Like most of the UK, for the last few weeks I have been gripped by the Olympics and Paralympics, and in particular by the immaculate performances of many of the athletes. I especially enjoyed watching our man Tom Daley in the diving final.
For those of you who didn't see it, he took the bold decision of appealing after his first dive because camera flashes had put him off and requested that he should be allowed another dive. He was granted a repeat 1st dive, and promptly nailed it. In front of about 15.9 million people.
It struck me that the mental processes involved in controlling one's nerves in this discipline, especially at such a critical moment as this, must be quite similar to that of a musician. Months of preparation behind the scenes, before a performance in which you have to execute precise and exact movements in perfect combination, perfectly timed and in front of a massive global audience. Everything in preparation is geared and aimed towards a few vital, nerve-racking moments.
Performance nerves are a strange and unpredictable phenomenon. As a musician you can be performing in the most nerve-racking of situations, such as an all-Schubert recital at a capacity Wigmore Hall, and not really feel nervous at all; yet you can give a three minute performance for a small local event in the presence of three people, two Yorkshire Terriers and next door's cat, and get inexplicably nervous. Thank goodness we don't have to wear speedos; I wouldn't be able to handle the pressure!
Many a career has been broken by an overwhelming bout of nerves; but equally, many a career has been catapulted into the stratosphere by the heightened adrenaline and excitement that nerves bring with them as part of the package. But how do top performers deal with these inner demons (if indeed they consider them to be 'demons' at all) and how do they reliably churn out performance after performance at the highest of technical and musical standards?
Two possible answers to the above are implied in the question itself. Something that makes life a lot easier for the professional musician is having regular performances in the diary, especially of the same programme. This is one of the reasons why well-known musicians will tour just one or two programmes in a season, usually with the most toe-curling and scary high-profile venues at the end of the run. If you have one concert in a period with nothing either side of it, it is easy for that concert to take on epic proportions and become 'the big one' to which all your attention and nerves are directed. At the moment I'm enjoying the relative calm before the storm of Concertgebouw in Amsterdam in December...
The Weakest Link
In fact, most artists do private run-through recitals of new programmes in front of trusted friends and colleagues so that they can work out where the most dangerous and risky bits of a programme are...and nail down and fix those bits before they appear before a fee-paying public. The first performance of any new programme can feel a bit like performing with your musical trousers down, so best to do it in the company of friends!
The other most common way in which top performers guard themselves from nerves is by thorough preparation. Detailed preparation is like the musician's bullet-proof vest. This means preparing well enough for your best to be so good that your second best will do. There is rarely a performance without incident, so the bar needs to be set very high in the practice studio in order that any dip in this standard really doesn't adversely affect the performance or put you off balance.
The side effect of thorough preparation is of course that you also go into the performance with much greater confidence, knowing that you've done the required work; a psychological boost as well as a physical one. It's important to leave no stone unturned when preparing for a recital; there mustn't be any opportunity for your brain to start thinking 'Uh oh, here comes a tricky bit'. Performance amplifies the effects of thoughts like this and the result can be a musical train-wreck. My teacher Philip Fowke wisely used to say 'a performance is only as strong as its weakest link'.
We pianists have Clara Schumann to thank for much of our pre-concert anxiety. She was one of the most distinguished pianists of the Romantic era, and made a regular habit of performing her concerts from memory. Thanks, Clara.
The trend continued and performing from memory as a solo pianist is very common, although there is now a new acceptance of performing with a score, which I think is really healthy. Memorizing a two hour solo recital programme is a formidable task in itself, but then having to perform it in a silent concert hall seating 5000 people expecting to hear perfection is another level of scary altogether.
The problem here is usually your mind second-guessing you, especially if you start questioning what the next note is. Worrying about forgetting the music and thoughts of being on stage and falling off the memory high-wire with no safety net are a major source of pre-concert nerves. Hopefully your run-through's with friends will have exposed these memory hotspots and you will have already devised some system to help remember them. This can be literally anything that helps you remember: certain fingerings, an awareness of the keys you are passing through, whether you are playing mostly on the black notes or mostly on the white notes, and some pianists even make up words to the music that give them instructions e.g. Grieg piano concerto 'Up a perfect 4th, down a minor 3rd, up a perfect 4th, down a minor 3rd'.
