Sandlin Gaither

While I was in Kansas City, MO teaching a live performance master class at a Folk Alliance International annual conference, I attended a workshop presented by one of favorite fiddle players, Grammy-nominated recording artist Casey Driessen.

Casey’s workshop, which he called “Playing With GUTS!”, addressed stage fright and other issues that may get in the way of having a satisfying performance experience. I recorded the workshop, and Casey graciously gave me permission to post a transcript of his remarks here.

A highly sought-after touring musician, session player, educator, and producer, Casey is known for his fiery, percussive playing style and his way of stretching musical boundaries. He has performed with such artists as Béla Fleck, Steve Earle, Tim O’Brien, Jim Lauderdale, Lee Ann Womack, and Chris Thile. The artists he has recorded with include Darol Anger, John Mayer, Jerry Douglas, Jamey Haddad, and Blue Merle. He also played on the soundtrack for the Johnny Cash biography film Walk the Line

Casey is known for his inventive effects pedals/live-looping technique, which he regularly utilizes in his concerts. You can watch Casey’s TEDx talk to see his demonstration of this technique.

Casey began the workshop by singing “Country Blues” while accompanying himself on the fiddle. When the song was finished, he talked about what he experienced while playing it.

Well, I started to think about this class, and then I immediately forgot the lyrics that I was supposed to sing. And then I started thinking about how I forgot the lyrics, and then I skipped a set of verses. And then I started thinking about being able to focus when you’re playing – losing track of that focus, it ends up being a detriment to me.

On distractions:

I’m trying to do my best to focus on the music, and I end up closing my eyes when I play because I’m so visually distracted. I see movement here, I recognize somebody in the audience that I haven’t seen for a long time, and then I just start thinking about other items as opposed to what I’m really supposed to be doing. And so I’ve found that, for me, closing my eyes helps me focus my ears on the musical situation. It’s a way to cut out some of that distraction.

And then I go through this thing where I think, well, if I’m closing my eyes, am I putting up a barrier between me and the people that I’m playing music for? Because I think, well, what if I’m watching and somebody’s playing and they’re closing their eyes? And I’m figuring, yeah, there might be a small bit of a barrier there. But I’ve determined that I’m ok with that, because I feel like I’m going to make better music if I’m closing my eyes. And it’s not that I’m hiding from anything – I can actually give more of myself to the music and to the people that are listening if my eyes are closed. So that’s sort of the trade-off. Hopefully, the music then translates, as opposed to just the eye contact translating and myself being less satisfied with what I’m playing.

On stage fright:

I started to think about stage fright – and how things affect my playing when I’m at gigs – a few years back. And I realized that I don’t feel like musicians talk about this subject very much among themselves. We’re supposed to be solid and strong and confident all the time, and we don’t really discuss this. But I was curious – if I’m feeling this, certainly other musicians must be feeling similarly.

I’ve been performing since I was 13, and I still have these situations where I get anxiety about a performance or a recording session. So with that amount of experience behind me, if I’m feeling this way, certainly other people are feeling this way, too. And my goal in this workshop is to help you realize that you’re not alone in this and share my experiences – things that have actually happened, that I’ve learned from.

There are two different categories of confidence, I believe. There’s an emotional or mental confidence towards playing. But then there’s also physically being more confident in your playing. They’re tied together, for me, each affecting the sound that comes out of your instrument, and what you hear, and how you perceive your sound.

On flawless versus flawed performances:

So I thought I would start here by mentioning when I began to evaluate this subject for myself. A great show, in my mind, where I’m super-satisfied with the performance, is that I nailed everything, flawlessly. I was in tune, I was in time, I played the parts when I was supposed to, I was completely inside the music. I mean, this rarely happens, but when it does, there’s this music happening and I’m just kind of floating on top of it and riding it – like there’s this effortless time. And occasionally that does happen, but it’s few and far between. There’s not a show, really, that doesn’t go by which I wish that something had gone differently.

Then there are shows in which a number of things didn’t go the way I wanted them to. And I noticed that those were the shows that people seemed to react the most positively to. The show that I was the least happy with, strangely everybody was, “That was great!” “Oh, I really loved tonight.” “Tonight was so…” “That was one of the best shows that I ever…”, or, you know, whatever it is that they’re saying. And here I’m thinking, “Oh, jeez, why does it have to be this show that they’re taking away with them?”

Meanwhile, the shows that are effortless, when that does happen, nobody seems to say anything. What is going on here? Why is this happening?

