Do You Still Get Nervous?

"Do you still get nervous?"

This a question I've been asked by my oldest friends, my family, and countless students. 

My answer:

"Anyone who tells you they don't is either lying, hasn't experienced it yet, or is a sociopath."

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Playing an instrument professionally comes with the following:

  • You know too well what could go wrong. If you're a string player, your margin for error is slim. Millimeters of variation in finger placement can result in an embarrassingly out-of-tune note. Likewise: a slight variation in bow pressure, speed, or placement can result in a squeak, a scratch, or a crunch. This is to say nothing of the wonderfully abstract possibility of simply not saying what you want to say through the music. (In which case: what would even be the point?)

  • Your Error Antennae are trained to be on red alert, and impossible to shut off completely. Improvement over the course of your lifetime demands attention to your own mistakes. And the more you know, the more you hear what could be better. Observing your own errors moment-to-moment without getting thrown by them takes resilience.

  • The field is competitive. In addition to having your own Error Antennae, you know your very talented peers also have them. They cannot help but apply them to you. (You know this because you inevitably do the same to them.) Their responses can range from empathy to pure Schadenfreude. There's even a bit of a taboo around discussing nerves. Nobody wants to be the one to cop to them, as if admitting to the feeling somehow makes you less cut out for the job.

  • You care. You love the repertoire and the craft so much that you've committed to it professionally. You are inspired to share this love with other people to the best of your ability. You respect that your audience has made plans and spent hard-earned money to hear you play.

  • I repeat: you care. As a human being, you are programmed to wonder what others think of how you're coming across. Unless you are psychic, you can't possibly know.

  • Have I said "you care" yet? The stakes (read: livelihood, mortgage, self-respect, personal ideals, food) are incredibly high.

It doesn't feel that different inside the musician's amygdala.  

It doesn't feel that different inside the musician's amygdala.  

    Being experienced doesn't change the existence of the points listed above. What comes with experience are highly personal tools to manage them.

    So instead of "do you still get nervous?", the better question is: "How do you manage your nerves?"

    To that end, here's how Kevin, Yoshi, Meredith, and I answer both questions. 


    Kevin

    From decades of observing myself and others, I've learned that there's something funny in the way musicians try to understand or justify why we get the jitters.  We sometimes blame it on age:  less resilient bodies, losing that limitless energy and optimism, or the fading away of unshakeable, naive confidence.  But it's easy to forget that when we were younger and in training, we would spend months upon months perfecting one piece of music.  And when we performed that piece, we had a sense of security and ownership that was hammered into our nerves, muscles, brains, and hearts from countless performances of that same work.

    Now we might learn an hour-long program of difficult music in a few weeks, if we're lucky, and throw it together with other musicians in a few rehearsals for one or two performances.  Then we wonder why we're feeling anxious or unsettled, or slightly under-prepared. If you look at Salastina's schedule, we present a completely new program once a month, on average.  Meanwhile, we're working as musicians on other things full time.   In a way, this mode forces me to evolve quickly and doesn't leave time for self-doubt.  I've had to sharpen my practice routine, interpretive approach, and rehearsal focus.  I feel pretty good about bringing music to performance level quickly.

    Another funny thing about musicians.  We expect our musicality and muscle memory to override any situation that comes up.  If they don't, we become dejected.  The reality is that our bodies have some limits.  Why didn't my hands do what I told them?  Oh yeah, I didn't eat all day.  Why did I feel exhausted and muddy-headed?  Oh yeah, I spent 3 hours in the car and earlier played 6 hours in a recording session.  Why am I getting anxious?  Oh yeah, because I keep doubting my preparation and years of making music.  

    I don't get very nervous in performance.  But if I do feel a little jittery, I just force myself to remember why I'm making music.  It's easy to get sucked into the idea that it's about you, about proving your worth and talent to the audience.  Years of performing and self-reflection have convinced me that this mindset is completely backwards.  It's really about communicating and sharing:  sharing something from the heart, sharing an extraordinary creation with my fellow human beings, and sharing a special experience.  We're most relaxed when we're being genuine and authentic.  And if you think about it, most people attending a concert aren't there to criticize but rather to enjoy.  Once I have the right context, it's hard to stay nervous.  Sometimes it takes a minute to get the vibrato under control because of excitement, but I get there!


    Yoshi

    I absolutely do get nervous! When one cares so much about the quality of the performance itself, I think it's inevitable. But before each performance, I always try and turn all that agitation and anxiety into positive energy that I can throw into the performance. I also try and focus on the message it is trying to convey: what am I trying to say through this music? How do I want the audience to feel at the end of the performance? As a perfectionist, I have to constantly remind myself that perfection is not the goal. The goal is to convey the message to the best of my ability - and if stuff happens along the way, it's really not the end of the world. I strive for an optimal performance (I learned this through reading Don Greene's 'Performance Success' which I highly recommend) and that has allowed me to focus on the music more and commit to the performance 110%. 


