The third song sends the pedals splintering into bits, your setlist has sailed away on the breeze, you’re still feeling yesterday night’s party and you didn’t have enough time to practise for the encore. What does your nightmare performance look like? There’s no question that performing on stage requires the right preparation: not only should you make sure your equipment is complete and working, but you also need to be physically and mentally fit. This is what allows you to keep a clear head and deliver a clean performance – even if things don’t run smoothly on the night.
Checklist for drums, cymbals and accessories
When it comes to managing their equipment, no other band member has it harder. Does everything work, with no rattling? Are the skins intact? Are spares present for all the wear parts? A good tip is to print out a checklist for concerts or studio sessions and write down everything you’ll need for a successful performance (sticks, rug, skins, tape, etc.). Then, try to pack them up in plenty of time, not rushing around before your departure. This will allow you chance to get into the right headspace for the gig.
A workout at the drums
As a drummer, you’re required to commit fully to every second on the stage. Sure, there are rock singers or R’n’B artists who give their all from beginning to end – dancing, running and jumping across the space – but most of the time, it’s the drummers who are expected to consistently perform at their best and give their full physical effort.
To play with the necessary power and speed and maintain your stamina and agility, you should generally make sure to treat yourself to adequate sleep, a balanced diet and enough water – especially during the gig itself. Drumming regularly is a good way to train your physical fitness, and you may also benefit from exercises targeting the relevant muscle groups and joints.
You don’t need to be a professional athlete – but with a certain level of physical fitness, you’ll complete performances more easily, bring more self-confidence and creativity to your playing and even get more enjoyment out of your work. It should be fun, after all …
The fifth element: mental strength
In addition to being in good physical condition, playing in front of an audience requires an authentic stage presence. Ideally, you’ll play with focus and concentration while simultaneously projecting a cool, relaxed image. Aside from the motor skills of strength, endurance, agility and speed, mental strength is very important for a successful live performance. This strength will make it much easier for you to give the performance that is required of you.
As such, as a musician, you can benefit from some basic psychological knowledge and tricks aimed at training this mental strength. You may already have heard about “resilience”: the inner capacity for bouncing back that helps you better handle difficult situations. The more you develop this capacity yourself, the easier it will be for you not to be deterred by setbacks or made nervous by a technical problem at a live show. In short, you’re less likely to get frustrated when things go wrong, and in the best case scenario, you’ll learn how to avoid the same mistakes next time around.
Mental training for musicians
How can we deal with stress or uncertainty before a gig or audition? Christian Obermaier, mental coach and solo timpanist in the Munich Radio Orchestra, advises musicians not to focus on their nervousness, but on their breathing, which will in turn help to curb their nerves. Christoph Schneider, drummer with Rammstein, dedicates time before a gig to focusing his mind and doing physical activity: he withdraws for an hour to perform yoga exercises. He also swears by a pre-gig warm-up, and plays a variety of stickings to relax.
Here are a few other tried-and-tested methods to help drummers (and other performers!) train their mental strength:
- Don’t think about what could go wrong or what parts were hard to perfect during practice, as this will only be destructive. It sounds like a cliche, but positive thinking works! Visualise how amazing it will be if the groove finds momentum, all the instruments mesh, the audience are responsive and you give a great performance on your own adrenalin rush. All these thoughts have a positive effect on your subconscious mind.
- If you can recognise your worries and what is causing them, you won’t automatically feel them less, but they will deter you less from your goals.
- Don’t ask yourself why you’re less relaxed than drummer XY and can’t play as tightly as them on stage. Instead, ask yourself: “What do I have to do to be as relaxed on stage and to play as tightly as him/her?”
- Learn to stay focused on your goals, even in difficult situations, and to take lessons from setbacks or mistakes.
- Strength lies in composure. In the modern world, we are exposed to a constant flood of stimuli, which means that we are stressed, less attentive and less focused than before. Give your brain regular breaks of silence to refuel and return with greater focus.
Listening: a great challenge of live performances
For me, concentrated listening is one of the biggest mental challenges involved in live performance. I would even go as far as to say that concentrated listening is an art. Whenever we listen to a piece of music, we assign it structure by picking out familiar elements. Even if we’ve never heard it before, we can usually rely on recognising certain structural and stylistic rules. Like a piece of music, a groove consists of several elements, each of which must be identified through active listening. This is because our brain needs time to understand and digest the various sound patterns to which it is exposed.
For this reason, I find serial listening to be another important exercise for drummers. Serial listening means focusing exclusively on one particular aspect of the groove or music before turning to the next one. This is quite different to parallel listening, where we attempt to take in a piece of music or groove in its entirety. Especially when it comes to performing live, I’ve found that serial listening is very helpful for playing tight with the metronome or drum machine and building a stable, rhythmic foundation with the bassist.
Practising in your head
Another example of how you can use your head to perform better – whether in the studio or on stage – is to practise certain sequences mentally. This allows you to easily work on whole pieces, exercises or particularly difficult parts in your head. Even if you’re suffering from joint pain or tendonitis, you’ll still be able to improve your technique.
Psychologists have found that it doesn’t matter to the brain whether you’re sitting on set or just imagining it. The reason for this is that both activities stimulate and call upon the same areas of the brain. However, this mental training must also be trained until it becomes routine – and again, this comes down to visualisation. You must imagine how a particular fill-in will sound, and then picture how you’re going to master it.
Going your own way as a drummer
What do you want to achieve as a drummer? Do you want to play big tours, participate in cool studio productions or earn a regular income as a professional musician? Set specific goals. If you know where you want to go, it will be easier for you to follow that path.
Of course, you’ll always need to focus on improving your own playing. You’ll watch top drummers live or in online videos, read books and attend workshops. But in my experience, aside from your technical professionalism and passion for music, your mental strength is just as important – not only for success on stage, but for your general career as a drummer and for better dealing with the challenges of everyday life as a professional musician.
Once you learn how to manage the mental demands of live performances, you open up the opportunity to fully utilise or even increase your potential as a player. After all, who doesn’t appreciate going on stage feeling optimally (physically and mentally) prepared?!
How do you deal with the mental demands of live performances? How do you like to prepare? Let me know in the comments!