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Fake It: You'll Make It

“Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.”

- Ralph Waldo Emerson

For most musicians, the nightmare always starts the same.

You’ve practiced the tune relentlessly. You’ve got Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours under your belt. You’ve tirelessly done your vocal warm-ups, hunched with an iPod in a corner room, replicating “Flight of the Bumblebee” with your tongue. Suddenly, the click track kicks in, counting out its four bars with clinical, military precision.

And you forget everything you ever knew. The chords exit stage left, replaced by alien constellations on the fretboard. The notes stumbles forth from your lips in chaos, tripping over note and pitch on their way towards the studio rug.

Red Light Syndrome, or choking under pressure are common occupational hazards of a musician. There’s an invisible threshold you cross when you step on stage, or face the scrutiny of the recording studio. You enter a pressure cooker where the stakes are suddenly higher, and failing seems to exact an increased toll. That’s why many studio pros will tell you that the recording environment should be approached as a psychological challenge as well as a practical one.

The main victim in these situations seems to be our sense of self-confidence - and that’s actually good news, because in a lot of ways, our self-confidence is something we can learn to bolster in times of high stress. When you choke under pressure, you haven’t lost your abilities, you’ve simply lost your confidence in them.

In 1884, the philosopher William James invented the “As If” principle: his theory was simple – he suggested that if you merely behaved as if you were a certain type of person, you became that person. Decades of study have proven James’ theory to be true, giving birth to tropes like “fake it to you make it”, and the self-fulfilling prophecy effect. The same is true of our sense of confidence: when the pressure is on, there is a lot of power in putting the cart before the horse – if you act confident, true confidence will follow. Even the way you hold your body affects your confidence levels.

Of course, there are some caveats here. The “As If” principle isn’t a magic wand. Acting like you’re Eddie Van Halen when you’ve barely touched a guitar is only going to make you a deluded amateur. There is such a thing as the overconfidence effect, and while it breeds some supreme egos, it’s pretty counterproductive. Your confidence has to line up with reality – it’s less about creating something out of nothing and more a case of reminding yourself to trust what lies within.

If the concept of faking it till you make it seems nebulous, Author Alice Boyes suggests some practical steps that can help when it comes to moments that threaten to rob us of our confidence:

Remind yourself of previous wins

As you face a new or intimidating challenge, it’s helpful to remind yourself that you’ve faced challenges like this before, and you’ve mastered them. Why should this time be any different?  

Step back to gain some perspective

Losing confidence can become a downward spiral. If you’re having trouble nailing a particular part in the studio, it doesn’t mean that you’re a terrible musician. Being objective with yourself can be hard in moments of stress, but it provides necessary perspective. One bum note doesn’t write off years of mastery.

Put self-doubt in its place

Doubt and fear were useful evolutionary emotions for our early ancestors – they saved them from eating the wrong berries, straying too far from the cave, or extending themselves beyond their physical parameters. A lot the time, your internalised sense of doubt or fear is simply alerting you to a new or challenging situation. In the studio, where there is an abundant lack of predators or physical danger, the emotions of doubt and fear could simply be signalling that a challenging, unknown task is ahead. Thank your body for the warning and embrace it.

As with anything, building your self-confidence is a process, but it’s a compounding one. Learn to take the plunge, even if it is without confidence in your abilities at first – courage takes over, and confidence follows. Do this enough times, and the next time that red light flickers, you’ll be leaping into the void with a brand new excitement. You’ll be better for it, and your music will be too.

Luke Oram