When asked about dealing with nerves while playing, Bud Herseth is known to have given a rather gruff and quick response:
“Practice. Next Question.”
My mentor at the University of Massachusetts, David Sporny, used to say, “The only reason to be nervous is if you’re not prepared”. I’m sure many of us have similar stories from our teachers, and for many years I struggled with not only performance anxiety, but also not feeling a great sense of contentment with the above advice. I used to practice constantly, and still I would get nervous. I remember a time where I thought the above advice didn’t apply to me for some reason. Recently I have come full circle to truly understand what Mr. Sporny (and Bud Herseth) were really getting at.
For me, it started happening around day 800. I didn’t realize it at the time- it has taken a few weeks to occur to me, but there is something about practicing every single day that has changed my psychology. Lately, I have felt incredible ease when performing. I’m not just talking about actually being more prepared because of increased preparation time. I think that lately I have experienced a transformational level of comfort in truly believing that I have done everything I can to be as prepared as possible. Over the past several days I have had a handful of performances. Solo appearance on a faculty composition recital, solo with a high school band, etc. and in each performance, I have felt completely at ease. No nerves. What happened in the practice room an hour before was the same as in the performance. I felt connected to the moment, in complete control, and totally fine- even with knowing that I am not a perfect player. I have felt like what I have to offer is worthy. Sure, I have work to do and goals still yet to achieve, but for the first time in my life I have been comfortable with what I can say through my instrument. I had a performance this evening and it was so comfortable- I knew that I did everything I could have possibly done for the past 835 days leading up to this performance. Even if I wanted to be better, there would have been no way to go back in time and prepared more. I think the ease comes from being able to be truly honest with myself when I say “I did everything I could have done to prepare for this moment”.
If you are truly as prepared as possible, then it doesn’t matter how the performance goes. If it goes well, then great. If it doesn’t, then you can take comfort in knowing there was nothing more you could have done, so no need to worry about it. I think the days of judging myself are behind me and it feels great. If you want to be a great player, you have to work to get to a point where you truly believe that ‘the best you can do is the best you can do’. For me, that took 800 days. It might be different for others, but that’s what it took for me. I can’t wait to see what happens over the next few hundred days, but I am excited to go into performances and auditions knowing that I did my best, and truly believe it.