'Stage Fright', 'nerves', 'jitters'... Just a few words to describe a feeling most of us are familiar with. It's something we pretty much have to learn to manage in order to perform.
But what do these words actually mean? I'm not entirely sure.... They attempt to describe a feeling which may be very different for each person. Perhaps they don't do justice to what can be a very real struggle.
But nerves aren't all bad.... Being nervous means you CARE. Nerves can help us to 'up our game' and provide the additional focus and energy required to perform well. It's an evolutionary thing... The physiological changes which accompany a stressful situation can help our bodies to perform at their optimum level. Once upon a time that might have meant the difference between eating and not eating!
The problem comes when our nerves get the better of us, and start to make things worse.
Someone recently told me that I didn't appear at all nervous or anxious about my playing. Well done me then! My 'game face' must be strong - or it was that day!
I know I'm not alone in managing my nerves even if it's not something we musicians tend to talk about a lot. Over the years they have sometimes been easier to deal with and less bothersome, and at other times harder to manage, but they've been a constant companion. 'Nerves' can manifest in a variety of ways. They can be very short-lived or more insidious, less immediately obvious but with perhaps with more far-reaching consequences...
Most of us would relate to some of the well-known symptoms of nerves, things like:
There are probably as many different ways of coping with these things as there are people. I've observed musicians going 'into' themselves before a concert, mentally and physically taking themselves off somewhere else - I sometimes do this myself. Dealing with other people and making polite conversation can be all a bit much if you're feeling nervous. Some people actively seek out distraction though, and that's perfectly valid too as long as you're not annoying anybody! Deep breathing can help a lot, mindfulness exercises are wonderful. Some people swear by rescue remedy, EFT or homeopathy. Ultimately though the hope is that all your hard work, experience and FOCUS will carry you through and the nerves will melt away. But it can be a hard mental game.
But then there are the more persistent 'nerves', which many of us will also have to manage at some point:
To a degree these are also 'normal' signs of nervousness, and I'm sure many people can relate to them. But what do you do if you find that they are affecting your ability to do your job or are starting to make your life a misery? What if a feeling of nervousness or nervous thinking isn't just limited to the short window of time around a performance? This is no joke. Out of control thoughts and feelings like this do destroy lives and careers. Being unable to perform without (self-)medicating with beta-blockers or alcohol is far from unusual in the music industry but the reality is that for some people it's the only way to pay the bills. Perhaps the saddest part of this scenario is how little we talk about it - it's the 'elephant in the room'. One reason why people might not want to talk about it is that admitting to getting nervous is like admitting that you might make a mistake, and we can't have that! ;)
Whether we talk about it or not, the reality is that it just isn't healthy to spend too much time in an anxious state like this, it can become habitual. It starts to feel normal, even though it isn't. Perhaps we even become addicted to the drama created when we spend our lives a constant cycle of high anxiety/ adrenalin/ relief! But it's important to remember that while short-lived periods of anxiety don't do us any harm (humans are designed to cope with some stress), living life in what is essentially a permanently anxious state of mind isn't healthy.
But think for a minute: if your amazing mind can conjure up all this anxiety and stress out of nowhere then just imagine what might happen if you were able to harness its 'creative power' for good!
I don't remember there being much focus (if any) about nerves or managing nerves when I was at music college and I think this was a shame. Professional musicians spend countless hours practising, constantly analysing their playing in minute detail for ways to improve it. Many musicians are 'perfectionists', but it doesn't take a genius to work out that the flip side of all this perfectionism can be anxiety....
There's no shame in a top sportsperson consulting a sports psychologist, Andy Murray recently talked about this very thing. In fact, mental strength is recognised as being a very important part of what makes a champion. However we can't expect our musical-mind-game to be strong if the rest of our life is a mess, so it's important not to look at any one thing in complete isolation. Getting enough sleep, eating well, not drinking too much, getting exercise, getting out into the fresh air & having time out & balance in the rest of your life counts for a lot too. These things keep us grounded and anchored generally.
It's easy to see how a strong mental game could help your career though: imagine walking into an audition with a strong mindset - regardless of how beautifully your competition can play you're at an advantage if they're a bundle of nerves and you are beautifully focused, confident and composed!
