Origin and Control of Nervousness

Nervousness is a natural human emotion just as happiness, fear, sadness, etc., are emotions. Nervousness arises from a mental perception of a situation in which performance is critical. Therefore, nervousness, like all emotions, is a performance enhancing reaction to perceived critical situations. Happiness feels good, so we try to create happy situations, which helps us; fear helps us to escape danger, and sadness makes us avoid sad situations which tends to improve our chances of survival. Nervousness makes us concentrate all our energies towards the critical task at hand and is therefore another survival tool. Most people dislike nervousness because it is too often accompanied, or is caused, by fear of failure. Therefore, although nervousness is necessary for a great performance, it needs to be kept under control; in particular, it should not be allowed to interfere with the performance. In other words, we need to develop a healthy attitude towards nervousness. The history of the great artists is full of legends of extremely nervous as well as totally non-nervous performers, indicating that this phenomenon is not understood at all.

Emotions are basic, primitive, animal reactions, somewhat like instinct, and are not totally rational. Under normal circumstances, emotions guide our daily, moment-by-moment actions nicely. However, under extreme conditions, emotions can get out of control, and becomes a liability. Clearly, emotions were designed to work only under normal circumstances. For example, fear makes the frog escape long before a predator can catch it. However, when cornered, the frog freezes in fear and this makes it an easier meal for the snake than if the overwhelming fear hadn't paralyzed it. Likewise, nervousness normally is mild and helps us to perform a critical task better than if we were lackadaisical. However, under extreme conditions, it can spin out of control and hinder our performance. The requirement to perform a difficult piano solo flawlessly in front of a large audience eminently qualifies as an extreme condition. It is no surprise that nervousness can grow out of control, unless our name is Wolfie or Franz (Freddy apparently didn't qualify, as he was a nervous wreck and disliked public performances). Thus, although violinists do get nervous, it does not spin out of control when they are playing in an orchestra because the conditions are not as extreme as for solo performances. Youngsters, who are too frightened to perform solo, almost always enjoy performing in a group. This shows the over-riding importance of the mental perception of the situation.

Clearly, the way to control nervousness is to first study its cause and nature and to develop methods for controlling it based on this knowledge. Since it is an emotion, any method for controlling emotions will work. Some have claimed that, under a doctor's supervision, medications such as Inderal and Atenolol, or even Zantac will work to calm nerves. Conversely, you can make it worse by drinking coffee or tea, not getting enough sleep, or taking certain cold medications. Emotions can also be controlled by use of psychology, training, or conditioning. Knowledge is the most effective means of control. For example, experienced snake handlers do not suffer any of the emotions most of us would experience when we come close to a poisonous snake because of their knowledge of snakes.

By the time nervousness becomes a problem, it is usually a compound emotion spinning out of control. In addition to nervousness, other emotions such as fear and worry, join in. A lack of understanding of nervousness also creates fear because of the fear of the unknown. As the symptoms worsen, you worry that the extreme nervousness will interfere with the performance. Thus just the simple knowledge of what stage fright is, can be a calming factor by reducing the fear of the unknown.

How does nervousness grow out of control, and are there ways to prevent it? One way to approach this question is to visit some principles of fundamental science. Practically anything in our universe grows by a process known as the Nucleation-Growth (NG) mechanism. The NG theory states that an object forms in two stages, nucleation and growth. This theory became popular and useful because it is in fact the way in which the majority of objects in our universe form, from raindrops to cities to stars. It is amazing that this theory, which has many intricate parts, describes the formation of so many things so accurately. Two key elements of NG theory are: (1) nucleation - nuclei are always forming and disappearing. However, there is a thing called a critical nucleus which, when formed, becomes stable -- it does not disappear. In general, the critical nucleus does not form unless there is a supersaturation of the material that aggregate to form it, or it is "seeded", and (2) growth - for the object to grow to its final size, the critical nucleus needs a growth mechanism by which to increase its size. One of the most interesting aspects of nucleation is that there is almost always a barrier to nucleation -- otherwise, everything would have nucleated a long time ago. Growth is a two-way street: it can be positive or negative.

