One good way to calm your nerves a few days before a performance is to play your music slower. Playing at a slower tempo allows you to relax and gives you a sense of easiness which releases the tension in your body. Once you feel more relax, you can then gradually speed up up back to the desired tempo and you'll feel much better.
You can do it every day if you need. Once you can already play your piece fast a few days before the performance, what you need at this point is to get your mind and body in the best possible shape to perform at your best.
Ok. Let's talk about nerves!
Playing music is a wonderful thing. It's exciting, thrilling, interesting, enriching etc... It can also be stressful sometimes as we all know espescially for horn players. Controlling your nerves is an important part of the equation when it comes to perform. It's no use being the world's greatest player if you collapse as soon as you're on stage.
In the ''Chill baby chill!'' series, I will try to help you with this important aspect of music making. I will post a text every once in a while about my own experience with nerves and you're all welcomed to comment and add to the discussion.
So let's start from the beginning...
I use to be very nervous. As a teenager, I didn't have much confidence in myself in general. I was petrified when I had to speak in front of the class for exemple just to give you an idea! . I was practicing my horn a lot so I could do well with this but playing in front of even 5 people was quite a torture! I remember my legs shaking out of control,my hands becoming all sweaty etc... Most of us have been there I guess! I had to go through a lot to overcome this but I can say now that playing in concert is a fun experience most of the time and nerves aren't really a problem.
So why is that? Why do we get all nervous playing in front of people when we are doing just fine by ourselves?
There are many explanations to that. Normally, the fonction of stress is to prepare your body for fighting or escape in the face of danger. Your adrenalin level is higher, your senses are more alert and more blood is pumped into your system. What we experience in concert is called ''performance stress''. You don't have to face any danger but the kick comes from the fact that you are being observed and watched. How do we deal with that?
It is a perfectly normal human reaction to feel nervous to a certain point in concert. It can even be enjoyable believe it or not! I think the first thing you need to do when dealing with nerves is to accept that you are not a robot. You have feelings and emotions and it's ok to show them. You musn't feel embarrassed if people see you being nervous. We think that people will see us as weak if they see us vulnerable and that is not true. On the contrary, performing something in front of an audience takes a lot of practice, discipline, courage and commitment.
The fact that you're on stage playing music, acting, dancing, juggling etc shows that you have the courage and the strenght to step out of your comfort zone and do something special.That's not weakness! If anyone thinks you're weak for being nervous, well let's hear them play! For that reason, you need to walk on stage with your head up high and no matter how it goes, walk out of stage with your head up high. You deserve it! Allways keep that in mind.
You need also to have realistic expectations about your performance. We've heard people saying that you need to aim for perfection to achieve excellence. In reality, aiming for perfection will put a lot of pressure on your shoulders and hurt you when you perform. You better aim for ''very good'' and get ''very good'' than aim for ''perfect'' and get ''mediocre''. If you allways try to be perfect, you will become increasingly angry and frustrated with your playing because it's simply impossible. You're not a machine! There will allways be something to improve anyway. Learn to appreciate where you are now as a player and be proud of what you've done so far. There will allways be more and less advanced players.
A sane and realistic way to set your goals for your performance is to take your ''average good'' performance in your practice room and expect that in concert. If you've never been perfect alone, why would it suddenly happen in concert?
Having a more realistic and human approach to performing will take a lot of pressure off your shoulders and should make your concert a much more enjoyable experience.
So let's start with that and we'll definately talk more about it later!
"Happiness is not a station you arrive at but a manner of traveling"
-Margaret B. Runbeck
I saw that quote about 20 years ago on a poster. There was a guy walking next to a railway with these words written above him. Enjoy the learning process just as much as the results.
We all get frustrated sometimes when we can't play a passage or can't reach some notes. You might think that you are doing something wrong and need to change this and that. What if you just needed more time?...
If you're doing the right move, using the right fingering, blowing the right way, aren't too tired etc. you'll be able to play that passage eventually if you allow yourself a few days, weeks or months to learn it. You don't necessarily have to change your playing for every passage that doesn't work immediately!
If you expect perfection right away, you will only create stress for yourself which will slow down your progress.
We've all heard that playing music takes talent and practice but we often forget one element in the equation: time and patience. Progress will happen gradually if you're doing what you have to do on a daily basis. You'll be a bit better than yesterday and tomorrow will be a bit better than today. At the end, all these "a bit better" will add up and it'll be quite good!
The truth is that learning a musical instrument is a long process. It takes years to reach a certain level and once you've reached that level, you'll probably want to be even better! So when should you be happy with your playing?
The answer is: RIGHT NOW!
Not being perfect doesn't mean that you can"t have fun playing. Also being happy with your playing doesn't mean that you don't try to improve. We all know what we have to work on and are doing it but we also have to appreciate what we've achieved so far.
I am associate principal horn of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and the author of the progressive methods. I'm happy to share my experience as a horn player and teacher with you.