So my thought is that people react to emotion more than they react to technical wizardry. As an instrumentalist, a guy that practices as much as I can, I want to technically master this instrument and bring that execution to the musical situation. But if it’s all lining up, you don’t hear anything kind of popping out. If there’s a wrong note, or a scrape, or you forget something and so, God forbid, you rest for two seconds and then you come back in – it feels like an eternity to you because you forgot something and saying “[gasp] Oh shit, what am I going to do?” – well, my theory is that you’ve given the listener something that they can grab on to.

Tim O’Brien would joke about his tuning on stage and say, “I always thought if I played out of tune, people could hear me better.” Well, there’s kind of something to that! But the audience doesn’t necessarily hear these things as “out of tune” or “out of time” so much. I think they can hear it as little things popping out above the bed of whatever the music is. And for me, all of sudden when I’m struggling on something, and I might be bearing down because I’m frustrated, they see emotion, and they hear emotion, coming through the music. Whereas when it’s effortless, there’s emotion there, but there’s this “sailing” thing that I don’t think rises above, and percolates in and out of, the bed of music that’s happening. That’s why when the show doesn’t go great for me, they’re seeing emotion, and emotion is being translated through the music.

I feel like there’s a threshold where if you improve technically beyond this threshold, the main people that are going to hear it, really – maybe, if they hear it – are going to be other musicians. The non-musically inclined population – once you hit this certain point and you get better, more in tune, faster, whatever – I don’t think it affects them to the same extent.

On messing up during a performance:

It adds an element of humanity. We are all human. I would love to be a machine, but try as I might, I am not a machine. It’s just not possible.

I do a solo show which includes effects pedals and live looping. It all happens live – nothing’s pre-recorded. I’m playing, trying to play it well, because once I record and loop it, I’ve got to hear it over and over. I hear the good stuff, I hear the bad stuff. In the beginning when I’m working on a new tune, and even sometimes on one that I’ve been playing for a long time, I will make a mistake in it. Then, depending on the severity of the mistake, I have to erase the loop that I was working on and start over – and when I first started this solo concept, I was bummed by the thought of having to stop and start over. It was like, “Wow, I just screwed that up, and now I’ve got to stop.” All of a sudden I’m showing my human face to everybody.

I realized that after those shows, I’d be beating myself up, but people would say, “That was great how you had to restart, because I actually couldn’t tell what you were doing, that it was happening right now.” It helped people understand what was going on, just because I had to stop and start over. Unexpectedly, it ended up being a good thing – it helped the show out. So I thought, well, jeez, now should I plan a screw-up in there? But I thought, that’s playing with fire – then I’m going to screw up the screw-up!

We’re so focused on ourselves. It’s important to remember nobody hears you more than you hear yourself. Really. Nobody knows what you intended to play.

This is one idea I like to remind myself of. If I made a mistake, tell me I made a mistake. How does anyone know what I was intending to play? They’re not inside my head. Maybe I wanted it to sound like that! Nobody really knows. And that’s why I think lots of times these things, these mistakes, feel like they last forever for musicians, because we know what we wanted to come out. We know what we were going for. We didn’t hit it, we’re bummed out, but it was probably just fine. I’ll listen back to shows, remembering things that I just didn’t feel sounded great, and find myself thinking, “What was I…I don’t really hear…yeah, maybe that was it? But that’s fine…”

On keeping a things fresh and exciting:

I think you have to keep doing things that are challenging – as humans, but certainly as musicians. You want to improve, you want to get better, and you have to do new material in order to do that. Whenever I have to do a new looping song – oh boy, it messes with me because if I don’t press the pedals in this right order, then it throws the whole arrangement off. But you get better with repetition. And it keeps you on your toes, literally! I like that. I need that. It might not be easy the first time around, but it gets better.

Just like you’ve been doing your tunes forever – they get better over time. However, you might need to say, “I’m tired of this arrangement on this song. I’m sort of bored.” Well, maybe you need to switch an arrangement around on it, you know? Find something new to do with the same tune. And then in early performances, you might end up with half the band going to the old arrangement while half do the new arrangement, and then you’re going to have to figure out what’s going on! But what might feel like a train wreck to us, generally I don’t think feels like a train wreck to the audience, for the most part. And even if it does – it’s the element of humanity, you know? You’re the ones onstage. You’re the ones performing. People are not coming to, really, judge you – they’re coming to support and to hang out with you.

