Question: I get nervous before auditions and concerts. Do you have any suggestions to help me calm down so I can play my best?
Answer: My first encounter with nervousness was when I was a student at Curtis studying with Julius Baker and Jeffrey Khaner. Their teaching styles were the opposite of each other. Mr. Baker taught and motivated by giving various levels of compliments, while Mr. Khaner was super strict. He gave many suggestions and seldom complimented us, so I often got the feeling that it was almost impossible to satisfy his high expectations. (I do think I was extremely lucky to have such teachers with completely different teaching styles as it made a great balance.)
I remember having nightmares the day before my lessons with Mr. Khaner. I was worried about everything. What if I come late to the lesson? What if I play a wrong note? What if he doesn’t like the way I’m playing? What if I didn’t fix everything he suggested the week before? The list would go on nonstop in my head. As I was on my way to school for the lesson or waiting for my turn in the hallway, people often asked me if I was okay. I must have looked totally miserable! This anxiety continued in concerts as well, although never as terrible as it was before the lessons. It still happened, however, and it concerned me.
When we get nervous, we experience changes in our bodies such as sweaty or cold hands and feet, pounding heartbeat, difficulty in breathing normally, trembling airstream, tensed muscles, dry mouth, heartburn, urge to visit the restroom, or undesired swallowing in the midst of the playing. In my case it is mostly about a pounding heart and dry mouth.
It is truly heartbreaking to experience these symptoms and not be able to play one’s best, especially after having spent so many hours preparing for a concert. Sometimes when I judge a competition, I agonize about how to judge those students who are clearly having a difficult time playing their best – especially because I know exactly what they’re going through. It is very sad for both performers and listeners.
Compare the act of performing to meeting a new group of people. It is natural to be a little uncomfortable. When meeting new people, you get a chance to introduce yourself and start a conversation. However, at a concert, you know very few, if any, of the audience members and enter the stage and start playing before you find your comfort zone. Therefore, it is crucial to not stress or be ashamed about nervousness. Embrace the fact that it is a natural reaction to have a bit of fear, rather than trying to fight it off. The more you fight it, the more fright you will experience.
Human beings tend to fear the unknown. In the German language there is an interesting word, Kopfkino, which literally means a movie theater in your head (Kopf=head, kino=cinema). Kopfkino ensues when you involuntarily use your imagination to think about upsetting things in realistic detail. Imagination is a fabulous tool, and we should strive to use it in a positive direction.
As people get older, they learn manners, and the skills to fit in. To do this, we must see ourselves as others do. Bringing this perception to the stage is a disastrous trait for performers. Instead of focusing on what people will think of your playing, you should turn off your Kopfkino and start thinking about the basics such as why we play music and why people come to our concerts. You will soon realize this simple fact: we play music because we love playing it, and people come to concerts because they love listening to it. Nobody comes to a concert to have an awful time. They are on your side. They want you to play well, and they want to enjoy the beautiful music.
To tell the truth, while you are self-conscious about what the audience is going to think about you, mostly they are not even interested in you. Their sole interest lies in the music you are playing. If you are fully focused on the piece itself, there is absolutely no space in your head for thinking about anything else. This is the ideal zone you must enter. And remember, it is not about you.
I try to practice as if I am performing on stage, and vice versa, so that I don’t get shocked when the real stage occurs. The other good way to overcome nervousness is to perform as often as possible. Flutists are lucky that we can carry our flutes easily unlike other instruments, and we can perform basically anywhere.
I am not going to tell you to breathe deeply and imagine a calming scenario when you get a stage fright because that really did not work for me. The way I see it is when you try to take any action towards nervousness right before the concert, it is already too late. At this last minute, you can only acknowledge the fear in you, accept it, say hi to the fear, and then don’t give it further attention. Otherwise it will only grow.
Focus on the piece you are going to perform. Nobody will die or be injured even if you play horribly, so why not just be grateful and happy for being able to share this incredible work of art. Sing out from the bottom of your heart and simply let the music fly. If you are still nervous, then try to hide it as much as you can. Try to release the tensions, let the air sink into your body so that it doesn’t float on your throat, and just enjoy the moment. These suggestions are what I do.
Last summer in a flute festival in Croatia, I had the privilege to meet Pierre-Yves Artaud, one of the most sought-after flute professors in France. It was a gorgeous midsummer night, and all of the teachers and students had gathered together outside. Among the questions was one about performance anxiety. Mr. Artaud told us, “You have to imagine the entire situation in your head, every tiny detail from walking into the stage until you take a bow after the playing. If this is a competition, fantasize till the moment you leave the competition with the prize in your hand.”
Sir James Galway, who has performed far, far more concerts than any of us, told me, “I never get nervous because I am always very well prepared.” Both Mr. Artaud and Sir Galway’s comments were very inspiring to me. I also believe that great preparations can conquer all your anxiety in the end.
Lastly, I would not drink any caffeinated drinks on your concert day. Getting enough sleep and good nutrition are also important. Sometimes I take a nap or read a nice book so that I can take my mind away from the concert and calm down a bit. Be yourself, have fun, and good luck!