How to Perform Well If You Are Nervous
One of the reasons why we get nervous is because we are entering a situation we are not used to being in and we are expected to do something well in this situation. A way we can solve this is to be exposed to this situation for long enough and in such a way that you over time are able to think almost as clearly as when you are just playing for yourself without an audience.
A common scenario
You are sitting in your bedroom with your guitar on your lap. You are just going to play through that piece one last time before tonight’s performance, just to make yourself extra convinced that you can play it perfectly. With confident and proficiency you glide your way through the song. After the last chord has been struck, you place the guitar in the case while letting off a smug smile, convinced that tonight’s audience will praise you as the local guitar sensation.
It is 5 minutes before it is your turn to go on stage. For the first time today, a voice goes through your head: “Do I really know the piece well enough.”
The mere possibility that a mistake could happen freaks you out. Then, out of fear, you start to go through the piece in your head, just to regain some of the confidence you had earlier today. You just have to be sure that you get it right. You get to the middle bit, and… What was that chord again? You pretend like nothing happened and calmly go from the beginning again.
No. That’s it. No more confidence tonight – at least not until you have gone past that chord, but you cannot remember what it is.
The stage manager says your name and says it is your turn. Like Elon Musk’s Tesla Model S, your heart accelerates from 50bpm to 180bpm in less than a second. There is no more time to think about the piece. You just have to go on stage and play it. You go on stage and pick up the guitar. To your deep despair, it feels like you have never touched the instrument before. It does not feel like your hands – your hands are not made out of jelly – your hands do not usually shake like this. There is no time to think more about the situation or prepare anymore. The audience is waiting, and you just have to go for it.
You strike the first chord, convinced that this is going to go horribly wrong.
When you start playing, you do things you have never done when you have played it before. You look down on your hands where you usually look up in front of you. Out of an overpowering fear that you will forget the melody, you try to think ahead making sure you know what notes come up next. This is a completely different approach to the song that you never used when you played it in your bedroom. But you cannot help it. You just have to be sure that you get it right.
The last chord weakly trails off, and you finish feeling like an idiot incapable of doing anything.
Why Does This Happen?
If you have played a musical instrument for some time and performed in front of others, you might recognise this scenario. At home in your living room, you are perfectly capable of performing well, and you can even baffle yourself with your own skills. But when you are going to show your friends, or perform in front of others, why in the name of planet Earth is it that your mind and body suddenly act as if you have barely touched an instrument before? Suddenly your skills seem to be back to square one, and all your efforts and practise seems wasted.
In this article, we will cover why this happens and discuss a strategy you can use to ease or even solve the problem of performance nerves.
The number one reason why musicians are able to perform as well on stage as they do when rehearsing is that they are used to performing. Ironically, when you stop caring so much about getting it right, you will naturally calm down. If you want to be able to perform well if you are nervous, you have to regularly expose yourself to situations where you perform in front of others.
There are two strategies you can use to deal with this challenge. One of them involves using techniques that will make you become less nervous when performing. This idea is explored in this article: How to Combat your Performance Nerves
The other strategy is to get better at performing well in a nervous state, and this is the idea that will be explored in this article.
How to Perform Well in a Nervous State
Is it possible to play well while your heart is raging at 180bpm? Is it not better to just stick to the strategy where you will decrease your level of nervousness? A considerable element of the art of performance is about the ability to perform well in a nervous state. And if you can do this, that might even be the best way to overcome your nerves and be less nervous. If you know that you will be able to play well even while being nervous, this can be a massive confidence boost, and confidence is one of the main traits that can help you overcome nervousness. This can develop into a positive circle where you might come to realise – what is the point of being nervous at all?
A tricky question to answer is: When your fingers get shaky because of nerves, how are you supposed to be able to do intricate movements on the violin or the guitar? In the example at the beginning of this article, the main issue was that the nerves that subjugated you made you feel that you had never played the guitar before. This was a completely alien scenario to you that you are not used to experience. One solution to this is to get used to what your fingers are able to do while they and yourself are trembling with fear. Practise playing the piano, the violin, or whatever your instrument is while your hands are shaking. The key here is to get used to playing in this state so that it does not catch you by surprise when it suddenly happens in front of others.
An even trickier question to answer is, “How can you possibly get enough practise in a nervous state when you are only in this state for a brief moment of time every three months?” Let us look at two paths you can go down that can lead to an answer. There is one ideal path and one more realistic path.
The Ideal Option
Even though the ideal path is not always possible, it needs to be explained so that you know what the necessary steps are to being able to perform well through your nerves.
The ideal situation that can prevent your nerves from completely taking over the control of your fine motor functions is to use what you would learn in some kind of tailored performance club. This club would be like a weekly gathering of musicians where the sole aim of taking part is to become better at performing in a nervous state. This club would make sure that every individual participant gets to perform a short piece in front of an audience in a setting that lets them analyse what is going on in their body and mind. They will have an instructor that helps them with this. The most crucial factor that happens in these music lessons is that everyone will have the chance of trying again two or three times in front of the audience after some instructions on what to focus on during the next time they play.
This puts the musician in a unique position where they are allowed some time thinking about how they specifically feel when performing, and it gives them enough time to do changes to their state of mind during their performance while still being in a nervous state.
This will expose the musicians to valuable performance time where they get to practise specific performance skills that you simply cannot practise under normal performance circumstances.
There are not enough opportunities to do this. These performance lessons need to be welcoming, regular, tailored to each participant and lead by someone who can read what is going on in the musician’s head. Performance opportunities exist – a whole host of them. But they lack a very important factor – allowing the musician to play again with enough time to think about how to do it differently the second time around. At present, no such club exists.
The Realistic Option
Another solution is a more realistic option. This is something that you should be able to do at home. It takes the performance club concept and makes it doable in a home setting. The musician has to be their own instructor, and it requires access to a regular audience. One person is often enough as an audience. It can be a friend or a family member, but it has to be someone who would create some performance nerves in you – someone that makes you care about producing a good performance. The other necessary condition is that the audience has to allow the performer to play the piece again up to two or three times.
Finally, you need to be exposed to this situation as much as possible so that you get used to being in a performance state.
Below are the main points to think about when playing in front of others. This would be what the instructor would tell you to do in the imaginary performance club.
Practising Your Performance Skills
Here is what to specifically do while you are performing:
Try to imagine that you are just simply playing through your melody exactly like you are doing when you are practising for yourself. Convince yourself that what you are doing now is no different to what you are doing when you are playing it through perfectly in your bedroom.
Take anywhere from 5-20 seconds before you play it again where you just feel and observe yourself in your nervous state. Take some deep breaths and try to enter the same headspace that you are used to being in when you are practising. This takes some practise to be able to do well. Meditating will help you do this more successfully. Doing this in front of people in this particular setting is something you will have to do regularly over a long time. Realise that performing is for many people a separate skill than just playing an instrument. This is why we have to practise this particular skill in isolation. This is an important idea that not many people realise.
Explore the sensation of how it is to play with sweaty and shaky hands. The more used to this sensation you are, the easier it will be for you to play when your hands become shaky and sweaty. You will get to know yourself extremely well, and this is another secret to being able to perform well while you are nervous. Normally, you are not nervous, so when you are playing in a nervous state, you are in practice doing something you never normally do. No wonder you cannot usually perform well.
Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts to overcoming performance nerves. Following these steps will over time make you more and more able to recreate what you can do when practising for yourself, in front of an audience.