Preparing for Nerves & Developing Confidence

As an undergraduate at the University of Texas, my trumpet professor, Ray Sasaki, told me it's natural to feel nervous and that we should embrace anxiety because if you don't feel any butterflies then something is wrong. We all have a keen desire to perform at our highest level so that everything we have (hopefully) practiced will come across effectively on the stage. Unfortunately, we often wed our self worth to the final result in the concert, audition, contest, recital...etc.

I find that when I am struggling with something on the trumpet it is all too easy to begin ruminating on the negative aspects of the issue. The mind can lead us down a rabbit hole and needlessly attach more weight to the current struggle than necessary. We all have individual strengths and weaknesses but we must identify our motives that drive us to perform. Do you love to share beauty with others? Do you want to provoke introspection and emotion in your audience? I hope these motives will take precedence over the desire to impress others with your technical skill. Be mindful of the tendency to let self-criticism overshadow healthy self-assessment. 

Preparation that is built on a focused routine will serve you going into any performance. It is also important to randomize your routine to maintain a heightened sense of focus. You have probably heard that you should eat a banana, get plenty of sleep, and stay hydrated. This is all good advice. Performing on an empty stomach can bring on lightheadedness. Eat for your health and enjoy the benefit to your playing. I would not recommend a late night trip to Arby's the night before a big performance. We might prefer our water to be ice cold, but try drinking warm water and see how you feel. Warm water will eliminate toxins circulating in the body and enhance blood circulation that relaxes the entire body. It will also open your respiratory tract if you have a cold or cough. 

Find or create opportunities to put yourself out there. Perform your recital pieces, jury solos, or duets with friends at a senior center/nursing home. Propose a piece to play in a church service. It doesn't have to be Christmas or Easter! Record material you are practicing and listen critically. Ask teachers, friends, and family to listen to a piece you are preparing or simply something you like to play for fun. Put together a small chamber ensemble and organize outreach performances at local schools. Elementary school kids will build your confidence like no other! Arrange a performance at your local shopping mall and get ready to see a lot of smiling faces. You may feel a few nerves in these situations, but the level of stress would be mild allowing your coping skills to develop as you gain experience. Visualize a performance in your mind to internalize the process. This includes breathing, posture, pacing, and reviewing the ideal sound concept. You can even expand the visualization to include the entire day leading up to the event to plan what kind of day helps you reach optimal performance. Write keywords in your music that can trigger focused attention on specific areas of your playing. 

Meditation can serve as another component in freeing ourselves of negative rumination. In the weeks approaching an important event, take time for yourself 3 or 4 days a week to simply let go. Sit for 20 minutes, close your eyes, focus only on the breath and how its cadence is steady and relaxed. Imagine the breath filling the stomach like a balloon in a cyclic motion. Don't force the air in or out but let the body function naturally. The mind will want to wander sooner than you think. I found this out at Buddhist monasteries in Japan and South Korea as my stomach began growling! Don't judge yourself for this. Just gently bring yourself back to the breath and enjoy these moments to relieve the mind of its constant duties. 

At the performance, remember that the audience is already in your favor. They wish you well and support you in this effort. Remain visibly calm. If standing, place your feet square with your shoulders in a balanced stance. Hold the instrument with a healthy grip. Squeezing the instrument sends tension up the arms and across the shoulders while sending a signal to the brain that you're about to lift a heavy weight. If your hands shake let the adrenaline run its course. Dwelling on nervous energy will only make it worse in the moment. I was once performing the national anthem in front of 20,000 people. I could feel my legs begin to shake as the adrenaline surged. I focused on returning my mind to breathing efficiently. A full breath is your ally in slowing down your heart rate.

Enjoy the journey of preparation because it is largely why we do what we do. Take stock in all of the steps that you climbed along the way before taking the stage. Our routine lends purpose to our day and discipline to our lives. The final result will vary based on countless factors, but trust your air to carry you along with the butterflies.