A few thoughts on nerves…

Over the last few weeks we have hosted two concerts for our pupils, one for school-age learners and the other for adults. I have also been travelling around the UK, examining for ABRSM, and watching these hoards of relatively inexperienced, budding musicians perform has got me thinking about nerves. All of my pupils complain of nerves hindering their playing to some degree and it has been fascinating to study the effect of nerves on so many individuals of all ages over the last few weeks. Without exception, everyone reacts with surprise at the way pressure changes their ability to play their instrument and I think this offers a fascinating insight into what goes on in their practice.

When I was at school and asked my teacher for help with nerves, he told me that nerves were a form of guilt! I was stunned, and very stung at the implied criticism that the horrible nerves I suffered from were a symptom of bad practice! However, as the years have gone on and my own nerves have receded, that mantra has constantly come back to me.

Louisa and I often joke that before a concert that our bodies enter a state of fight or flight. Invariably our hands are left freezing cold as blood rushes to our vital organs, our hearts race a little and our senses feel heightened. Yet both of us come up with some of our best playing in this state, feeding off the energy. There’s something electric about a room full of people sat in absolute silence, listening intently, and we both use this energy to focus our efforts and hopefully create a special performance. It is not that we don’t suffer from nerves, far from it, but somehow you eventually get to the stage (no pun intended) where your performance doesn’t necessarily suffer when you are nervous and, with enough concentration, you can turn all that adrenaline into something really special.

To get back to my wise old teacher, nerves, and specifically the effect they have on your ability to perform under pressure, I now believe to be a symptom of technical/practice/rehearsal problems, and in a large part the effect is driven by the what happens at home when you are on your own putting in the preparation.

Playing an instrument is an unbelievably complex neurological task, and it is completely understandable that the prospect of doing so in front of a room full of people fills most people with a hideous sense of dread! But there are plenty of very complex things we do all the time, walking is pretty tricky to start with (just look at any toddler), as is talking (tried learning a new language recently?!), driving (who wasn’t nervous for their driving test?) and even operating the plethora of gadgets we now play with for amusement usually takes a bit of getting used to. Yet the pressure has to get very intense before we lose the ability to walk, talk or even drive! In all these instances though, there is an immediate consequence of doing them wrong. If we trip we fall, often when we are young, hopefully only occasionally as an adult, and it hurts. Each time we subconsciously learn a lesson to prevent it happening again. If we don’t speak clearly people do not understand and again we subconsciously learn every day how to communicate better, subtley changing our use of language and our accent to fit our surroundings. If you have a close call in the car, or even worse an accident, your awareness and concentration is heightened the next time you get in a car.

So here’s the problem, when you are on your own practising away, enjoying privately your developing abilities, what happens when you make a mistake? Well, most of the time nothing, it doesn’t hurt (not physically anyway), no one is listening (except you), and it is all too easy to quickly correct almost subconsciously and carry on without even acknowledging that anything is wrong.

So what does any of this have to do with nerves? In all the actions described above, there are unpleasant consequences to getting things wrong in practice, when the pressure is off, so when you have to walk down the aisle on your wedding day, or give a presentation in front of peers, you have a lifetime of realistic successful practice to fall back on. However, when someone is suddenly listening to you play, all those subconscious slips that you weren’t aware of hurt you to your inner-most humiliated core and it suddenly becomes very painful if you make a mistake.

So what’s the answer? In simple terms, make sure you practise in a way that always exactly simulates a performance. In concert you have to get from beginning to end without hesitation or error. So in practice make that the mantra. It’s not so much about preparing the right notes but learning how the right notes connect from one to another. Always force yourself to go from point A to point B, even if its only the join between two notes. There are also two machines (one old, one new) that really, really help. The first is the metronome. I’m convinced its an invention to counter human nature rather than a tool to help rhythm. I tell my pupils to make friends (or maybe make peace) with their metronome as I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that only when I made friends with mine, did I learn to manage to get over my nerves. The metronome tests your ability to get from one point to another without repetition, deviation or hesitation! And the other device? A microphone or anything that records (most phones do the trick). Record yourself and see if you can play 100% accurately (whatever that even means in music). Then, and only then can you be sure that you are prepared and ready for the nerves. Afterall, if you have succeeded in taming the metronome and the microphone, people are so much kinder and more forgiving, well, most of the time anyway!

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