matter what they say or do they will never make you feel as badly as they feel inside. They have their own issues to work through that have nothing to do with you or your guitar playing. Offer them luck and a prayer that they get the help they need to see the world in a better way, and then forget about them.
There’s also a phenomenon where people seem to think they have the right to say anything they want to a band that’s performing. You’ll see this a lot in sports too. People figure they paid for the ticket and that gives them the right to boo or heckle or just plain act like morons.
I don’t quite understand this way of thinking, but it’s kind of a compliment. In their own bizarre way they are elevating you to a status above them. It’s like they think you are impervious to their words, because, after all, you are the big guitarist up on the stage, and they are just lowly common folk. Their harsh words may be their attempt to bring you down to their level. Weird, but kinda cool, I guess!
Learn Who to Ask for Feedback
Even if you gauge your progress by your own goals, as a guitar player the right kind of constructive criticism is helpful, and a healthy part of your development. Just be careful where you look for it.
My wife means well, but I know she isn’t a person I can look to for feedback on my music. I know any new song I play for her will be called “Nice”.
In her mind she’s giving me a compliment, but what I hear is, “I don’t really care enough about your playing to listen very closely to whatever it is you just did there, and also I was distracted by thinking about what color I’d like to paint the living room.”
Of course that’s not what she’s thinking. She’s just not a person who thinks very much about music, so when I ask her for an opinion she isn’t equipped to provide that kind of feedback. But she wants to be supportive, so those are the words that come out. Still, sweating for weeks over a piece I think is pretty good and then having it called “nice” is pretty disheartening, so I’ve learned not to ask.
If someone in your life is not the kind of person who will critically evaluate your work in an honest way, it’s best to avoid asking them for feedback. Instead, seek out the people you know will tell you what they like about your playing, and also be honest with you about what needs work. Put together a mental list of the people you can and can’t look to for feedback about your playing.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t play music for your parents or wife or husband or whoever. Just don’t get hung up on it if they don’t get it, and don’t look to them for the healthy criticism all artists need.
Seek out the people you know will tell you what they like about your playing, and also be honest with you about what needs work.
Keep it in Perspective!
A great piece advice I once heard, which not only applies to music but life in general, is to remember that nobody has the power to make you feel badly unless you give them that power. So don’t give them the power!
Sounds easy until you try to put it into practice. Whether we admit it or not, as guitarists and songwriters we want people to feel as passionately about our music as we do. We want them to love us, appreciate us and say things like, “Dang that boy can play!”
But the truth is that not everyone is going to love us, and some may downright hate us and there is nothing we can do about it. We can never let that stop us, and even when we feel like the world is against us we have to continue our journey.
If the haters are getting your down, if you’re thinking of quitting, and if you feel you’ll never have what it take to be a successful musician, here’s a little exercise that might help you keep it in perspective:
Think of a famous band or musician. A very bad one. One who seems so utterly ridiculous and untalented that you can barely stand to listen to them. Got one in mind?
Now realize that the very fact that you have heard of them means they have legions of fans out there who think they are awesome. People like you may hate them, but many people love them.
Not only that, but some guy in a suit at a record company thought they were so good that he was willing to throw money at them so they could record albums.
Point is: Do your thing, play your music and work your butt off. Not everyone will appreciate it, but the right people will, and that’s all that really matters.