Concert Nerves


In his book Random Reflections, the late English classical composer and pedagogue William Lovelock recalls an occasion where he was called upon to examine music candidates at a school.

In his book Random Reflections, the late English classical composer and pedagogue William Lovelock recalls an occasion where he was called upon to examine music candidates at a school. The children, he said, were all very nervous and played badly. In conversation afterwards with their teacher he discovered that she had been threatening them. “If you do that the examiner will be cross”.

Mr Lovelock was quick to put the blame in the right place. “The lady was horrified, not to say hurt, when I told her bluntly that she was the cause of the trouble. The children were terrified of her, so naturally they were terrified of me”.

A certain amount of nervousness in music examinations and concerts is probably inevitable. And while we may not be children, I think there would be a lot less nervousness at concerts if music directors and their assistants would behave responsibly.

Telling a nervous trumpet player to “Play that high C properly in the concert or you will shame the whole band and the entire school”, for example, can almost guarantee disaster.

Band directors should display an air of confidence
So what should a music director do? I believe that the most important thing is for him or her to project an air of confidence. Sometimes, this can be difficult, particularly if the director is struggling to control is own emotions. In August 2010, while waiting with my students outside the examination room in Medan (Indonesia), I overheard one of the band members say “Bang Bruce takut” (Bruce is nervous). By restlessly pacing up and down the room I had inadvertently communicated my anxiety to the very people I so desperately wanted to remain calm.

There are, of course, some very specific things a band director can do to give a band confidence ahead of a concert or competition. The following are the techniques I have developed over the years.

Express your confidence in the band

Regardless of anything he or she may have told the band about their weaknesses in the weeks leading up to the concert/examination/competition, the most important thing a band director can do on the eve of the performance is to express confidence in the ensemble. “I am proud of you” is a phrase I repeat in full honesty to BBJ before a major concert or critical public engagement. Used sparingly - and at critical moments - it can lift a band's spirits. Release the pressure. Make it clear that your faith in them stems from who they are and how hard they have practised rather than the quality of the upcoming performance.

It is OK to be nervous

Many players seem to think that nervousness is an unnatural or – at the very least – an undesirable emotion. Encourage them to embrace it instead. “It is OK to be nervous,” I tell them. “It can aid your concentration by reminding you of things”. Or “Pretend you are a famous actor and see how many people you can fool with your confident smile”.

The audience is on your side

Audiences all over the world feel uncomfortable watching someone make a major blunder in public. Explain to band members that - far from gleefully waiting for disaster – audience members actually want the performance to go well. This particularly so when band members are performing in front of relatives or friends.

Watch out for the symptoms and take remedial steps

Nervous musicians generally make the same sort of mistakes during performance. A wise band director will make his band aware of them so that the problems will be more easily recognised and corrected.

The most common problem is excess speed. “Watch the conductor” is a common and very necessary piece of advice. Another is “If you think the band is playing too slowly, think again. You may be playing too fast!”

Yet another is shallow breathing, leading to poor intonation and sloppy phrasing. Nervous band members need to make a conscious effort to breath deeply.

Excessive pressure on the mouthpiece. For clarinet players this can result if embarrassing squeaks. For brass players it can be even more deadly, resulting in poor endurance and a very thin tone.