Most performers of music have a tendency to become nervous or anxious when it comes to playing their instrument in front of other people. It doesn't matter how long they may practice, how many years they have spent perfecting their piano technique or how much encouragement they have received for their skill. Performers get nervous.
This response may manifest physically. Common bodily reactions to performance anxiety include sweaty palms, hands that shake, shortness of breath and even stomach upset (Goldberg. Joseph, 2017). This is because of an instinctual phenomenon, famously recognised as the Fight or Flight response. The official medical term is Acute Stress response. Walter Canon was the first to describe this phenomena in the 1920s. Psychologist World summarise his experience as "a theory that animals react to threats with a general discharge of the sympathetic nervous system" (psychologistworld.com). This means that the nerves and anxiety we experience are a response to an event that poses as a threat to you personally. Threats may be connected to a number of reasons such as, and most pertinent and common amongst musicians: fear of failure (Chang. C. Chain. 2014).
This is, however, a shame because Chang. C. Chain suggests that "nervousness is a performance enhancing reaction to a certain situation". He then goes on to say that nerves help us to concentrate more intently upon the task at hand and conjects that it is a survival tool that humans have developed over time in order to focus their thoughts and physical responses to a situation in which they can either thrive, survive or die (Chang. C. Chain. 2014). Thus, I believe, it is important for us to begin by changing our perception of what can appear to be a debilitating human response and now consider it to be a tool that could be used when we perform our music to incite a successful and victorious manner.
The big questions at hand now are, "how can I utilise my nerves in a successful way?" and "how can I reduce nervous reactions in the first place?". The first question is answered by considering nerves to be a positive response originating from the brain, affecting the peripheral nervous system for your benefit, in that you receive heightened ability to concentrate and energy to cope with an intensely difficult or stressful situation. Paul Broca, a French neuroanatomist, said the emotional element of this phenomena is "passions of a short duration" meaning that the uncomfortable feeling you may experience is only temporary and you can be sure that after you have performed, your physiology and psychology will recover shortly thereafter (Steimer. Thierry. 2002).
In answer to the second question, we should make sure that we are fully prepared for our performance. Preparation is essential. If we are already prepared, mentally, musically and physically, when nerves kick in, we will, pardon the cliché, be producing superhuman performances!
How should we prepare? My tutor, Jeremy Davis, a former pupil of Vlado Perlumuter, wisely suggested to me several steps:
1- Full assimilation of score details (dynamics, fingerings, accurate note recognition) - this should be done by focussing on the score away from the piano and becoming mentally 'at one' with the piece. This is really how one ought to practice from the outset of learning a composition.
2- Practicing the piece at three different speeds - fast, medium and slow. This will help us to get from A to B effectively and without stopping. More to the point, it will enable us to focus our practice on areas we may stumble at or get nervous of.
3- My own addition - record yourself and imagine yourself in a room full of people. This will help you to get past the fear of people listening in on you.
4- The utilisation of various relaxation techniques such as the Alexander technique and the Feldenkrais method, which help one to relax the muscles, create awareness and focus motor movement and mental processes with greater ease, are further beneficial.
5- Finally, you should be confident in your abilities and trust that you are able to perform, able to succeed and able to bring wonderful entertainment to an audience who longs to hear your performance.
Chang. C. C. 2014. Origin and control of nervousness. (Online).
Goldberg. J. 2017. How worrying affects the body. (Online).
Psycologistworld.com. Stress: fight or flight response. (Online).
Steimer. T. 2002. The biology of fear- and anxiety-related behaviours.