On what makes him nervous:

I get the most nervous whenever I have family and friends in the audience. In reality, who should have my back the most? Who should be on my side the most but my family and my friends? And they are, and I know that. But still, those are the shows that I find myself getting worked up about. “Oh, my mom’s here. Oh, my ex-girlfriend is here. I’ve got to be really good for this one!”

Another situation I get nervous for are small shows. I’ve done shows where it’s me and you guys. That’s interesting, because I think the audience also has a little bit of nervousness about their own presence in the room. Like, “If I clap too loud, or if I holler ‘Wooo!’ because I liked something, everyone knows that just came from me!” But when you’re in this massive crowd like at a festival, you can sort of be invisible, right? If this was the club that I played in Grand Junction where it was me playing for the opening band, the staff, and one drunk heckler – they’re probably uncomfortable for me, I’m uncomfortable for them because I know they’re uncomfortable – I don’t know what to do about it other than just think, “You’re going to have to go through some of these situations and just play.” Maybe then it’s good to close my eyes so I’m just thinking about playing my music.

On getting into the right space for a recording session:

Recording sessions are interesting, because it really is a different situation than playing live. With live, a lot of things are excused by listeners because of the added visual stimulus. If they’re watching a performer, they’re seeing somebody move to the music, they’re watching the drummer, they’re dancing, whatever – they’re not just focused solely on the music that’s happening. So you can get away with a lot, really. With the recording session, that’s all that’s there. The audio is the sole focus.

For recording sessions you have to make sure you can hear yourself well, perhaps more than in live playing, while still hearing the other musicians well enough that you feel like you’re part of the musical situation.

I tend to be, maybe, a little bit more careful. Some people are a lot more careful with how they play – taking less risks. You know when you’re taking a risk, stretching for something. You have to evaluate, do we have time to sit here and work on something if I am screwing up, if I’m playing a difficult part? Am I just overdubbing, or am I tracking live with the band? Is there isolation to allow me to replay my part? It’s really a case-by-case type of situation, but I would tend to be a little less risky with my choices if there’s a time constraint in the studio. And lots of times there is, because it’s costing money the longer that you’re at the studio.

On producers and producing:

Sometimes you have to let people work through ideas and challenging spots for a bit. And even if you think you have an answer that will help them right away, it might not be the best thing to just tell them what to do, because then you run the risk of shutting somebody’s creative juices down. I’ve been shut down before, but usually you get a chance to try something out. If improvising is not your strong suit, work out some notes that really sound good. And don’t be afraid to rest, either – that’s one thing we often forget, we don’t have to play all the time. It makes your content more meaningful when you actually do play something if you’ve taken time to rest. It can be more tasteful.

I make notes in producing situations, notes about something that I want to come back to, that I don’t want to forget, but when now’s not quite the right time to mention it. I want to give the musicians a couple more chances to get the part, because who knows, they may surprise me with something I was not expecting, and that’s great. As long as there’s some sort of constructive contribution – not, “Don’t do that.” But, instead, “Hey, I don’t think that note is working, try this one instead.” You know? As long as you have some sort of solution, as opposed to, “That’s not working. I don’t know what to tell you. You’ve got to figure it out.”

Having somebody produce is really helpful, because it’s so hard to evaluate yourself within a musical situation. Sometimes when producing I need to say, “Ok, let’s take a break, everybody come in and let’s listen to the last three takes. Let’s talk about them and let’s see what actually is happening.” That way everybody can re-evaluate what they were playing, and listen without instruments in hand.

You might realize, “Oh, you know what? I thought that was working…” Maybe you were just really proud of the cool thing you were doing, but it didn’t actually work with the rest of the group. “Something’s not right there, it’s not working. Ok, so I need to not do that. Okay, I’ll pat myself on the back for doing something cool, but it’s really about this whole musical situation, so I’ll need to make a change.” You have to step back from it in order to really evaluate. That’s what a producer can help you do. And producers, lots of times, are listening for emotion, too.

I think we just get focused on ourselves. We’re so concerned. But, when you listen to the other people that are around you, maybe you don’t need to play as much. Conveniently, you’re removing one element of difficulty for yourself. And when you’re listening to the other musicians, you’re also getting inspiration from them, too – you’re getting ideas. So it’s really important to hear other people, and remember that it’s about everybody playing together. There might be a solo in it, but it’s ultimately about the music that you’re making as a group.

On being under the influence of substances while performing:

Substances are around – drugs, alcohol, marijuana, caffeine – you know, any number of things. They affect everybody differently. I think it’s important to understand for yourself how they affect you. Some people can play great under the influence and you would never suspect that’s part of their equation. I hope they’re conscious of how it affects them, and I know how substances affect me.

