NERVES, FEAR AND BUTTERFLIES
By Mike Vaccaro
Some people have no fear. They walk through life and take it as it comes.
This talk is about the rest of us.
No one has a case of the nerves all the time. I never know when the butterflies are going to present themselves to me. As I have aged, those times are fewer and are farther apart. I guess that's what comes with age. An acceptance of our frailties, and, having stared down nerves, fear, and butterflies enough, it just seems mostly not worth it. And I finally really prepare for whatever musical journey is ahead.
That is why it is important not to shrink from “the nerves” and to stand up and play music every chance you get. The very best time to learn something is before you play in front of an audience. If necessary, you can learn "on the job" with enough repetition. In fact, even when you practice at home, it is good to imagine an audience listening to you practice.
In a nutshell, nerves or nervousness before a performance, whether it be solo or ensemble, is generally our self-worry about the outcome of our performance. It can also be caused by performing in a strange or new environment. An environment where we don’t control our own circumstances as we are used to.
There are butterflies, which in general, is just our body going into high gear so we can microscopically attend to our playing with as much attention as we can muster. That's different than fear, which has debilitated many a great musician.
So a brief re-cap: It seems to me that in general, “real fear” comes from not being prepared, or not having confidence about our performance situation…..and butterflies are the body just gearing up to amplify our performance in our own mind so we can listen more intensely and perform better.
Fear is the worry about the outcome of your performance (will it be good enough for your standards or the audience’s standards) or worry about how you will be perceived after the performance.
I am talking here about musicians who are generally psychologically happy. Those that carry self- loathing around as a way of life should get professional help, as this article will be of little help to those with injured egos or those with unreasonable expectations.
Part of fear is knowing how well-prepared you are for a performance and a real understanding of your progression in the art of music. If you have not practiced a piece until it meets your standards, your fear of failing is real and could likely happen. If you are a jazz/pop musician, and have not really taken care to learn the chords to the piece you are going to improvise on, fear of failing is again real and could likely happen.
As woodwind players, we are generally soloists, as opposed to being in a large string section or in a clarinet section in a concert band. So understanding the importance of being a soloist is paramount. After an amount of practicing to where you know you can play the solo every time (in the ensemble or in front of it) it is about believing that you have something unique to contribute to the music.
Preparation is the number one pre-requisite for minimizing or eliminating nerves of the fear type. The first bottom line then, is to know you are prepared to perform, either as part of the ensemble or as a featured soloist. You should prepare so you know that you can play your solo several times perfectly, or near perfectly (which means not making the same mistake in the same place every time which means you are at least consistent, but really not prepared). If you are prepared, the butterflies will give you the concentration to play up to your best level or even better.
The next step for any featured soloist is to perform your music, or other music, as many times as you can, for as many people as you can, before the big performance so you know the feeling of confidence in your performance. That is acclimating to the performance experience.
At the same time, you must remember that nothing is really perfect. Your humanity is part of the performance and with preparation that humanity shows in a positive way.
Breath and airflow become a problem when nerves enter the picture. Slow breaths (full, but not forced or too deep) before walking out on stage while concentrating on how beautiful you will play the first phrase, are helpful. Inhale slowly and exhale in the manner your body wants, to naturally expel the breath. This is also a good technique when your practicing is not going well to make sure you are not shallow breathing. For both practicing and performing, concentrating on the breath helps turn the inner dialogue off and cleanses you of negative thoughts.
Many times, as woodwind players, we forget how important the breath is. The control of the breath is the soul of the sound and the heart of phrasing.
Tony Bennett says it takes 10 years to learn how to walk on stage. Most of us don’t have the luxury of having that 10 years of doing 3 or more solo performances a week. So we rely on preparation and a bit of fortitude. A smile and acceptance of the audience doesn’t hurt either.
Environment can cause nerves too. I remember having played with a chamber music group for several years and had no problem walking on the stage and performing solo and ensemble pieces. One night, I had to be so close to the audience that someone was within 3 feet of me and could see me breathe, watch my fingers closely and in general view me microscopically. That made me more nervous than performing for a thousand people. However if that was the environment I always worked in I would adjust to it and since I knew how it felt and would be able to cope with the situation much better than as with a single experience.
Some people would rather record music and some people prefer to make music in front of people. Again, this is environmental and usually an outcome of what you are most used to doing.
Glen Gould, possibly one of the greatest soloists to ever live, quit performing live at the age of thirty. He called the piano soloist touring process “the last blood sport.” He had another 20 years of great music-making in the recording environment, as producer, director, and piano soloist before he passed.
It helps to be outgoing and to have the feeling that people are on your side, as this adds to the chance that all will go well in your performance.
It seems that the true joy of performing is presenting music to a group of people. When we are presenting music, we are doing it for the audience or our fellow musicians and that helps take the microscope off of ourselves. We are simply passing our gift of music on to someone else.
Remember to concentrate on what you are trying to do, and not on the outcome. That will help stop any negative internal dialogue.
Now that we have had a short discussion, it is important to remember that we must keep trying. With butterflies, with anxiety, and with fear, we must keep trying in some way to stay with our friend music. We must grow as people beyond our anxieties. We must believe we have something to contribute, and work towards it.
Remember, there is always someone who plays better than you or different from you, and you are always better than someone else and have your own style.
If you practice on a regular basis, it is important to “be happy with where you are at, while you are trying to get where you want to be.”
P.S. After writing this article, I saw a piece by Madison Sonnier that explains self-esteem, which is much about what this whole thing is about. Don’t miss going to her website and reviewing this important message:
And finally, another good talk on the subject is at:
"Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, ‘I will try again tomorrow.’”