You look out and see dozens, hundreds, thousands of faces staring back at you. Waiting for you. The energy is palpable, a dense electricity of minds looking for you to help them escape or enjoy, bodies charging and anxious to be let loose. Endless thoughts circulate through the atmosphere in anticipation of what is to come, and it is your responsibility to give them what they want so desperately to experience. It’s your role to lead the night, to tell them the stories they want to hear, to take a dark, empty room and turn it into a moment to remember.
To DJ is an act of bravery. I say that with no intention to take away from those whose acts of bravery involve facing death and saving lives, but the sentiment remains true. To be brave is to face challenges and keep going, to know that you will be afraid and choose to do it anyways. How often do we back away from the things that scare us, rather than taking them head on? Are we choosing the easy route of comfortable familiarity rather than the discomfort of taking a risk? To dive into what a DJ faces when they get behind the decks can help us discover how to be braver ourselves. By learning from the experiences of professionals who have gone through it before, aspiring DJs can discover how to get past the difficulties and into the flow of the experience; lessons that we all can put to use in every day life.
How do we become braver behind the decks and throughout our lives?
Know that Everyone is Afraid
From the outside it’s easy to look at those who are doing things that would scare us and think that they have some special skill, some innate ability not to be afraid. While certainly some people are naturally more resilient when it comes to facing fears, no one is exempt from it.Deeply ingrained in our psyche, fear is designed to protect us from threats, the chemical reactions of being afraid preparing our bodies for a fight or flight response. Without the threats of wild animals attacking us however, our fear reactions have gone wild within our minds. They now come most often from inside ourselves, with fears of social isolation or embarrassment high on the list of things that frighten us the most. And while these threats take on a less life-or-death scenario, they can often feel just as vital.
The DJs who I spoke with on this subject each had their own perspective on what their biggest worries are when they perform, varying from Amber Long‘s fear that the gear will fail, to Lucas Rossi worrying about making mistakes and Darin Epsilon and Nicko Izzo afraid that the audience won’t feel what they’re playing or that they won’t make a connection with the dance floor. No matter the fear that comes up for them however, each of these DJs have found a way to move past them and towards their goals.
Take the First Step
It’s much easier to calm your fears once you have seen that you can. That first move towards instead of away is the hardest, and most important, as it sets your momentum in motion. Your body and mind will realize that it’s not as big of a threat as you thought, and you can then put more energy and focus on the task at hand rather than the internal distractions. That first step may be the most challenging, but once it’s done you’re rolling into the future with those fears already conquered. For a DJ, that truly starts with the first big gig, moving out of the bedroom and into the booth – and at this point it might be helpful to remember the idea that everyone had to do it, and it was scary for them all.
Reminiscing on that moment, Darin shares, “I’m a perfectionist so it was probably alternating between ‘Oh this is fun’ and ‘I just hope I don’t screw up in front of everybody'”.
For Lucas Rossi, “I remember my first big gig that was at a festival, in a main stage and before a few thousand people. It was very important because after me Eelke Kleijn continued, so I personally had some pressure because being a festival and having a somewhat limited set time you can not bore people but you can not destroy the dance floor either. So it was happening in my head that I had to maintain a certain balance.”
The keys to taking that first step lie completely within your own power, with your mental state setting the stage for believing in what you can accomplish. Your inner dialogue can be the catalyst that sets your self in motion, to convince your last doubting thoughts that it’s going to be okay, that you can do it. Or take example from Amber Long’s first big-gig self-talk, tell yourself: “Remember at one time this is exactly what you wished for. Don’t pussy out”.
Realize It’s All in Your Head
Use your mind to your advantage. While many thoughts may be running through your head as you get closer to the moment when you have to do the thing that scares you, you always have the opportunity to take control. Don’t be afraid to talk to yourself. The truth is, it’s going to be okay. You just have remember that. Here are some statements you can use to remind you:
Other people have done it and you can too.
Everyone who is touring around the world, playing to tens of thousands of people, had a first gig once. They opened for a DJ who was someone they admired, and played in front of a crowd who had no idea who they were. Everyone starts somewhere, and so can you.
You can make mistakes
When feeling anxious about a gig, Amber Long says it helps to remind herself of the truth: “Even the most experienced and famous DJs make mistakes.”
Personally, I have seen the most famous DJs in the world train wreck, but as soon as the beat was flowing again all was forgotten. You can mess up a mix, play the wrong track, accidentally unplug a turntable and it all will be okay. The crowd is human too, and with good humor and a willingness to go with the flow, the energy and emotions you put out there will be recognized as far more important than having a “perfect mix”. Not only will it be okay even if you make a mistake, it can also help you in the long run as you improve and learn.
Do not try to seek the approval of anyone or to not make mistakes, mistakes are good.Nicko Izzo
What’s the worst that could happen? Could you be okay even if it did?
Dive into your worst case scenarios and realize that even if that happened everything would be okay. While you hope that you never have to go through it (As Nicko Izzo says “I had bad experiences and I do not wish it on anyone.”) it is likely that at some point you will have to face that moment. Knowing that you can be okay regardless of how crappy things get will help you realize that it’s always possible to accept your fate and move forward. Know that while it may be a painful experience in the present, once you have been through it you will gain incredible amounts of resilience for the future, a strength you wouldn’t have had otherwise.
For Darin Epsilon, his fear of his music not being understood by the crowd has come to reality twice in his career: “There were 2 times in my career when I was pulled off stage, once in my hometown Chicago and the other time in El Paso, Texas. Both times the promoters had convinced me to perform in clubs that were primarily known for commercial House music. Those were extremely rare, surreal experiences and should never have happened in the first place.