I’m generally very comfortable onstage. I’m at peace up there. Well, I was sitting in with a group in which all the guys in the group were pot smokers – and it’s a cloud of smoke out there in the audience. It wasn’t my gig, I’m just sitting in. So I thought, hey, if there’s ever a situation that’s safe – I’m going to go ahead and smoke before the show. Then I got up there, and I was so paranoid. I mean, like never before. I’m usually pretty physically fluid when I play – but I could not move my feet. I wanted to be anywhere else but playing and standing onstage right there. It was so different than how I normally feel. And I thought, when I got off the stage, “I am never doing this again.” So I learned, the hard way, how my body reacted to it in a show setting. 

Alcohol is another one I’m aware of. Sometimes it can make you just a little bit more fluid. Maybe it takes the edge off of the nervousness. It’s just a fine line there – I have to be careful with it. Did I have a decent dinner? Did I eat dinner? Is it going to hit me faster than if I ate some spaghetti or something heavy? I enjoyed having that little edge taken off sometimes. Right now, I don’t have a drink before my shows, because there’s a lot of technical accuracy with my whole body that I have to be in tune with – stepping on pedals at the right moment for the arrangement to happen. I’m just not willing to take the chance that if it doesn’t go right, it was because I had a drink before the show. So that’s a decision I’ve made for myself. I’m learning, when is it ok and when is it not ok – for me, personally.

On the use of beta blockers for stage fright:

I’ve never tried them. They are not necessarily “performance enhancing drugs” – they’re anxiety and stress relieving drugs. And they do something with your hormones and the way your body reacts with adrenaline. I hear that a lot of classical musicians take them before big performances. They’re supposed to kind of help you not be shaky or nervous or sweaty – your fight/flight type of responses. They’re generally prescribed, though I was just reading a study saying twenty-five percent of orchestral people use them, however seventy percent of those that use them get them from their friends. So, I don’t have any experience with them, but I know that lots of people do.

On what helps him feel more confident:

Preparation. Practicing. I get uptight for a gig a week out, even though I know I’ve got a week to work on this material – thinking, “[gasp] It’s a week out! I’ve got to practice for this stuff!” Fear and worry are motivators for me to say, “Ok, it’s time to do some work on it.” If there’s a specific performance which you know you’ve got material that is difficult for you, spend time on it. If it doesn’t go well, you did the best that you could. At least you spent time on it – that I can be ok with. But if it doesn’t go well and I was not working on it, that is a situation that’s not acceptable, because I didn’t do anything to try and help myself for it.

Understanding the musical situation. Are you nervous at jams? Or are you nervous in gigs? Is it worth being nervous? Are you one of a bunch of people in which they’re not scrutinizing what you’re playing, where you’re just part of this fabric – is it worth getting uptight about? Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t. But understanding the musical situation – what are the expectations of the other musicians? What are the expectations of the audience? Is it a wedding gig? Are they there to dance? Are they going to be drinking and just having a good time if the beat is there? In that sort of situation, you might have a little bit more freedom to be a little more loose. If it’s a sit-down concert and you’ve got a big solo section, that’s much different than playing a wallpaper gig. So what’s worth your stress time? You can’t stress about all the gigs, you know – hopefully not.

The more that you put yourself in difficult situations, the easier those situations are going to get. It’s usually the first one that is the toughest. Maybe the first five of this new music you’re working on, or this new group that you’re playing with. But it’s going to be ok, you know? This is not the ER – we’re just playing some music here for people.

This one jazz pianist, he was addressing this type of situation. You know, you’ve got your solo, and you think, “Oh, I just fucked up my solo…” Ok, wait a minute here, let’s think about this. It feels really important, because people are at this club to see you, and maybe there’s eighty people there, maybe there’s two thousand – whatever. So you just “screwed” up this solo. Ok, well, let’s back up for a second. Let’s zoom out. You are one guy in this city in which there’s all these other musical things going on. Back up again, ok, now you are in a city within a state full of other cities. Back up again, you’re in this country full of states full of cities full of people. Back up again – I mean, it’s like, really? Is that one solo is going to make or break anybody? Hey, so it didn’t go. You can’t win ‘em all. But it’s really not worth stressing about.

On taking a compliment:

I’ve played for people who got really stressed out after gigs. This stuff really affected them – you know, whether performances went well or not. People would compliment them after the show, and the performer would say something like, “Oh, that was not a good show.”