Being a fluent improviser with good ears also helps, not only for hearing where you are going next, but also digging yourself out of a memory slip. I think members of the public would be surprised to hear some of the thoughts going through performers' heads during a recital: memory aids, musical details but also "am I going to make the last train" or "blimey, I'm looking forward to a burger after this!".
Are we nearly there yet?
Length of performance can also have an effect on nerves. I personally find that after ten minutes any anxiety I may have had will have burned off and I'll hopefully be feeling relatively relaxed on stage. Not the kind of relaxed you might feel after your third pint of Stella at the pub on a Friday night, but more a quiet sense of calm and control.
This is fine if most of your performances are full-length recitals, but for younger student musicians it is a real challenge to be able to give your very best in the first ten minutes of performance. This is the length of many auditions for competitions, and is one of the reasons that I think competitions don't always find the best musician; they sometimes only find the person best capable of performing flawlessly in the first ten minutes.
So, what other coping mechanisms do musicians use? I find that my routine on the day of a performance helps me remain calm and in control. What the routine entails may be less important than the existence of the routine itself. What matters to me is a sense that each time I do a performance my approach to it feels familiar. Almost every musician I know has some kind of routine, warm-ups, and plan for a concert day. For an evening concert, I tend to practice in the morning at the hall, have a big lunch, then rest a bit before arriving at the hall an hour before the concert to warm-up back-stage. I've yet to demand a rider that even J-Lo would be embarrassed to submit, but there's still time I guess...
The Inner Game
Bizarrely enough, if you have a cough or a slight injury (nothing serious of course) before a concert you can often end up giving a better performance. The only thing I can put this down to is the fact that it takes your mind off worrying about the task in hand and lets your body get on with the act of performing.
This concept is explored in some depth in the fantastic book by W. Timothy Gallwey, 'The Inner Game of Tennis' (and also, with less eloquence but more music in the co-written 'The Inner Game of Music'). The idea here is that when you perform under pressure you have two things happening: your body naturally doing what it does best instinctively, and then a voice in your head providing a commentary questioning whether you are going to mess it up or not.
The theory behind the book is that if you can give this commentary something else to concentrate on other than negative thoughts that will trip you up, it will allow your body to get on with what it is doing with less inhibition, and with much greater success. This can be used in a positive way during a performance too; you can give yourself melodic lines to focus on and follow, phrasing to concentrate on, dynamics to exaggerate, and so on, so that you don't have time to think about whether something is going to go wrong or not.
Spit and polish
Talking of the bizarre, some musicians rely heavily on superstitions to give them their performance edge. The legendary pianist Shura Cherkassky was notorious for this and had lots of strange requirements on concert day, including having to eat a chocolate fudge sundae, needing to step on to the platform with the same foot first each time and needing someone at the side of the stage to spit on his cheeks. He was one of the most gifted pianists of all time so I guess I should maybe give some of this stuff a go. Someone pass me the Ben and Jerry's.
I actually think one of the things to be most nervous about is if you don't feel nervous before a concert, however big or small it is. This most often occurs if you haven't given yourself time to think about the fact you are performing in the lead up to the concert. For example, if you have crammed in a bunch of meetings earlier in the day and rush straight to the venue. What normally happens in this scenario is that you get on stage and get a huge surge of adrenaline all in one go as you walk on the platform 'Well, hello there folks!' For me this usually results in getting all the nerves I should have been experiencing throughout the day in approach to the concert, in one big concentrated dose.
The bottom line is, whether you are a performing professional, student or an amateur, you have to find what works personally for you. It takes a lot of experimentation, but there'll always be ways of reducing anxieties that you might have. I'm always suspicious of anyone who has an across-the-board 'method' of dealing with nerves; just do what works.