I’ve had people come up to me with song requests in India and Ibiza. As for how I handled them, I said NO I will not play ‘Despacito’ for you! ;)”
Amber’s gear failure fears came to light in one rough moment:
“Honestly, one of my first big gigs, a boat cruise, a really drunk guy was jumping so hard on the deck in front of me playing, a really big, boisterous fellow, that he made my Mac drive skip, throw Ableton into an emergency loop (loud as the system was playing) and then crash. My Mac wouldn’t reboot for awhile, someone took over playing while I sorted it and then I went back to playing the end of the most embarrassing moment of my career to date.
When I see people surmount any obstacle while playing, like tech issues or a generator dying or even crappy CDJs that don’t work, I remember that one time I had a big chance and it got messed because I was new and took preparation for granted, overlooking all the things that might happen – because I didn’t know.
I profusely admire anyone who comes back after something sh*tty happens during their set.
Now, I have all my tunes on a USB through rekordbox, my laptops have SSDs and I can use whatever delivery form feels most comfortable for the space.”
Being over-prepared is the best way to overcome stage fright.Darin Epsilon
Being pro-active, practiced, and prepared are important and effective ways that you can reduce your anxieties before the task even takes place. Having put in the time and effort in advance, you will build self-confidence and eliminate some of the anxiety-triggering aspects of performing that come from a lack of practice or preparation.
When you trust in your own skills because you have prepared for that moment and put in the practice, challenges will become an avenue for fun and enjoyment rather than something that stops you in your tracks and knocks you off of your game. One of the main factors of achieving flow state is experiencing a balance between challenge and skill, so when you have confidence in your skills it becomes easier to fall into the flow.
Knowing the technical aspects of what you’re getting into and having a backup plan if things go awry are other pro-active ways to keep anxieties at bay.
If I’m not prepared, meaning having my gear ready early, everything checked, knowing the mixer, etc. that makes me anxious… Anxiety happens when you’re not prepared, something unexpected happens, equipment is bunk, or whatever triggers you personally to doubt yourself. Anxiety can stop you from performing your best.Amber Long
Anxiety drains your energy by wasting processing power on worrying and instead of focusing on the task at hand. Your confidence in the surrounding aspects of your performance, whether that’s technical or preparedness, eliminates those factors so you can focus on the part that brings you the most energy and reward. As Lucas Rossi shares, “Generally speaking, when I make mistakes it’s because I’m not very focused on the set I want to take, so the best way to repair them is to focus 100% on what I’m doing so everything goes smoothly.”
You can find your focus and reduce your worries by taking care of all that you have control over, and then letting go of all the rest. It’s not only the technical and skill aspects that you can control however, you also have control over the fear itself.
Use Your Fear
Regardless of how much you prepare however, it is inevitable that some nervousness will still happen – and that’s a good thing. Nervousness is necessary. It can be used to your advantage when you realize that it’s something to accept instead of avoid. By changing your interpretation of nervousness into a positive, you can improve your focus, performance, and experience.
A lot of times it’s actually good to have “nervous energy” and “butterflies in the stomach”. It forces you to become ultra-focused, which usually results in delivering a great performance.Darin Epsilon
In the Harvard study “Get Excited: Reappraising Pre-Performance Anxiety as Excitement”, it was found that embracing nervous energy led participants to improve their perceptions and experiences of public performance. Often when we are anxious or nervous we tell ourselves to calm down, slow down our breathing, relax. It turns out however, that this actually costs us more effort, and ends in poorer results, than shifting that energy instead into excitement. This is because anxiety and excitement are both high arousal, raising your heart rate and getting your body into alert mode. It is a much easier and more effective process to turn anxiety into excitement than it is to reappraise it as calmness, where you go from a high to a low arousal state.
Being nervous is normal and shows you take your job seriously and want to do well. I get nervous before I press play each time.Amber Long
So how do you turn the uncertainty and negativity of anxiety into the confidence and positivity of excitement? Just tell yourself you’re excited. The study found that when participants told themselves “I am excited” or when they were encouraged to “get excited” before their tasks, their performance greatly improved versus trying to calm down or not doing anything at all. In reappraising anxiety as excitement you shift a threat mindset into opportunity, and not something to avoid. Instead of training yourself to avoid situations that make you nervous by telling yourself that you need to calm down, you can use that high alert state to tell yourself that you’re excited about what’s going on. You have the power to change your emotions and direct your energy through what you decide to think. You can use what builds inside of you subconsciously, and consciously choose to focus it in the direction you desire. This is why nervousness is necessary. As Nicko Izzo says: “All the time there are nerves, it is part of the game. The problem will be when there are no more.”
Get Through & Get What You Want
Whether you want to play in front of thousands of people or give a presentation to a room full of coworkers, you can use the DJ’s techniques to get past your fears and improve your performance. For the fears that you cannot prevent through preparation and practice, you can conquer through right thinking and confidence building. As all things it is a process, so be patient with yourself as you build up your resilience. Remember why you wanted to do this in the first place, and reconnect with the feeling that drove you to be there. As Nicko advises: “Connect with your passion, go back when you played in the living room of your house.” Trust that when you let go of the results and enjoy the process you will replace fear with flow as Lucas Rossi has experienced: “To overcome the nerves is just a matter of being behind the decks to let go of yourself as time goes by.” Above all, know this to be true: “Everything you want is on the other side of fear.”