I mention this because I think you have to be really careful in these situations, because the audience is paying you a compliment. You did something for them. You connected. And by responding, “No, this was not a good show,” you’re effectively saying, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” Or like, “Your feelings right now are invalid, and you just liked something that totally sucked.” You just shot down a compliment from somebody. Suck it up, if you can! Or remove yourself from the situation. But I think you have to be careful about letting the frustration that you might feel be poured out to the people that actually did have a good time. So ok, even though it wasn’t ideal for me, there must be something going on here – I’ll take this compliment.

On making your instrument work for you:

There are a lot of things that you can do to your instrument that are going to make you feel better about the way you play. You can apply this to whatever instruments you have, but keeping your instrument maintained – I know it costs money, but it’s going to make it easier for you to play. And there’s enough hard stuff about playing any instruments – they’ve all got their difficulties – why make it any harder?

For me, one thing is string action. How high are your strings off the fingerboard? That makes a big difference. How hard do you have to press here in order to get the notes out? There’s a range – too low, too high – but there’s a nice middle ground that also affects the tone. Not only how it feels, but, a little higher action, a little bit louder, a little bit brighter. And so if you need something to kind of cut through a little bit more – cutting through can equate with confidence – maybe experiment with the action on your instrument.

For guitars and fretted instruments – frets. Frets get grooves in them from playing which affects the intonation and the way that you can slide on the strings. Get your frets dressed. 

With bowed instruments, you get ruts in your fingerboard. You’ve got to get your fingerboard planed. When I get it planed, I think, “Oh, it’s so much easier and more in tune!”

Putting on new strings – that makes a huge difference for intonation and tone. These things don’t stretch evenly as a whole. Sometimes I feel like, “I just can’t seem to play in tune, but I used to be able to. What is going on? The instrument’s in tune…” Well, the strings have stretched a little bit differently. And when I put on a new set of strings, I realize, “Oh, right. I don’t suck as much as I thought. It was the strings. Maintain my instrument!”

Fresh hair on the bow – it helps grip a little bit better. It gives you a wider range that you can play with dynamically. It makes you more articulate.

How heavy your pick is – if it’s really light, it might be easier to play, but it might not produce as much sound. And you might feel like you’re having to work harder to get it out. Try some different pick gauges and shapes to see what happens.

We experiment with these mechanical details on our instruments to find this nice middle ground that allows us to be expressive and not hinder our instruments physically. It’s important to get your instrument maintained once in a while. I go into music shops and I say, “Hey, you’re an expert at making an instrument sound better. What can I do to make my instrument sound better?” Because things gradually change over time, you may not have noticed a slow degradation.

I had a luthier tell me, “Oh, you know what would be better for you? Your instrument would sound better if you used a different shoulder rest.” And I thought, “What? The shoulder rest makes a difference in the sound of my fiddle?” He said, “Hold on a sec. Let me show you something.” So he went and got this shoulder rest which is light, stiff, made of wood, and it doesn’t really clamp far onto the instrument. I had a heavier one, and I was clamping it way down the body. He said, “Just put it on there just as much as you need to, to make it stay.” And my instrument was more lively. I heard a difference! And as a result, I felt better when I was playing. “Cool, my instrument’s sounding good!” You feel good, and then you’re happier to be playing.

I would have never thought of that myself. I had to go in and have somebody who is an expert to look at these things and say, “I think this might help the sound of your instrument.” It will help build your own confidence because you’ll be happy to play your instrument, as opposed to, “I’m just not getting enough back from my instrument, I just don’t want to play it.”

On what he’s learned from playing with Tim O’Brien: 

Tim is one of the most relaxed people I’ve ever been around. He’s such a relaxed singer and player, too. He has this range and delivery that seems to go wherever he wants. I’ve come to believe that whatever kind of person you are is reflected in the way that you play your music. So, Tim has such nice loose hands. They’re not loose as in sloppy and all over the place – it’s just this really fluid sound to everything he does. And he’s a relaxed guy.

I believe you have to evaluate yourself, too, and understand that your instrument is an extension of your personality. When you’re nervous, somehow that’s going to come out. Your playing exudes that a little bit. Whatever you can do to calm yourself down – if you want to be more calm – give it a try. But if you want to be more aggressive with what you’re playing, maybe you need to read some bad news or something like that – really get pissed off! Whatever you feel, whoever you are, you exude.

In conclusion:

You’re not alone in wanting to play more confidently, with more guts – I’m right there with you. So have fun, and don’t be afraid to put yourself in some uncomfortable situations – and enjoy them!