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Performance vs. Nerves

Many musicians deal with a problem of being nervous while performing and many live with it through their lives. Vladimir Horowitz, one of the finest concert pianists of 20th century, took a 12-year break from performance due to the same reason!

Case of Adults: A study in UK concludes that adults are 3 times more nervous than children performing in front of audience. The reason why this is a fact has nothing to do with performance skills or the level of difficulty of the music, it is their high expectations! Imagine someone who was a fantastic runner in his schools days being asked to take part in a friendly race at office today. He would most probably turn down the offer, as he would like to live with his last ‘happy’ memory at the racetrack and is too scared to lose, he would have no consideration for being out of practice for years! Even when we have no background in learning music, adults somehow have a high level of expectation. Whatever level of music they play, they want it perfect. Not to mention, they want it to be the best that they can manage too! If someone learning at Grade-3 level is asked to perform at a concert, there is hardly a chance they would choose to play music of Grade-2 level. Hence, it is a mix of high expectation and difficult music that almost always lands them in a pressure situation on stage! Word of advice, choose music that you can enjoy playing on stage to avoid the pressure cooker!

Case of learning musicians: The level of nervousness is directly related to the level of preparation. Imagine someone at intermediate level being asked to go on stage with 10000 audiences to play a simple C-major chord; do you think he would be nervous? No, because demand is too simple; in other words, he is too good to make a mistake playing something that easy. What is easy? Any music that you feel comfortable playing is easy. Hence, you should prepare your music not to a point where you can play is correctly but to a point where you can’t make a mistake! At this level of preparation, you may still be nervous but you’d perform well anyway. Why you may still be nervous has nothing to do with your performance skills but with how you perceive performance!

Concept of Performance: I have attended numerous concerts where in spite of high standard of performance, the concert was boring to the bones! I wouldn’t and shouldn’t name any artists at this point but it happens with concert pianists and rock/jazz bands alike. The reason is that musicians spend thousands of practice hours perfecting their performance skills and often make that the ultimate aim of being a musician. They want to the ‘BEST’! Well, let me break the news to you… no matter how many competitions you may have won or how fast your fingers move, there is nothing called the ‘Music Olympics’, the concept of ‘best’ does not apply to music. Everyone has a unique expression that they bring to the stage and that expression cannot be imitated, or compared with any other musician in this world. The aim of the performance should not be perfection… but expression. Every piece of music should tell a story, by chasing perfection you are missing the point! If you are involved with the piece of music yourself, the audience will be glued to your music.

One last thing that plays a major role in calming your nerves is the performance experience. Everything is a process, from learning to walk, learning to write to performing with conviction. Stage feels very different compared to a practice room and you need to spend enough hours on stage before you can tame your nerves and be comfortable on stage. Solution… even one person is an audience; try to perform at the slightest appropriate opportunity to do so. Additionally, if you don’t believe that your music deserves attention from hundreds and thousands of people, then you actually don’t! Should you expect your audience appreciate something you don’t appreciate yourself?

To summarize, if you have chosen the music appropriate to your standard of performance skills, have practiced it enough and you connect with the music at personal level, I don’t think you would have left any room for being nervous. Enjoy your performance and audience will too…


Ritesh Khokhar

February 2013

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