Dealing With Nerves / How Not to Get Nervous
Nerves before a musical performance can range from a mild case of butterflies in the stomach to a level where performance is seriously impaired. Tension, involuntary shaking, a dry throat, and lack of concentration are just some of the ways nerves manifest themselves. When nervous, stringed and wind instrumentalists often produce an involuntary quivering vibrato that doesn’t sound good, and sounds even worse when superimposed on any vibrato they are trying to produce themselves. For pianists nerves can lead to wrong notes through shaking hands, and for any instrumentalist nerves create tension in the body which inhibits the free flow of music. Even if shaking can be controlled there are still the lapses in concentration to deal with. Without doubt, nerves spell trouble for musicians.
It should be said that nerves don’t only affect inexperienced players. Professional musicians and even big-name artists confess to becoming nervous before a performance. However, being nervous before a performance and being nervous during a performance are two different things. Nervous apprehension is fine if the nerves go once you start to play, which for many professionals they do, but if your nerves remain well into the performance then there is a serious risk that your performance will be compromised.
I’ve heard nerves described as a form of conceit or vanity. In a sense this is true because part of being nervous is worrying about what others are thinking about you. On the other hand, if you are taking an exam or performing in front of a paying public you have every right to be concerned about what others are thinking. Yet self-help books tell us that what others are thinking is none of our business. With its inherent contradictions this line of thinking is of little use.
So, what is the best way of dealing with nerves and how can you avoid getting nervous? Well, the traditional advice is to take a deep breath, which is actually good advice for the final stage of dealing with nerves, but it shouldn’t be the only thing you are doing to combat the feeling.
The truth is dealing with nerves begins long before you get in front of an audience. First of all, whatever it is you are going to be doing you must be fully prepared. For an instrumentalist or singer this means being able to perform to a high standard day or night. I remember one of my professors at the Royal College of Music saying we must always give 110 percent, even when we practise, so that on a ‘bad day’ we are still able to deliver 100 percent. It’s good advice.
Being well prepared doesn’t just stop at the music. It’s also important to be equally well prepared in other area relating to the performance. This might include any speaking you have to do, introducing songs for example, any stage choreography, and the reliability of your instrument or condition of your voice. Being well prepared applies to anything connected in any way to the performance you will be doing, and this also includes staying in good health.
Try to identify exactly what it is that is making you nervous. If you are worried about hitting that high note or bringing off a difficult passages flawlessly then practice is the key. If you are getting something right every time in practice there is no technical reason why you can’t do the same in front of an audience.
If it is the audience and being watched that is filling you with dread, you need to get so used to playing in front of people that it no longer becomes such a big deal. The young learner can play in front of parents, aunts and uncles, school friends, in fact anyone willing to listen. Adults too can practise performing in front of friends and family. More performance practice comes with entering music competitions, taking exams or being part of a small concert.
While you are actually playing it’s sometimes best to imagine that your audience is not there. This is done by focusing more on the music, which may take a conscious effort but does work. For example, while you are playing think about how beautiful the music is and what a joy it is to be playing. Granted, if you are consciously thinking these thoughts then you are not focused entirely on the music, but it will point your focus in the right direction and away from the audience.
If you are playing in a band or any type of ensemble, really listen hard to how what you are playing blends in to what everyone else is playing. The more you focus on the music the less you will think about the audience, and the less nervous you will be.
If you find that you can perform flawlessly by yourself and don’t seem to be too nervous in front of an audience, yet still make mistakes that you wouldn’t normally make when you practise, then the problem might be a lack of confidence in your own ability, or even just a basic lack of self-confidence. One thing that I think is true for all successful musicians, of any genre, is that they have a quiet confidence (of course with some it might not be so quiet) in themselves and in what they do. Knowing that you can do something and having confidence goes a long way towards banishing nerves.
- Be well prepared;
- Practise performing;
- Disconnect yourself from the audience
(imagine they are not there);
- Focus on the music;
- Have confidence in yourself.
Even if your nervousness never goes completely, you will hopefully learn to control your nerves to such an extent that they no longer have a negative impact on your performance. In fact being a little nervous can actually be a good thing, as it heightens our awareness and sharpens our senses, resulting in a better musical performance.
So, before your next performance you can relax in the knowledge that most of us get nervous and that nerves, if kept under control, can actually be beneficial. Also, don’t forget to take a deep breath.
If you have found this article useful you might like to check out Breaking Into the Music Business: An Essential Guide for Performers, which contains a lot of invaluable advice for performers and is available as an eBook from Amazon. Find out more here.