So, how did/do I combat my nerves? I focus on things that I can control. First, I know my music cold/backward/forward/just after waking up. I make sure my music is memorized a minimum of 30 days before the day of the concert. At the 30-day mark, I perform 4 to 5 run-throughs of my recital music per day for 7 straight days. I don’t practice sections, I simply perform the entire recital straight through. Yes, this takes about 75 minutes per run-through. After every run-through, I write down 3 things that I could have improved (i.e. measure 40-50 memory slip, m. 60-73 learn l.h., m. 200 don’t forget the crescendo, etc.). I write just 3 things…no more, no less.
I do everything as if it was a performance in front of the public. I bow, I talk about the music (if I am going to discuss the music), I wear the clothes or something similar of what I will wear the night of the concert…at least the coat. I take a 15-minute intermission. I then write the 3 things down discussed above, then I usually put at least a 30-minute break between that run-through and the next run through. I do not rehearse sections during this week. If friends, or family are around and have the time, I will ask them to listen, to make me nervous. This week usually yields 30-35 “performances.”
Before each run-through I do something unique, at least I think it is. I run up and down a flight or 2 of stairs 3 or 4 times VERY QUICKLY, so I can get my heart pumping. Then I perform the run through without waiting until my heart rate slows. What happens to us when we are nervous? Because our adrenaline kicks in, our hands shake, our palms sweat, our heart rate and respiration increases, our blood pressure goes up, we get thirsty, fear sets in, and anything else we can imagine. This is NORMAL. It is our biology. So, running up and down the stairs simulates nervousness by increasing our heart rate, respiration and blood pressure, our hands shake, our adrenaline is elevated, and we sweat. We have to learn to deal with the nervousness, because it will always be present during a performance.
About 3 weeks before a performance, I lower the practice time to 3 hours a day, with one run-through at the beginning and the end, and I work slowly on the passages that trouble me. About 2 weeks out, I lower to 2 hours daily, with one run-through a day and slow work. The week of the performance, I practice an hour daily, with much slow practice.
Before I implemented this regimen, I discovered I was my own worst enemy. I practiced more and more and more, even 5-6 hours the day of a performance, which was absolutely foolish. Instead, I chose activities that calmed my nerves and kept my mind off of “psyching myself out.” I started running marathons. In all, I’ve done 14 marathons, and I lost track of how many half marathons, 10K and 5K runs I’ve done in addition to the training for the marathons. Outside of practicing, I was running and too tired to freak out over performing. I also added tai chi to my regimen, to strengthen my legs (because they were getting tired from running) but also to keep my mind off performing. I also have a silly ritual of watching all (yes ALL 6+ hours) of the original Star Wars trilogy (Episodes 4-6) the night before a concert, and I eat whatever I want, which usually involves something with cheese in it and of course, ice cream. Yes, when I travel I take the DVD’s with me and watch them in my hotel room.
The day of a performance, I do NOT practice. At first, this was difficult to do, but over the years, this was some of the wisest counsel one my former teachers gave to me. I arrive 90 minutes before a concert to warm up slowly, but I do NOT practice. I have a set of simple technical exercises and stretches that I use to warm up. I repeat—I DO NOT PRACTICE MY MUSIC in this warm up time. If possible, I take a 30-minute nap as well, which depends on if I am able to find a green room with a couch. Finally, I go out and enjoy myself as best as possible during the performance!
I realize this all sounds OCD, but it works for me. We all need to find or own ways to battle nerves. Good luck!
Below are a couple of links that include discussions of famous musicians who have suffered from stage fright.