Overcoming nerves in performance

by Jenny Macmillan

Ability Develpment, Spring 1994

Last summer, Joan Dickson, an eminent cellist, both as teacher and performer directed a chamber music workshop at Hitchin. The previous evening, speaking from her own experience, she gave an illuminating talk on how to overcome nerves:on the concert platform.

Good nerves as well as bad: She pointed out that there are good nerves as well as bad. Prior to an important event the body creates extra adrenalin - which can make one feel uncomfortable around the shoulders - but which gives one extra energy to prepare for the performance and makes one feel "keyed up" in readiness. An absence of nerves may well indicate a dull phlegmatic sort of person who plays in a dull phlegmatic manner. It is essential to get into the mood of the concert on the day - to clear the mind of clutter - so there isn't a sudden rush of nerves as one walks onto the platform.

Bad nerves can be caused by fear of failure, pressure from parents, fear of examiners, fear of forgetting, or fear that one's technique in inadequate (i.e. playing pieces that are too difficult). At the first signs of nervousness the pupil is encouraged to talk about it, and Joan Dickson reassures him it is something everyone feels. If her pupil says he might miss "this high note" or "his entry", she shows him how it is easy to find the high note or the entry.

Technique: Joan Dickson used to suffer agonies before and during concerts, mainly because she felt she could not trust her own technique. It is therefore important to build up not only a pupil's technical abilities, but also his confidence in his own technique. By her late twenties, Joan Dickson had developed a good technique, but for the previous ten years she had developed a habit of being nervous, and her back ached after performances.

Relaxation: She then discovered she was tense in her neck and shoulders. This was the equivalent of causing a traffic jam - messages from her brain were not delivered correctly to the rest of her body. But even once the unnecessary tensions had been removed through the application of Alexander technique, although she was not panicking, she was still not enjoying performing.

Positive thinking: On one occasion when she was invited to perform at the Edinburgh Festival she told herself she would be apprehensive for seven months until the concert - she was going to wallow in self-pity. Then she realised what she had said, and tried to smile and think positively. To prepare herself she imagined herself at the concert. She replaced all negative thoughts with positive ones. After ~ I all, one feels strong when one is happy, weak when one is sad. The Edinburgh concert was the first concert beyond childhood that Joan Dickson enjoyed giving. Since then she has always been able to control her thinking and enjoy her performing.

Subconsciousness: Joan Dickson then talked about very talented pupils who learnt to play easily and who may not have been taught how to play, Suddenly they come to an end of where their talent will take them, and start asking questions and getting worried. That is where some musicians become "burnt out", Some things must be done automatically - subconsciously - such as tying one' shoe laces. One knows very well how to do this, but if one were asked to describe how to tie shoe laces, one might well get in a mess. In performance, all one's consciousness must be directed into the music - one must not think about how one will play. This is similar to driving a car, where certain tasks must be accomplished automatically.

Memorising: When performing advanced pieces, memory alone is not enough. One must understand the construction of the piece. In performance, part of oneself must be slightly detached directing the performance, saying "next entry is on a G". When there is a jump, one must know the name of the note. Directions must be built into the memorising, Joan Dickson often feels there are two of her on stage - one emotionally involved and playing, and the other standing on her right and directing the performance. She pointed out that the performer need not feel emotionally' involved on stage, but must know how to convey the emotion of the work to the audience.

Thorough preparation: The secret of overcoming nerves in performance is thorough preparation. One needs a good conscience - be confident in one's technique and be sure one knows the work; The body must be free of all tensions. The mind must think positively.