Why is it that so many of us suffer from nerves when we perform? It doesn’t matter if it’s for an examination or an informal gathering of friends. Nerves can make a real mess of our tonal quality and articulation, whatever instrument we play. When we watch seasoned professionals perform, they seem so relaxed and confident. What is their secret, and how can we begin to enjoy performing more?
It is something we do all day and all night without thinking about it. But when it comes time to perform, suddenly we seem to forget how to breathe! For a wind instrumentalist, that could spell disaster. Even if you’re not a wind instrumentalist, try popping a few breath marks on the score of your piece. It can be a good reminder.
Before you start to play, take ten seconds or so to regain control over your breath. The deeper and longer the breath, the more calming it will be for you. The extra oxygen feeds your brain helping you to concentrate. It will also oxygenate your blood, helping your circulation reach your fingers.
Know Your Pieces
Many of us have worries about particular passages or bars that are tricky to play. These are the ones to concentrate on before you performance. Ideally you will have mastered them and even memorised them before the big day. This is often achieved through repetition.
The more familiar you are with a piece, the more confidence you will have in your ability to play it correctly on the night. Most professional soloists perform with a score. They have memorised the piece in its entirety. You can concentrate more fully on your sound and performance when you don’t have to read a score as well.
Many professionals, including BBC Young Musician finalist Sophie Westbrooke, know that mistakes happen. What’s important is your mindset. If you don’t mind that a mistake was made, then it won’t trip you up. Not dwelling on a mistake or slip is important. You need to perform the rest of the piece well rather than losing your focus to one or two moments of imperfection.
At the end of the day, it is unlikely anyone in the audience noticed an error. But if you notice it, it will distract you for the rest of the piece. Once it has passed, it’s past.
Engage The Audience
It’s very important to include the audience in your experience. They have come to hear a piece of music. Let them know how you feel about that piece with your performance. Keep your head up and your back straight. Notice that your shoulders are down and relaxed. Your posture should show that you are comfortable to be there. I should help you feel comfortable to be there too.
Smile! Even woodwind musicians can smile while they play. Your eyes should be open and looking ahead. If you are too nervous to look directly at someone, try a point at the back of the hall just above everyone’s heads. The audience will feel more relaxed if they think you’re happy in their company. This in turn will help you feel more comfortable with them.
The truth is that performing experience is the best way to feel comfortable. As with everything we have to start somewhere. When we are beginner performers there may be a few mistakes and uncomfortable moments. The more we do it, the better we will become. It’s just like practice.
Does it help to video a performance? Yes and no. If the camera is a distraction in any way then no. If you find yourself thinking about it, then no. But if you want to see what works well, and hear back your performance then use a camera. However, your perception of the experience could be very different to what you see on the TV. Do you really want to change that impression?
My final tips on performing include the matter of timing. This is your performance, so take your time. Stop for ten seconds to breathe between pieces. It helps you to regain your focus and find the mood for the piece you are about to perform. Listen to the sounds you are making. Don’t hear them in your head, but instead listen to your instrument. Lastly, enjoy the piece you are playing. Find its beauty, its passion, its drama, and its peace.