Planning ahead for your nerves

A teacher in grad school used to say to us during studio classes “you need to work through your performance emotions in advance of the performance.”

I always wondered, how the heck does one do that? How do you process through and deal with nerves in advance of feeling nervous? It just didn’t make sense to me at the time.

My teachers wasn’t able to explain how to do this either, but now I see the wisdom of her words and here's how I interpret her advice.

Know your triggers
What are the thoughts, concerns, feelings that trigger your nerves? What is it that you fear will happen during the performance?

For me, letting my mind go down the path of “So-and-so-that-I-really-admire will be there, watching and judging” is dangerous. Any variation on this theme is no good – I hope to impress someone; I hope they rehire me; I hope my collaborators like me.

Anything that distracts from the job and the task at hand, including concerns about clothing, an argument that happened that morning, your grocery list. At best it leads to a distracted performance. At worst, it can create space for the nerves to take over.

During your practice sessions, train your brain to stay focused on the music, the notes, the sounds. When distracting thoughts enter, as they are bound to do, identify them, and regroup back to the music.

Practice under pressure
Find a safe place to test the waters. Find out where your weak spots are, technically and mentally. Where do you get distracted? Where in the music do nerves surge? Why?

What happens in your body when under pressure? I get cold, sweaty hands and when I'm really nervous, my legs shake. Experiencing this in advance helps me know that I am capable of performing and ignoring or flowing with the nerves. 

Visualize your day
Visualize the time leading up to the performance. What do you feel that morning? During the day? How will you keep yourself grounded, excited, confident?

How do you feel the hour before your performance? Do you have any rituals that help you prepare?
How do you feel just before walking onstage? Just before you play/sing your first note? What are your priorities, goals, and intentions?

Visualize yourself performing at your best, being grounded, centered, calm, confident. What does that feel like in your body? 

Healthy compartmentalization
Talk to your fears and nerves as if they are a person. What are their concerns? What are they trying to help you with? Spend time getting to know them and be with them in their concerns. Don't argue with the fears, just listen. Being heard and validated, just like for us real humans, goes a long way to calming fears.

Let your fears know, when it’s go time, it is not their job to help you perform. Other more functional and artistic parts of you need to step forward and take the reins.

Make a deal with your fears – during the performance they need to take a break. Then afterwards, at a specified time, you will check in with them. Set a timer for 15 minutes and journal, or think and feel, or talk out loud, to your fears.

I love this tool and use it all the time.

The key here is that you must follow through on this commitment. If you back out on your end of the deal, to be present with your fears after the performance, this tool will not continue to work.

For more reading on this last tool, check out this post from the Bulletproof Musician.

Don't try to tackle all of these ideas at once. Pick one category for your next performance and spend some time asking yourself the questions above

How do you plan ahead for your nerves? I'd love to hear what works for you!