I remember my teacher suggesting I read a book called 'The Inner Game of Music' (or the original book which inspired it 'The Inner Game of Tennis') when I was a student. This was good advice and I still recommend these books to others. Essentially the books describe a type of 'mindfulness' which enables us to shut down the negative self-talk which can accompany a performance. Staying 'in the moment' is powerful but it requires practice.
I found out about the power of hypnosis when I used it for the births of my last two children. Our brains really can be trained to work for us, as well as against us! I've also used hypnosis as a way of dealing with performance-related nerves and I've found that it can work extremely well.
If your nerves are really affecting your life, then please do get proper help. There are interventions which can make life easier. It might cost money and take a while to sort out, but just imagine for a moment that your instrument had a broken spring or wasn't working correctly. You'd get it fixed, right? Your mind is every bit as important.
And if all else fails, I also recommend this ;)
What techniques help you with your performance anxiety? Do you have any suggestions for others? Please let me know. I'd love to share them in a future post.
The pictures above show two 'Reverse-Facing' Bonade ligatures. The one on the left was bought in the 1990s and the one on the right a few years ago as a replacement. I don't see too many people using Bonades these days, but some time ago they were pretty popular. I feel they help to give a nice dark, creamy sound and facilitate articulation. I'd often use my Bonade with a good reed which I felt was slightly too 'excitable', just to bring it into line!
My last post was about variations in Vandoren reeds made years apart. Some differences between reeds can, of course, be explained by the fact that they're made out of organic material and this means there are natural variations. However, the differences in the ligatures above, cannot.
You can easily see by eye that these two ligatures are NOT identical. I measured the distance between the railings with my (fairly) trusty vernier calipers.
The older of the two ligatures (which is more tarnished), measures approx 2mm between the rails at the top, and 3mm at the bottom. The more modern of the two measures slightly over 4mm at the top of the rails and just over 3mm at the bottom!
This means the rails which make that all-important contact with the reed (the whole purpose of a ligature!) on the more modern 'Bonade' are TWICE the distance apart at the top compared with the older ligatures. The rails actually start to come together (converge) towards the bottom of the reed! The older ligature does the opposite, the rails diverge slightly towards the bottom and they start much closer together at the top.
Neither ligature has been altered in any way by me. Like I said, the Bonade has a lot of great qualities which I appreciate. I bought the first ligature directly from a good shop, and the second online (through Amazon), from what I thought was a reputable seller. Of course it's possible I bought a fake.
I also see that many of the reputable UK dealers are listing Bonades as 'out of stock' at the moment, perhaps the maker has stopped making them? It's also interesting to note that these ligatures still seem to be widely available from less reputable sources elsewhere in the world, and seemingly at a cut price... (I paid the full whack, mind!).
I'd be interested to hear if anyone else has noticed any changes in these ligatures though?
P.S. - my reason for replacing the original ligature was that the screw thread went on it after a fair number of years. I have to say the same thing happened with the replacement after less than a year of very occasional use (nb. I don't think it was due to over-tightening!).
I'd love to get my hands on an original one of these with some life left in it if anyone has one!
However - when you really believe in something and you know it will do good for the community, that does make it easier to 'sell it'. I'll admit that having experience as a performer probably was helpful in making this presentation, but it's one thing playing music and quite another talking about it... I was quaking in my boots! Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?
I began by talking (with a little help from my ukulele) about the real good that accessing music & playing music can do for people. Not just for some people but for all people... Then I went on to explain what exactly Ultonia Arts would spend the funding on if we were successful in obtaining it. The most incredible thing about this experience for me (apart from the fact that I actually went through with it!), was that our company was chosen to receive the funding by popular vote.
This means that people really DO believe in what we're trying to do and really wanted to support us. A number of people also came up to me afterwards to tell me that they'd voted for me/ us, and that they really felt music was so important to life. It was inspiring to witness how many of those in attendance valued the Arts in exactly the same way that we do.
So huge thanks to Social Enterprise NI, Armagh Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council, and especially Derek Browne at the Social Enterprise Hub. Can't wait to share more about our plans as we move forward.