Barb Caffrey's Blog

Writing the Elfyverse . . . and beyond

Performance, Music, and Nerves

with 2 comments

Folks, I started thinking about one of the sentences I’ve thrown into several of my articles about sports stars, but mostly with regards to figure skating stars as often, only one or at most two people are on the ice at the same time.  That sentence is, “(X) can really be something, if (he/she) can learn to control (his/her) nerves.”

Now, why is it that I keep saying this?

I’m a musician, and have been since I was eleven years old.  So I know a great deal about performance anxiety.  I’ve also played many solos in front of bands and orchestras, as well as within the band and orchestra as a featured performer; that’s why I do know how it feels to be out there, all by yourself, wondering if everything’s going to work right today and waiting to see how well the performance comes off.

Consider that in music, we have many things that aren’t under our control.  How fast is the conductor taking the music?  Will one of the saxophone’s pads fall off?  (Brass players worry about similar things related to pistons sticking or the like.)  Will my reed continue to work, or will it do something idiosyncratic at the last possible minute after I’ve committed to the solo and can’t change it?

Well, figure skaters have to worry about their skates; not just their skate blades, but whether or not their laces will break.  (This happened to Nobunari Oda at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.)  Will there be ruts in the ice that can’t be avoided?  (This happened to Johnny Weir during his second combination spin at the 2010 Olympics and stopped his spin dead.)  How well did the competitor do beforehand?  (This is important because people throw stuffed animals on the ice and it can take a while to clear them off, plus as the next competitor, you have to stay away from them before they’re all cleared.)

So all you can do, as a performer in whatever discipline, is control what you can control.  That’s tough to learn.  (I know I didn’t really learn it until I was close to thirty.)  And worrying about it beforehand is counterproductive, yet if you’ve had past difficulties, it’s very human.  (We all do it.)

The solution, if there is one, is to not take it all so seriously.  (This can be very tough to do in a business where how well you audition is vital, but it’s necessary.)  And to remember that no matter how badly you may play today, you’ll play well tomorrow and the next day and the day after that — because you’ve done everything you can do by rehearsing for untold, uncounted hours beforehand.

That’s why, despite how casual it may seem when I throw that one sentence in there about such-and-such “controlling his (or her) nerves,” it’s not a casual thing at all.  It’s a long-held belief that’s been borne out by many things I’ve lived through as a performer.  And it’s why I have empathy for someone who really has talent, like Jeremy Abbott, who uncharacteristically falters (as Abbott did during his 2010 Olympic short program; Abbott performed much better in the long program to finish in ninth place overall, but even his long program wasn’t really up to his best), because I know he (or she) can do much better if he’ll only learn to trust himself along the way.

One more thing to consider is this: when you perform for a living (or for even part of your living), you start thinking you’re only as good as your last performance.  I’d like to tell all performers of all types one, simple thing:  Please, do not do this. 

Instead, what you as a performer need to do is to remember that you have prepared well for whatever it is you’re about to do.  That you’ve dedicated yourself to learn your craft.  And that you’re going to do your level best; that’s all anyone can expect of you, and it’s all you should expect out of yourself.

You also should try — and I know this is very, very hard — not to let the dictates of how you perform take over your life.   Who you are as a person has very little to do with how you may perform any given day, though how you prepare for the performance, and what you put into the performance — your “sweat equity” — has a great deal to do with you and your perseverance and your personal character.

That’s why I write blog posts about perseverance, because I feel that’s the main difference between a person who ultimately succeeds and one who doesn’t.  You must refuse to give up on yourself and your talents, because that’s literally the only way to lose in the game of life — no matter how well, or how badly, you may perform on any given day.

My late husband Michael used to tell me, “If you can’t do it today, you will assuredly do it tomorrow.  I know you; I know you don’t give up.  ‘Quit’ is not part of your vocabulary.”  And then I get back after it tomorrow, because I know he was — and still is (wherever he is now in Eternity) — right.

Or to distill this message down to its essence: your only true competition is yourself.  So do yourself a favor, and keep utilizing your talents as long as humanly possible.  Don’t give up.

Written by Barb Caffrey

January 31, 2012 at 12:28 am

2 Responses

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  1. Yup. We often “fall off the horse” as the adage says. yet I think when something is a passion. such as music is to most musicians, we don’t hesitate to get back on that horse because it’s that next performance that gives us our sustenance. It’s the meal of a lifetime that we never tire of. We always want more.


    January 31, 2012 at 3:12 am

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