Calming Pre-Concert Nerves

May 6th, 2017
Calming Pre-Concert Nerves

As a kid, I was almost never nervous about performances. Back then, I just went out on stage and did the best that I could without worrying too much about getting it just right. It’s strange, but somehow the pre-concert jitters have only increased with time. People are often surprised when I tell them that I still get nervous before a performance, even now! In order to calm my nerves and prepare myself for each performance, I have a number of pre-concert rituals that help me settle in.

  • Eating a meal four hours before the concert. Something hearty for sustained energy. Nothing too interesting, and nothing that will make a surprise entrance during the concert.
  • Taking a mini-"nap", waking up two and half hours before performance time. This usually turns into an hour of twisting and turning and occasionally getting up to flip through the music in panic.
  • Setting aside ample time to do my hair and makeup. As someone once told me, people see me on stage before they hear me. I try to make a good first impression.
  • Choosing some Emergen-C over caffeine, no matter how great the temptation (caffeine makes me jittery on stage and I end up playing things extra slow to compensate for my racing heart).
  • Practicing on the concert instrument for 15 minutes (any longer would just add to the nerves!).
  • Finding a table or a safe flat surface backstage (as close to the stage as possible) where my score can rest as I perform on stage for memory. This is where my OCD kicks in.
  • Retreating to my dressing room and starting the program on a warm-up instrument, or a PSO (Piano Shaped Object).

Beyond all of these rituals, the most important way to calm my pre-concert nerves is to have a conversation with my nervous self. It’s important that my rational self and my anxious self find some sort of understanding, so that I can perform at my highest level. For all the unexpected moments that might present themselves, here is the contract that my two selves agree to before each and every concert:

  1. I will play with my heart, not with my fingers. My fingers may hit wrong notes. I will not let my fingers get in the way of what my heart has to say. If inspiration strikes me on stage, I will go with my instincts. Tchaikovsky once said, “To regret the past, to hope in the future, and never to be satisfied with the present: that is what I spend my whole life doing.” I will do the opposite. I will live celebrating every moment!
  2. If I come to a moment in the music that doesn’t feel 100% comfortable, I will be brave. I will take my best shot and never fear the outcome.
  3. When something really bad happens, I will discard it from my mind immediately. I will not dwell on the mistake. I won’t allow it to bleed into the next section. (A line from the Pixar movie Finding Dory comes to mind: "Just keep swimming...")
  4. I will not be angered or deterred by noisy audience members. When a cell phone goes off, I will treat it as if it were a musician that made a wrong entrance. Hey, it happens. Moving on.

When the stagehands start to yell, “Two minutes before curtain!” that's when the real panic begins. A very wise friend once told me about a way to cope with that last-minute anxiety. He said that two minutes before each concert, I should empty my mind and celebrate! At that moment, everything that I can absorb for the performance is already in my mind. Just before each concert begins, I try to let all of my worries fall away, giving myself a pat on the back for once again coming this far. It’s time to smile, face a room full of audience members, and deliver the gift of music that I have lovingly worked on for so long.

The very last thought that runs through my mind before I walk on stage is from my teacher, Veda Kaplinsky. She once told me “Just have fun. When you have fun, everyone has fun." With that final thought, I say a little prayer and walk on stage, each and every time.