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Inside Out - The Nerves

Today is the day. If I perform well today my life will be perfect. I just need to get this one audition. One exam. One important concert.

Did I practice enough? Of course, this is one of the most important opportunities of my life. Of course I took it very seriously. Well, with the exception of those few Sundays. And Saturdays. I usually took a half day off. Okay well, sometimes it may be the whole day. So I am not prepared. Stupid, stupid, stupid, why didn't you practice when you had the time. You blew it. Bravo. Clap, clap, clap, your parents must be proud.

But its too late now, you are going on stage. Now. Will I trip? The stage looks a bit clunky. Is there A STAIR? What is this, a death penalty?

Okay, they are clapping, you need to go. Smile, you'll be fine, or if not what is the worst thing that can happen? Humiliation, rejection, shame, well you can always sit in your flat until the rest of your life. Don't forget to bow. You forgot to look at your pianist before you bowed. Nice, well done, a marvellous start I must say. Okay, concentrate now. Stop with this nonsense. You need to do the best you can. Concentrate.

Do you find anything of the above familiar? The voices in your head, crippling in when you don't need them. An angel on one shoulder and the self destructive devil on the other?

When it comes to nerves, we all experienced some kind of performance anxiety in our life. That may be in school, college, at work or even when it comes to our personal relationships. The question is, in the world where every living creature is designed with a very strong survival instinct, why does our brain decides to sabotage us in the most important moments of our life?

Personally, I know this feeling very well and it was my personal experience that lead me towards some interesting discoveries of human brain and how to tackle the greatest obstacle of our life. Ourselves.

In the school system where I grew up, the performance anxiety was not really a subject that would be worth mentioning. If you had a bad performance there was only one option, you were not well prepared and you are not good enough. I was convinced for a good amount of my childhood that this two voices bickering in my head are not normal and that I will solve the problem with practising more. It worked, for a short amount of time, because practice does give you confidence and confidence gives you a good performance which again, gives you good result and again confidence. It got a bit worse when I have started college, while when moving into a completely different culture, I was suddenly surrounded by people who had a ton of confidence, some of them for a good reason and some of them for a reason that I could not find a logical explanation for. The pressure of succeeding was higher than ever. The voices returned and suddenly you get stuck in a circle of bad performances, which lower your confidence which leads into more bad performances.

I started reading a lot, which is my usual response to the frustration which comes from lack of understanding of a certain topic, and luckily came across the Inner Game of Music. Even if you do not struggle with performance anxiety, I would highly recommend the book, while it teaches us some very simple but highly effective strategies to not just help ourselves but also help our friends, children, students, anyone who would struggle with presenting their skills on the level they really are.

My three steps of putting myself together, go somehow like this:

1. 3P, Panic, Plan, Practice

This is the first one, which should be happening at least a week before important event (bigger the event, more preparation time will be needed). Telling yourself you will be fine and pushing the worries aside is probably not the best idea, because it will hit you sooner or later. And in my experience sooner is usually better and more effective. So let yourself panic, that will make you very motivated to plan your time and practice efficiently.

2. Visualise voices in your head

One of the best advice I ever heard, was to visualise the good and the bad voice in your head. Like this you can tell them apart and calm them down. This may sound relatively childish representation but every time my 'bad' voice (which is in a shape of a small green devil with a haircut of my least favourite teacher of all time) starts to growl and trying to make me feel bad, the 'good' one hits it on his head with his little harp (the good one is in a shape of a white angel, with a cute little harp, which may represent the unfulfilled wish of playing a harp as a child) and then gives me a pep talk listing all the previous accomplishments and hours of hard work that was put into the specific project. Even though I am completely aware how this all sounds like, it did wonders for me, so you may try it but the experiences may vary.

3. Choose one thing that you will concentrate on every time when your brain will try to wander

This may be a visual dot somewhere, it may be a sound of your own voice or it may be your breathing etc. If your performance includes talking or playing by memory, then split everything in meaningful sections (A,B,C or however you want to name them) and make sure you can always recall the beginning and the end of each section. If you are talking, find the associations in the room which will remind you of your next part.

Practice the performance in your head. Imagine how you go on stage, imagine people clapping, coughing. Imagine how you sit down and imagine how you play from the beginning until the end. This is a very effective strategy and with repetition will give you not just confidence but also a very valuable training in concentration.

Last but not least, I would say that non of the tricks above will help you if you are not prepared to the best of your ability. Try to be very objective with yourself, and even when a mistake happens, analyse it afterwards, but do not let it disturb your bubble of the concentration.

And most importantly, you need to give it your best at the time. That means, that on a good day you will be amazing. But that also means that there will be days that you may not be. And that's okay. Life would be boring if everything would go as planned all the time, right?

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