Robert Fripp’s Approach to Nervousness in Performance

Robert Fripp and sister Patricia Fripp
Patricia Fripp, with Her Brother, Robert Fripp

As a public speaker and executive speech coach I find there are many parallels between musical performance and public speaking. My question when attendees at my speaking schools tell me, “I am nervous when it comes to public speaking!” is, “Are you nervous because you are inexperienced and do not have a coach, mentor, or class to teach you how?” Even experienced speakers and performers get nervous. We have to channel our energy and get comfortable with our message. Let us now go to my brother, legendary guitarist, Robert Fripp. Enjoy this excerpt from his diary:

A Brief Approach To Nervousness In Performance.

The question has come up in personal meetings: how to deal with nervousness in performance? Conventionally, this comes under the heading of stage fright.

There are imaginary and genuine issues to address, both performance-personal and performance-external, in preparing for a performance. This gives us, initially, four areas to consider:

Genuine – personal (internal and functional).
Genuine – performance.
Imaginary – personal (internal and functional).
Imaginary – performance.

Although any one performance takes place within a relatively short time period, historic resonances and anticipation have powerful effect.

Genuine Personal Concerns.

I am, myself, nervous before a performance if…

I have not practised my instrument.
I have not practised the repertoire; if improvising, I have no beginning-strategies to employ as beginning points if imagination and/or inspiration fail.
I have not tuned my instrument.
I have not checked my equipment (even then, sometimes equipment fails).
These are genuine (functional) personal concerns. Genuine (internal) personal concerns relate to our overall state and condition: emotional, psychological and physical health; and the reliability/intensity of our practice.

Positively expressed, all the above are bottom-line requirements if I am to walk onstage with confidence. Then, before I walk on, I collect myself and appeal to the Muse.

Genuine Performance Concerns.

The performance space: kind and size – open air, stadium, sports hall, concert or burlesque theatre, rock club, bar. Acoustics. Sightlines. Layout (for traffic flows). Stage (flat or with a rake/slope). Backstage – is practising/preparation possible?

Cultural traditions and conventions (eg Japan, Europe, North and South America). Performance conventions and traditions: concert, recital, entertainment, Vegas, burlesque, celebratory, hoe-down and hootenanny, rock & roll.

The audience: state – drunk, sober, drugged, passive, outgoing, smoking, expectant, trained, mature, adolescent, open – closed. Audience “rights” – photography and recording, disregard of courtesy & manners

The industry. Promotion and publicity: if the event is mediated by commerce, is the advertising honest? Does the promotion generate inappropriate expectations? Attract the “wrong” audience? Commercially mediated event or charity performance?

Overall: the suitability-match between music, musician, audience, performance space & industry.

Imaginary Personal Concerns.

Many of us have unfortunate or inappropriate experiences as children. Children are exceptionally sensitive and internalise (especially negative) events, some of which continue to have effect and to haunt us into adult life. Examples of negative messages: you can’t do anything right; you can’t make decisions; you are a failure; you have no talent; you are a show-off.

“Critical adults” may stay with us into adulthood and undermine our current activities. How to deal with this? An approach, recommended several times on this course, is this:

We externalise the internalised negative message by writing the history of the child, as if this were a child we wish to know better and  to love more deeply. We offer no judgement and approach the history with impartiality. As we grow to know this child more deeply, we discover and externalise the situation that has had a traumatising effect, and put this situation outside of ourselves. Then, as adults, we have data and information to process. Reflecting upon this information, we can take adult decisions and make adult choices, and redeem the consequences of the event/s that remains powerfully present; even though the situation and context are now very different.

For example, if the child were repeatedly told between the age of five and seven that they “couldn’t do anything right”, we might today decline to accept this as accurate, reliable and/or relevant information in our adult lives; and point to an established career and ongoing success in our particular field as a grown-up person.

For example, if we were told as a child that we could/should not make decisions for ourselves, we may/may not accept this as valid information for the child (depending upon the specific circumstances); but remove the injunction from our grown-up lives; and reflect upon our adult experience as a competent decision-maker, one well qualified to know what is in our own best interests, and to act accordingly.

It is necessary, to lessen the hold of the “command”, that we forgive those who gave it to us. This is a longer process.

Imaginary Performance Concerns.

Inexperienced: where the inexperienced performer has no reality-base to form reliable judgements.

Experienced: where the experienced performer lives close to/in fantasy and delusion: an increasing distance from daily life resulting from fame and celebrity; the degree to which the performer is manipulated by management and/or industry as a control strategy; believes their own press; has substance abuse issues.

Other Legitimate Concerns.

These include concerns that relate to the wider present moment of performance, which go beyond the specific single event under consideration. Legitimate and practical concerns include…

Musicians. Other players we are working with, particularly where they have substance problems, delusions of personal charisma, use the performance as a means of attracting sexual partners, deep rooted emotional and psychological problems, issues of power-play and control strategies, resentment and jealousy of other band members, the belief that the world has not fully recognised their worth and contribution, and/or the want to be rich and famous, a failure to listen.

Industry. Management, who control the band’s business interests; agents and promoters; and record company. There are often conflicts of interest and contrary aims between performer and industry.

Fan mentality and unrealistic wants, demands and expectations. Stalkers and loonies who appear and re-appear over a period of many years. Sympathetic resonance from the audience to the demeanour of the performer: if the performer looks nervous, then the audience will probably get nervous too.

These wider factors all have resonance within the single performance-moment.

This is a very brief overview of “stage fright” and legitimate performance concerns. I have made no mention here of, for example, the effects of touring and constant travelling on performance.

Thank you Robert!

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