Nerves And Confidence
The very first time I got to DJ in a bar I’d wanted to play right at the start of my DJ career, I spent weeks practising. Indeed, I was so worried that I prepared the whole set, and had it all written out on a small card that I hid under the DJ booth to consult, mix by mix, throughout – even though my hands were shaking so much I could hardly hold it.
Not long afterwards, my first club gig saw me being sick in a bin outside the back door, again through sheer nerves. A few years later when I was well and truly established as a DJ, I was playing at 5am at Privilege in Ibiza in the main room in front of thousands. I had to walk a gang plank across the swimming pool (yes, there is a swimming pool inside the club) to get to the DJ booth, which was situated right in the middle of it. When I got there at 10pm, I was so consumed by nervousness that I used my VIP pass to find somewhere nobody I knew could possibly find me and hid for seven hours, talking to nobody, feeling ill to the core, missing all the fun.
Oh yes, I understand DJ nerves. This chapter shares what I’ve learned over the years about performance anxiety so you can hopefully deal with it and move on to play a great DJ set.
Why we get nervous
People forget that DJing is performing, it’s being up on stage. It’s slipping into character, just like singers and actors do. They are allowed to be nervous before a performance, and so are you. In fact, it would be strange if you didn’t get nervous before a gig. After all, you’re quite likely in an unfamiliar place, you’ve considered in graphic detail what could go wrong, and you’re thoroughly scared about making the switch from the private you to the public you – the version of you that is about to have a great time, play amazing music and bring a roomful of adoring people along for the ride. In the quiet before the storm, those imminent good times feel so impossible an outcome that your irrational mind decides they’re simply not going to happen. Self-doubt creeps in. You start asking yourself what the hell you’re doing there at all.
But the thing is, all of this is perfectly normal, and it’s because you care – pure and simple. If you didn’t care, you wouldn’t feel any of this because you wouldn’t be invested in the outcome. Once you’ve reminded yourself of this, it’s simply a case of dealing with the feelings. luckily, there are things we can do.
Conquering DJ nerves
There are three tactics I use when I get nervous, and in my experience of coaching DJs, they help a lot to get you out the other side of the often unavoidable pre-gig nerves.
1. Remember that nobody can see your nerves
The chapter before this one gives you the blueprint for what outward impression to give to everyone else. Remember what’s going on inside doesn’t show on the outside if you don’t let it.
My girlfriend – now wife – used to come into the DJ booth when I was in my first hour of warming up a club night I used to promote and DJ at. I’d be smiling away, dancing a bit, shaking hands as people arrived, giving friends a nod and a thumbs up. She’d be having a great time herself, wanting to share in mine.
Making sure the crowd couldn’t see me, I’d often then turn to her and growl, ‘I’m playing awfully. There’s nobody here. It’s going to be a disaster. How many times do I have to remind you I’m working? Can’t you leave me alone?’
Nerves. I wanted her to understand because I didn’t want to fake it in front of her, but she still week after week found it hard to believe I was feeling like that on the inside compared to the impression I was giving everyone else on the outside. You have to remember that some of your crowd might be feeling nervous too, simply about their night out. Your job is to lead from the front, and be strong. This is one time where faking it until you make it is absolutely the right thing to do.
2. Have a well-rehearsed plan B
By the time you get to play your DJ gig, you’ll have at some point considered everything from nobody dancing (I still have this as a recurring dream, by the way, three decades into my DJing career) to the music suddenly cutting out (ditto), and all the other things that might possibly go wrong. The trick is to face head-on all of these fears, ask yourself, ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’ then decide how you’d behave and get out the other side. Having a selection of guaranteed floor-filler tracks in your library to use if all else fails can calm your nerves. Having a rehearsed plan B should your laptop crash or USB drive fail will help you put that worry from your mind. Work through your ‘what if’ list, and remember that DJing isn’t brain surgery or flying a passenger jet – nobody gets killed if you don’t perform at your best.
3. Remember it’s going to pass
Sometimes in life, even though we know the outcome of something, we can’t change how we feel through the process. I run marathons and have done for years, and regularly put in thirty or more miles of training a week. You’d think I’d have that one all worked out, right? Yet often when I start off on a training run early on a cold morning, my muscles aching from the last time, I find my brain telling me, ‘What are you doing? You’re not going to get around this circuit. Stop, you can’t do this…’ It never gets any better. Yet ninety minutes later, pulling up outside my door feeling great, I realise that the horrible feeling lasted just a few minutes right at the start.
It’s the same with DJing – only DJing doesn’t hurt so much. I actually believe it’s impossible to stay in that highly stressful mental state for too long, and simply pushing on with what you’ve got to do is all that’s needed to come through it. With DJing, it might take twenty minutes or it might take an hour,
but sooner or later, you’ll relax and realise you’ve been having fun for a while now. Job done! You’re out the other side. Have faith, because this always happens.
‘It’s not all about you, petal…’
A good friend of mine and a great DJ, Dan Bewick, once gave a talk at one of our DJ seminars about how to be a warm-up DJ, and that was one of his pieces of advice. Really, the last two chapters have been all about this: realising that as the DJ, your job is a great one, but there’s a lot more going on at any venue – some of which you can influence, some of which you can’t. The best you can do is constantly remind yourself of that and play your part as well as you possibly can.
If it’s practical to do so, occasionally leave the DJ booth and spend a bit of time with the audience, seeing the night from their point of view. early on in the night, walk around the dancefloor checking the speakers sound oK. As the venue is filling up, go and get a drink and have a little smile with the bar staff. As your dancefloor starts to move, make an excuse to pop out quickly and greet somebody you know out there. Not sure what direction to take the night in once you’ve got everyone dancing? Put a long track on, head out to the floor and ask yourself, ‘What would I want to hear next if I was here on a night out?’
Of course, this isn’t always possible (there’s no way I was walking back across that gang plank once I’d got to the DJ booth over the swimming pool in the Ibiza club), but do it if you can. Ultimately, it’ll remind you that ‘it’s not all about you, petal’. You’ll be a better and less nervous DJ as a result.
So we’ve reached the stage where you’re ready to start playing your first DJ set in public. You’ve done all the preparation and started playing your DJ set. This is what DJing really comes down to: you, a crowd of people, and a pile of music. So how do you know exactly what to play next, and after that, and after that?
That’s what the next chapter is about.