Approaching Performance Nerves
As with all art, performing, and nerves, it is a very personal journey so what may work for one may not work for another. I will share with you my relationship with nerves and maybe, hopefully, you can take something away from that.
I first would like to point out that I do not believe nerves, in the long run, are something that can be eradicated altogether nor would I wish for them to; the goal here is to find a way to work alongside the nerves and control them.
My nerves were, or are, should I say, a culmination of a childhood incident and poor “backstage etiquette”. I am the sort of person that should one thing go wrong, no matter how big or small, it will plague my mind for months, if not years, to come. That is what happened in secondary school quite a few years ago. I was playing to my entire school, a piece that I had played hundreds of times before, a piece I could play with my eyes closed, and then it all fell apart. My mind went blank and I could not continue. With a rather encouraging cheer from one of the audience members which soon enough relayed around the hall, I started again and bashed through to the end. I never played from memory for six years after that until I had university auditions.The feeling of utter embarrassment and failure would course through my veins every time I went to perform. It was perhaps one of the biggest set backs in my life at the piano.
About four years later I had enrolled at a college where I studied for my A levels before toddling off to university. Here I was finally surrounded by people who played an instrument; not a single one liked classical music but that is besides the point. At this college it was part of the course to perform now and then. I rembember before every concert a conversation with the other students would go along the lines of
‘I’m so nervous, how are you feeling?’
And without thinking I would respond
‘I’m nervous too! I’m so scared!’
If I then had the same conversation with my teacher he would respond along the lines of
'You’ll be fine, you’re a strong performer.’
To which I would always, without fail, dismiss and insist failure and nerves. Conversations like this would follow me all the way through to my first year at music college.
So, these are the main events which I feel are responsible for my crippling nerves. If you can relate slightly then great, carry on reading! The end of my first year was quite recent, June 2015, so it is not necessarily a long process to start to change; it is definitely ongoing but the effects are useable instantly.
So what did change? How does one overcome such intense nerves?
For me, it was a journey and a difficult journey. The nerves due to memory slips is an easy one. Do not rely on muscle memory. Learn a piece so well that you can essentially write it down. Know what you are playing not just by touch but by sound and sight and theoretical knowledge.
The nerves due to ingrained social cues and casual backstage banter are a different story. Over the summer of 2015 I had a difficult choice to make, unrelated to performance but ultimately a turning point in my personal and performing life, do I remain isolated in a bubble of ignorance and lack of personal understanding or do I figure out what is wrong and what I can do to resolve such internal conflicts? The choice was one my subconscious had already made. I was seeking solutions, seeking advice, and seeking understanding before I had even realised that is what I needed to do. I spent, and continue to do so, months writing down things I perceived wrong in my head, the ways I acted, the ways I responded, the ways I interacted. I wrote it all down. I analysed it all (can you tell I had a rather isolated childhood, haha!). I discovered many things I had not thought of, I unearthed a lot of ways my mind would respond to things which were just not sustainable in maintaining a healthy mind. However, the thing that I worked upon, something which I had been aware of for a long time but never knew how to deal with it, something which physically pained me in company because I just couldn’t find a way for myself to be capable of doing the opposite.
It is the simple act of thinking for oneself.
I brought it to light and I dug through it to figure out a root and a cause, a way to prune it down, much like a plant entangled in itself, struggling, knowing what it is doing is wrong yet can not seem to untangle.
Being able to form opinions without looking to someone else to tell me what to think, to respond to others without requiring external input, to simply understand ones own emotions and thoughts and apply them to conversations so as to convey something personal. That was something I was never able to do on a regular basis. It would lead to long silences, lack of replies, and, ultimately, the wrong message. So how does this tie in with the whole “backstage etiquette” nonesense? When I was ready to perform I would generally be rather neutral on the inside with a little tickle or nerves and excitement present. However, when the other performers would talk to me about their nerves I would interpret my own emotions as being wrong and that I should also be nervous. I thought that as everyone else is nervous nerves should be expected of me. Soon enough, over the years, I started to believe that I was genuinely nervous and that the emotions I felt were associated with nerves. It became part of my routine before performances; be nervous.
It was not until I returned to university for my second year that the revelation really hit me. I was to perform the second a third movement of Ravel’s piano concerto in a performance class. Not a big affair but with second and third years sitting in there was a lot of judgement. I have the habit of avoiding people before concerts so I went and locked myself in the bathroom until it was time to head down. As I left the bathroom I stood in the corridor by the stairs and ran a conversation through my head.
'How are you feeling, Steven, are you ready?’
I started to reply
'I’m a little bit ner-’
And then I cut myself off. I was not in a good frame of mind that day as I had been considerably “down” for a while by that point. I was in one of the mind sets where I would probably tell you to “fuck off” if you said anything more than hello to me. I continued…
'No, I’m not nervous, I’m fine, I’m only saying I’m nervous because that’s what you expect.’
I then walked down the stairs and into the recital hall without at least 90% less nerves as normal. When it was my time to play I sat down and began without an issue. The audience meant nothing to me in the sense that I did not feel them judging as one usually does when nerves kick in. It was simply me, the music, and those that wish to listen. There were still nerves and the excitement of the music (during the third movement) but those nerves were only related to difficulties in the music. Normally, in these situations, I am taking in every bit of stimuli I can gather. I can feel the audience burning into my right side, I can see the stray coffee cup tucked under the chair, I can hear every little movement. In this instance I felt as if I was in an intimate setting with just the piano and I. I can parallel that with my audition to the university when I did tell my friend I was nervous beforehand and I can still remember seeing everything on the bookshelves and all the little trinkets around the room yet little about the keyboard. With the Ravel I just remember the piano and the music.
So, my advice is to really think about yourself. Can you recall where your nerves originated? Are you really as nervous as you say you are? Are you just relaying off others around you?
Note security is a key factor too. If, of course, you do not know the piece well enough then damn right you’ll be nervous. As a favour I took over a piano job and I had just one rehersal with a film orchestra last month and I was absolutely terrified before and on stage! But when the notes are fine and you are still nervous to the point it is affecting you physically then that is when you should consider taking a step back and thinking about it a bit deeper than what it is at face value.
Oh, bananas, bananas are great to eat before a concert! Energy and I alway found they helped settle the nerves back at college.
I really wish you the best of luck in resolving your nerves to a more controlled state!