    Meredith

    For me, nervousness before a performance is actually the fear of fear itself. 

    What if my nerves cause my bow to shake? What if my palms get sweaty and I miss that hard shift? Even more so, I know my nerves tend to act like a naysayer in my head when I'm playing. "Here comes the hard part, you're gonna mess it up!"

    The best way I've found to quiet that voice is to remember why I'm doing this in the first place: to make music, which is something I love. If you remind yourself that you're playing beautiful music and that bringing your musicality and enjoyment of your art to the audience is your goal, then other things become insignificant in comparison. Fear of specific small components like shifts and tricky passages melt away into the bigger picture of the piece itself. For me, that's the most useful tool for overcoming nerves.


    Maia

    I relate to so much of what Kevin and Mer have said. Like Mer, the prospect of nervousness alone can be enough to throw my game. My "what ifs" are often vague. They can take on a generally ominous tone around the sheer potential for something -- anything -- to go wrong. 

    Like Kevin, any anxiousness I feel comes from self-doubt. And I too am most vulnerable to nerves when my defenses are down. A lack of sleep, poor nutrition, and general burnout can make for a ripe breeding ground. But I differ from him in one significant regard. Preparation has little to do with my level of nervousness. In fact, I'm often the most nervous the more prepared I am!

    If I haven't had that much time to learn a piece, I can be more readily capable of throwing caution to the wind. In these cases, I am more likely to adopt a healthy, "well, I have done and will do my best" kind of attitude.

    The stakes are higher when I've put more of myself into a piece. I am more aware of -- and have more invested in -- what I want to say. Plus, the more I get to know a piece, the more I know that there's always more to improve upon and discover. There's more I want to control -- making the sheer prospect of being out of control that much more daunting.

    The first time I experienced nerves, I was 17 years old, and about to solo in a concerto for the opening of Zipper Hall. I was completely caught off guard by the butterflies in my stomach, and the fear I felt. Somehow, it occurred to me that I was lucky to have been given the opportunity. I then zoomed out to feeling generally fortunate to share beauty with others through music. I felt genuine humility and gratitude, which had -- and still has -- a profoundly centering effect.

    Ever since, I've been a perfect, magnanimous, self-composed angel of music, and no longer get nervous. THE END.

    In all seriousness: like Kevin and Meredith, keeping my desire to share beauty in the front of my mind does wonders. Sometimes, I need to approach that same idea from a different angle.

    Oh, how I wish I could enter a state of transcendence, and stay there for the duration of a concert. Unfortunately, my human brain is prone to distracting, intrusive thoughts. 

    Whatcha thinkin' about? 

    Whatcha thinkin' about? 

    "Ooh, here comes that part you're insecure about." "Boy, that audience member's cough sounds terrible." "You worked on this part so much in rehearsal -- I bet you'll be the one to blow it. Let's see if we'll notice any disappointment register on the others' faces." "Make sure you catch that page turn at the right moment, or else you're screwed!" "This concert isn't as full as the last one was. You didn't do enough marketing." "So you hit that passage you were worried about. Still doesn't prove you don't need me, the Devil On Your Shoulder." "SEE? You can't even concentrate. What kind of musician are you?!"

    Passion only comes from losing control. That's hard to do when the task at hand -- playing an instrument at a high level -- requires a hefty dose of perfectionism. Passion and perfectionism are a bit like oil and water. Perfectionism pretends to look for the best when it's actually looking for the worst. This mindset is not exactly conducive to passion, flow, and letting go. 

    Trying to control my mind from wandering only results in more negative self-talk. Plus, it's exhausting! The best strategy I have for managing my nerves moment-to-moment is mindfulness. When an intrusive thought blips by, I gently bring my attention back to my top priority -- which could be distilled down to what's become something of a mantra for me:

    Close the gap.

    By that I mean: close the gap between what I hear in my imagination, and what comes out of my hands.

    There's no specific technical instruction in that mantra. There's no judgement, either. It's the simplest way I can word my greatest aspiration as a player. It helps me tune out the chatter and focus on what really matters.

    There are other little things I call upon, like smiling when I go onstage. This has an instantly disarming effect. It helps me physically feel that I'm there to connect and be authentic with other people. (Perhaps I'm lucky that talking to the audience makes me less nervous, not moreso, for the same reason.) Simply noticing what I'm feeling -- and not engaging with why I'm feeling it -- works well. And deep breathing and meditation can help me get in a good frame of mind.

    I always tell my students that true courage isn't the absence of fear, but feeling afraid and acting anyway. While I sometimes judge myself for feeling nervous, I respect everyone else I know who looks it in the eye with their head held high.