Whether you’re a seasoned pro or just starting your DJ career, performance anxiety and stage nerves can affect us all. It’s perfectly normal, and it shows that you care!
The good news is that there are strategies to help you overcome these challenges.
Before we delve into my top 10 tips and strategies, I’d like to share my personal experiences as a (much) younger DJ in my 20s—a story that may resonate with many of you.
Also, at the end of the article, we’ll quickly explore the science behind stage fright for a deeper understanding.
Table of Contents (the 7 tips):
My journey with anxiety as a DJ
If you asked someone who knew me in my 20s if I struggle with anxiety, they would likely look a little confused, before replying ‘’no’’.
Truth is, I’m actually an introvert, and I used to get pretty bad stage fright. Which showed up in my early experiences as a DJ.
Whilst I was quite good at hiding the problem (usually with alcohol), I’d get extremely nervous a couple of hours before certain gigs, which would often intensify when I got to the venue.
For me, it wasn’t the fear of messing up the transitions or music selection, necessarily, or that I wasn’t worthy of doing the job…
Rather, the one constant was the stage-fright principal on its own merit, i.e., the anxiety you’d get with being the focus of attention and constantly being around new people (this is apparently exhausting for introverts!).
In hindsight, in addition to being an introvert problem, I’d also classify it as a ‘young person’ problem. Why?
It’s clear to me that these anxieties worsened when things weren’t going right in my personal life and during times of uncertainty. This is often the feeling that you don’t know which direction your life is heading in, and because of the constant struggle to control that direction (whether that’s in your head or not). It can also be due to losing a loved one or some trauma we’ve experienced.
That is to say, I have a genuine empathy for younger, naturally introverted DJs out there who struggle with this.
Hopefully we become DJs because we’re great selectors and music enthusiasts. Not because we love being the centre of attention, right?!
The good news is, it gets better over time. And with experience.
7 tips for overcoming stage nerves
1. Deal with the adrenalin
If your hands are getting shaky, you’ll want to get rid of some of the adrenalin flowing through your body. This is probably the best generic tip you’ll get for combatting stage anxiety!
A bit like an athlete would before the start of a race, I used to jump up and down wafting my arms about in the booth before starting. If the place was still empty (to avoid looking like a crazy person), I’d head out the back and do it there instead.
In conjunction with this, you’ll want to take some long deep breaths to get your breathing under control. This simple technique can help calm your nerves and focus your mind.
Some DJs even like to go on the dancefloor for a quick dance to shake off the adrenalin there.
2. Bring some support
Particularly for a first-time gig or venue, if you can ask a friend, fellow DJ, or mentor to tag along, this can really help!
This happened to me on my first overseas gig in Portugal many years ago. About an hour prior to starting, I’d dropped into an Irish bar to see some friends to get some moral support, and one of them invited himself. It’s funny how the thought to ask hadn’t even crossed my mind!
To be clear, I knew this guy had excellent people skills and was well-connected in the area, so I obviously didn’t hesitate to say yes.
The moral of the story: Especially for these ‘’away game’’ scenarios where the anxiety is potentially going to be worse, bringing some appropriate moral support is a no-brainer!
3. Be well prepared
It’s not exactly rocket science: The more prepared you are ahead of time the more confident you’ll feel on the night!
Here’s a quick ‘pre-venue’ checklist., mostly relevant to bar & club DJs. Regardless of DJ type, the key takeaway here is to be organised.
Essentials to bring:
- A 3.5mm headphone jack (if it’s not already on the end of your headphone cable)
- A small gym towel (to wipe your sweaty hands and face with. I used my t-shirt for years, but you don’t have to 😓)
- Pen & paper (for making notes on the fly, and so punters can write down shout-outs and song requests, etc.)
- Ear plugs (if you don’t currently use them, you should definitely research the topic)
- Business cards (our post on personal branding for DJs discusses all that stuff)
- Essential medications (in case you’re prone to migraines or if you use anxiety meds, etc.)
- Your own microphone (this is more applicable for smaller private parties and for when the venue doesn’t have one)
- Spare underwear (in case you have an accident. Just kiddin 💩)
- Make sure you’ve sourced the right music for the gig in question, researching the night, location, venue, and audience demographic where applicable (record pools can help for obscure or one-off gigs).
- Carry enough music so you can pivot (at least double the amount that you’re likely to play is a good benchmark and no more than 3 x, I would suggest).
- Organise your playlist(s) with precision. Whilst I don’t prepare specific transitions, I WILL spend a lot of time organising the playlist(s). At a bare minimum, I typically group tracks into three different folders, representing ‘early doors’, ‘peak hour’ and ‘closing’.
- Bring at least 1 backup of the music you plan on using, either on your laptop or a 2nd USB stick (whether I take my laptop or not, I’ll always duplicate my playlists onto a 2nd USB).
4. Investigate the setup
Again using bar & club DJs as an example, investigating what setup you’ll be using ahead of time is crucial for preventing a state of panic on the night.
Assuming they use Pioneer CDJs, what model are they? What mixer do they use? Check if they have a mic, and so on. If there are any major concerns at this point, if possible, arrange a time with the venue owner or promoter to drop in when it’s quiet.
On the night itself, you’ll want to get there early (depending on the gig, 20-30 minutes is usually a good ballpark!). Obviously check your USBs are working properly in the players first off and that the channels are assigned to the correct decks.
Especially if it’s a brand of mixer you haven’t used before, quickly check the essential functions are working as you’d anticipate and where they’re located.
