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After two years of playing concerts for our pets and the red light of the video camera, getting back into performing for audiences of actual people, or teachers closer than a zoom call away has been thrilling and nerve wrecking in equal measure! But what the lockdowns took away in time and close human contact, it gave us double measure in reflection and self-exploration.

For me, the time meant being able to seriously dedicate myself to long distance running, a lifelong love that had been sidelined for years by my google calendar. The lockdown provided the time and the impetus to get out on my feet again and now, two years on, as the start line of my first official ultramarathon steadily approaches and as the concert lights go on again, there are plenty of things I’m changing in accordance with what I’ve learnt about myself, my mind and my body that are helping me to combat that oh so familiar sensation of stage fright.

1. Every minute (mile) counts

At the end of one of my first long runs guided by the nike run app, a voice over from coach Lydia O’Donnell exclaimed ‘Way to go! This run means more miles in the bank that you can cash out whenever you need’. It then struck me that we rarely think of practice of an instrument as a linear path towards a performance, we rarely think of the time we spend as ‘cash in the bank’. In my experience of talking to colleagues practice can feel like a necessity, an attempt at being ready for something, but something that ultimately delivers inconsistent or elusive results.

I started realizing that, assuming I was well rested and not injured, if I had run 10 miles once in a week I could do it again and again and again, so became the limits of my physical and mental capacity. I realised that what was holding me back from running that distance again in the past had been a negotiation with myself that reasoned myself out of the belief that this distance could be achieved so soon again.

Once I returned to concerts again late last year, one of the main things I took from running was this style of preparation. If I have done it once, I can do it again, and building towards that means that every minute I put in counts towards where I’m trying to be.

2. A run is a run (practice is a performance)

During the lockdowns and even in the time between them, most events the world over were cancelled including both concerts and official running events. Too many people too close together! This meant that the first half marathon and marathon distances I ran in my life were runs that I had to plan out in advance and track myself with GPS just like a normal run.

No crowds cheering and no ticker tape to mark the finish. This didn’t change the way I approached the performance itself, all of the preparation the night before, the adrenaline that ran through me, the focus I engaged were all on the same level that I hold myself to before an organized race.

Simply put, the quality of a performance should not be defined by the audience that is watching, this performance belongs to you and you should hold yourself to the same standards whether or not eyes are on you.

3. Test your Equipment

A basic but unmissable part of preparation for any performance. Check that everything you plan to use for your performance is in good, working condition and that you know how to use each item you will engage with on stage, for a musical performance this might be a guitar support or item of clothing, for running this was a certain backpack or pair of trainers.

This is not just a check to make sure everything will function well, but it is also a key part of mental preparation that will set your mind at ease in the moments before you walk on stage (or to the start line!).

4. Create consistent conditions

This is perhaps the easiest and most important thing I learnt over the last two years. Creating as many consistent conditions as you can pre performance is absolutely paramount to success. So often pre-covid I would borrow a footstool, not try out a chair, play on strings that were a little too new or a little too close to being too old and not worry. I actually adopted this way of being because so many people warned me of the dangers of creating a ritual around performance that would at some point be impossible to carry out.

The reality is that you can control so many conditions in every performance which not only puts your mind at ease, but also makes the potentially unsettling situation much easier physically which settles your mind too!

5. Fuel

Aside from a vague notion of guitarists eating copious amounts of bananas pre-performance I had never considered how the fuel I put in my body would affect my musical performance.

Once I started long distance running, I began to discover the nutritional science of how to sustain movement for so long and at such high intensity which all revolves around how to fuel your body to be able to sustain an optimal level of energy throughout a run, not just with aim to improve your physical performance, but most importantly to keep the chemical balance in your brain from changing and causing an emotional meltdown.

I started to realize that limiting caffeine, alcohol and focusing on meals the night before and a few hours before performance that consisted of easy to eat, complex carbohydrates such as lentil soup or yogurt helped enormously in being able to stay focused and feeling fit during a run and a concert!

6. Have a plan and stick to it

This goes along with keeping as many things consistent as possible, but whilst creation and experiment is incredibly important, when we get on to the stage or into a race, we should stick to the plan we have made for ourselves.

When we’re in a heightened state of awareness, every mistake or wrong foot can throw our concentration off, so concentrating on the plan we have created in advance helps us to get through our performance mishap free.

7. You are the only runner

Even in a race of 10,000 runners, the only runner that matters to you should be you. Focusing on others around you isn’t going to improve your performance, so stop focusing on who else is watching or what someone else is doing and just get the job done!

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Dave McLellan

Concert & Chamber Guitarist

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