Nerves affect us all from time to time and are an important issue for all performers.
Every adult musician I know experiences nerves at some stage when playing. Some young children can stand up and perform to an audience without any feeling of trepidation, perhaps because they have not developed a sense of anything being at stake as a result of how well or how badly they play; these children are simply communicating to the listener come what may and as adults we continually try to re-enter that juvenile mindset of playing music as if one hasn't a care in the world.
Seasoned entertainers who never appear nervous still are, but have learned not to show it. Dame Judi Dench admitted in a recent Parkinson interview that the adrenaline of nerves is what drives her.
All performing artists spend more time in the practice room than on the concert platform. Consequently, the rehearsal process can feel like the norm to us, while the resulting concert is somehow different to what we usually do; even though we give concerts regularly, we sit in rehearsal more.
When people are used to some sort of routine, we take comfort from the certainty of that part of our lives and become nervous when exceptions arise: driving through an unfamiliar city gives us butterflies even though we drive every day; meeting new people usually causes apprehension; even going on holiday can be nerve-wracking.
What unites these examples are the uncertainty of what lies ahead and how that will impact on something that matters to us; we want to find our way through the city centre to the meeting, to make a good first impression with someone, to have a nice holiday where nothing goes wrong.
Similarly, musicians become nervous before a concert as we are about to enter an unknown environment. Having rehearsed a piece, we know what all the notes are, but the performance always takes on a life of its own; everyone, including the conductor, has adrenaline pumping as we feel more tense than in the rehearsal. Why?: we are being watched by an audience who have paid to hear us and rightly expect a great performance; we care about the music and our jobs; we want to get it right for ourselves, our audience and our colleagues. I believe it is this nervous energy that sets a live concert apart from simply listening to a CD at home!
Musicians are not nervous all of the time. We have butterflies in our tummy less during a rehearsal than a concert. We want to play a solo or difficult passage well in practice, so that we know we can do it in front of an audience when we can’t stop to rectify a mistake.
Richard Wilson (Victor Meldrew in “One Foot In The Grave”) said in an interview once that the most difficult aspect of performing live is the fact that we have to keep going, regardless of any errors we have made. It sounds like an obvious statement, but musicians would agree with his sentiment and acknowledge the difficulty of ignoring those negative thoughts which surface in all of us from time to time, and especially during a performance!
The concert is our finished product; the distillation of all our time and effort during rehearsals. Ultimately, the energy which our nerves produce make the music come alive and a pleasure to hear. Musicians become nervous because what we do matters to us and I for one enjoy the adrenaline rush of performance. Nerves are not automatically a bad thing and if concerts did start to feel the same as rehearsals to us I think the music would suffer.