Nearly everyone experiences some physical manifestation of performance nerves.
Whether it’s butterflies in the stomach, cold feet, sweaty palms, shaky hands or scattered thoughts, these symptoms can threaten to undo all our hours of hard work and preparation. Even worse, it’s often fear of the symptoms, not the anxiety about the performance itself, that causes the most damage.
This is why performers are always on the hunt for the silver bullet, the magic cure that will keep the nerves at bay. Ask around and you will find people who put their trust in meditation, deep breathing, medication, bananas and lucky socks. If any of these work for you, that’s fantastic.
But that’s not what this post is all about.
I would like to share three strategies for coping with nerves and anxiety that have more to do with management than with magic. You might not have heard many people talk about them, but they are powerful core strategies that will work even when your lucky socks are in the laundry.
Let’s start by removing some of the mystery around performance nerves. There’s really nothing mysterious about it. Performance nerves are an autonomic or involuntary physical reaction to the stress of performing. Even when we are looking forward to a performance, it can be stressful. A friend of mine was told to think of her physical symptoms not as “being nervous,” but instead as “a state of heightened anticipation.”
Remember the last time you were looking forward to a trip or a party or were watching a exciting movie. Your heart rate went up, your breath came faster and you were more animated or lively. The more excited you were, the greater your physical reaction. The reaction is unconscious and involuntary.
What you are experiencing is merely an energy surge. Our body responds to stressful situations by producing extra energy. In a crisis, we would use that energy to flee from a threat or fight an enemy. In a performance, that energy tends to work against the calm control that we would like to have. All we need to do is figure out how to keep that energy from ruining our performance.
That’s where these three strategies can help.
I was asked this recently from someone who was talking about their first public performance. She was really prepared, playing music she loved, in a familiar setting, for people she knew and cared about. She figured her thorough preparation plus the fact that she wasn’t worried about the performance would mean she wouldn’t get nervous.
She was wrong. Her hands started shaking terribly. She wasn’t just worried about playing the right notes; now she was nervous about being nervous. Talk about a vicious cycle!
She managed to finish the performance and it didn’t go badly. But she didn’t understand why she had gotten nervous when she felt so ready to play. No one had prepared her for the possibility that her body would interpret her playing as a life-or-death scenario, whether her mind thought so or not.
This is where our first strategy comes in: EXPECT to feel the symptoms of nervousness. You may not be concerned about the performance, but your body might prepare for fight-or-flight anyway. If the shaky hands or sweaty palms don’t show up, that’s great. But if they do, it’s a natural physical reaction. Expect it; don’t sweat it.
What to do when your body goes into overdrive? Harness that extra power!
Your body has called up your energy reserves to respond to the “emergency.” This is likely more energy than you need to play your piece, but you can still find a way to use it. If you can direct that extra energy properly, it can actually improve your performance.
Channel it into making your music more expressive. You might try to create bigger dynamic differences or longer phrases. Turn that nervous energy into emotional energy which will serve the music rather than sabotage your performance. Instead of trying to hold that energy in check, try visualizing yourself breathing that extra energy into the music.
The final strategy is so simple and yet so difficult. As musicians, we strive to get it right. We work on every note, every finger, every nuance. Our performance is the culmination of our efforts and time.
It can be difficult to reconcile ourselves to the aspects of performance that are beyond our control, as so many are. Whether it’s the lighting, the temperature, the time of day or the child in the front row swinging his feet out of time to the music, we just have to play anyway. More importantly, we must let our annoyance or frustration at these things go. That frustration will do more harm to our playing than the actual distraction will.
Performance nerves are also mostly beyond our control. Sometimes they show up even when we use our personal “tried and true” methods for prevention. Being prepared to accept them, not as inevitable perhaps, but as natural and normal, gives you the power to rise above them and to play anyway. It might not be your very best performance, but it will be good enough.
Our three strategies in a nutshell:
And remember to wash your lucky socks!