Not used CDJs before? For full functionality of the players – for using Beat Sync and cue points, etc. – you’ll need to analyse your playlists in Rekordbox and export them onto a USB beforehand. You can do this in the free version of the software and by following these instructions.
I’d also recommend arranging a few practice sessions ahead of time. This could be at a local college, music school, or recording studio – places like Pirate.com that let you pay by the hour!
5. Play it safe to start
By playing it safe, I mean starting with a track (or a few tracks) that have a high probability of ‘’doing the job”. Tracks that you know well and are easy to mix out of. Nothing too obscure or risky!
Starting with some ‘safe’ tracks, particularly a full-length version to start, gives you a nice buffer until you settle in, giving you time to think straight.
To give a specific example, I did this with Pete Heller’s ‘Big love’ in a lounge bar for my first overseas gig as it ticked all those boxes I just mentioned.
6. Focus on someone else
As anyone who suffers from social anxiety will know, it can literally be debilitating and you can’t even think straight. I would get to certain gigs and I didn’t want to talk to anyone, I just wanted to get into the booth and focus on getting the music ready!
Whilst this is in some ways a tip in itself, there’s also a counterargument here. It’s sometimes a good idea to chat with the security or bar staff, asking them about their day and how they are with a genuine sense of empathy and interest.
Admittedly, it’s a bit of an obscure point, but by diverting the attention onto someone else, you get out of your own head. This can bring some perspective and stop you from falling further into your shell.
This is also a win-win for nurturing relationships, which is often crucial for keeping your job and getting other gigs! Plus, you don’t want to develop a reputation for being arrogant.
7. Embrace mistakes (and things going wrong)
Finishing with a mindset point then…
As a younger DJ, I had no shortage of on-the-night f%#k ups. Most of which weren’t anywhere near as bad as I thought they were at the time.
No one is perfect, and mistakes are a natural part of live performances. Instead of dwelling on them, embrace them as learning opportunities. Your ability to recover gracefully from mistakes can impress the audience and in turn boost your confidence.
I remember at a club called ‘Sankey Soap’ in Manchester, UK, it would have been around 2001. There was an incident where the vinyl kept skipping due to the intense bass vibrations in the low ceiling venue.
It got so bad that the DJ completely stopped the track and held his hands in the air as if to say ‘My bad’, which was met with a roaring cheer from the crowd. He then simply hit play on the next track, and nobody gave a dawn, of course.
Why do we get stage fright and performance anxiety?
At its core, getting those horrible jitters often revolves around the body’s “fight or flight” response, an evolutionary mechanism that prepares us to respond to perceived threats.
We basically pump out stress hormones, like adrenaline, which makes your heart race and your palms sweat.
It’s not just your physical body freaking out: our brains are wired to care what others think, and when you’re on stage, that fear of being judged can go through the roof. This social anxiety can pile on top of the physical stuff, essentially creating a perfect storm of stage fright.
To tackle it, we can reframe these fears by practising things like deep breathing, visualization, and mindfulness, and by simply getting used to performing gradually.
Remember, it’s all part of the game – even the biggest stars felt those jitters once.
What about drugs & alcohol?
Particularly as a younger DJ, I’m not going to pretend I didn’t rely on alcohol as a support mechanism for stage nerves. I absolutely did.
The culture has changed somewhat in recent years, where consuming large amounts of booze is a little less ‘normal’ than it was.
The big problem I came across was when I played out 6 or 7 nights a week. If you have a dependency on alcohol in social environments, this is when it can get out of control.
It’s not just about stage nerves, either. It’s about saying ‘no’ to going out and getting wasted after your gig with promoters, bar staff, groupies, and so on. It’s that social pressure that exacerbates the problem.
Once you get into that cycle, it can become incredibly hard to control it. At that point, you need a few drinks just for ‘hair of the dog’ …so just be mindful.
How can DJs overcome performance anxiety?
Here’s the summary of our top tips:
- Be well prepared
- Investigate the setup
- Deal with the adrenalin
- Bring some support
- Focus on someone else
- Play it safe to start
- Embrace mistakes
What are the causes of nervousness before DJing?
Nervousness before DJing is usually caused by the fear of making mistakes, the pressure to please the audience, social anxiety, or a lack of confidence in your skills. It’s a natural response to the anticipation of performing in front of others.
What is the psychology behind performance anxiety in DJs?
Our brains are wired to be socially conscious, and the fear of judgment or rejection by an audience can intensify anxiety. This fear of evaluation, known as “social anxiety,” can be a significant contributor to stage fright. Combined with a lack of familiarity or perceived lack of control in the performance setting, it can create a powerful psychological barrier.
How can I prepare mentally and emotionally for a DJ gig to reduce anxiety?
One common mental preparation tip is to visualize the event being a success. Emotionally, you can focus on the joy of performing and connecting with the crowd rather than fearing mistakes. Deep breathing and positive self-talk can also help.
Do famous DJs experience stage nerves, and how do they cope?
Yes, even famous DJs can experience stage nerves. They cope by being well-prepared and through techniques like ‘shaking off’ the excess adrenalin, deep breathing, and visualization. Some also use meditation, although we recommend consulting with a health professional should you go down this route.
What are some common mistakes DJs make relating to stage nerves?
Common mistakes include overthinking, excessive alcohol or substance use, neglecting practice, insufficient gig research and preparation, and avoiding eye contact with the audience.