Let's examine one example: rain. Rain occurs when water droplets form critical nuclei in air that is supersaturated with water vapor (relative humidity greater than 100%). The oft misquoted "scientific truth" that relative humidity never exceeds 100% is routinely violated by Nature because that "truth" is valid only under equilibrium conditions, when all forces have been allowed to equilibrate. Nature is almost always dynamic, and it can be far from equilibrium. This happens, for example, when the air cools rapidly and becomes supersaturated with water vapor; that is, relative humidity higher than 100%. Even without supersaturation, water vapor is constantly forming water droplets, but these evaporate before they can form critical nuclei. With supersaturation, critical nuclei can suddenly form, especially if there are hydrophilic dust particles (the seeds) in the air or a compressive disturbances such as thunderclaps that bring the molecules closer together. The air filled with critical nuclei is what we call a cloud or fog. If the formation of the cloud reduces the supersaturation to zero, a stable cloud is created; if not, the nuclei will keep growing to reduce the supersaturation. Nuclei can grow by other mechanisms. This is the growth stage of the NG process. The nuclei can bump into each other and aggregate, or start to fall and hit other water molecules and nuclei, until rain drops form.

Let's apply NG theory to nervousness. In everyday life, your sense of nervousness comes and goes, without becoming anything serious. However, in an unusual situation such as just before a performance, there is a supersaturation of factors that cause nervousness: you must perform flawlessly, you didn't have enough time to practice the piece, there is a big audience out there, etc. However, this still may not cause any problem because there are natural barriers to nucleating nervousness, such as a flow of adrenalin, a sense of accomplishment, or even just a lack of the realization that there is nervousness, or you might be too busy finalizing the preparations for the recital. But then, a fellow performer says, "Hey, I got butterflies in my stomach," (the seed) and you suddenly feel a lump in your throat and realize that you are nervous -- the critical nucleus has formed! This may still not be that bad, until you start to worry that perhaps your piece is not yet ready to perform or the nervousness might start to interfere with the playing -- these worries cause the nervousness to grow. These are exactly the processes described by NG theory. The nice thing about any scientific theory is that it not only describes the process in detail, but also provides solutions. So how does NG theory help us?

First of all we can attack nervousness at the nucleation stage; if we can prevent nucleation, it will never form a critical nucleus. Just merely delaying the nucleation will be helpful because that will reduce the time available for it to grow. Playing easier pieces will reduce the supersaturation of worry. Mock recitals will give you more experience and confidence; both will reduce the fear of the unknown. Generally, you need to perform a piece 3 or more times before you know whether you can perform it successfully or not; thus playing pieces that had been performed several times will also help. Nervousness is generally worst before a performance; once you start playing, you are so busy with the task at hand that there is no time to dwell on nervousness, thus reducing the growth factor. This knowledge helps because it alleviates the fear that things might get worse during the performance. Not dwelling on nervousness is another way of delaying the nucleation as well as slowing the growth stage. Thus it is a good idea to keep yourself occupied while waiting for the recital to begin. Mental play is useful because you can check your memory and keep yourself occupied at the same time by playing the piece in your mind. See the following section on Teaching for suggestions on how teachers can provide performance training.

For an important recital, avoiding nucleation is probably not possible. Therefore we should also consider ways to discourage growth. Since nervousness generally decreases after the performance starts, this knowledge can be used to reduce the worry and therefore the nervousness. This can feed on itself, and as you feel more assured, nervousness can often dissipate entirely, if you can reduce it below the critical nucleus. Another important factor is mental attitude and preparation. A performance is always an interactive process, with yourself and with the audience. When the music comes out well, it is easier to perform well; conversely, if you make a mistake, it can feed back psychologically and further degrade the performance. Thus it is important to be mentally prepared so as not to be adversely affected by mistakes or perceived poor performance. Instead of grimacing at a mistake, you might put on a smile. Remember that you are your worst critic and even casual playing sounds terrific to the audience. They generally hear less than half of the mistakes and remember even less, whereas the performer remembers every mistake. Inexperienced performers often try to play too fast which is almost always counterproductive. Playing musically, of course, is always the answer -- when you can involve your entire brain in the business of creating music, there is very little brain resources left to worry about nervousness. These are all measures for reducing the growth of nervousness.

It is not a good idea to pretend that nervousness does not exist, especially with youngsters who can more easily suffer long term psychological damage. Kids are smart and they can easily see through the pretense, and the need to play along with the pretense can only increase the stress. This is why performance training, in which nervousness is discussed openly, is so important. For the case of young students, their parents and friends attending the recital need to be educated also. Statements like "I hope you aren't nervous!" or "How can you perform without getting nervous?" are almost certain to cause nucleation and growth. On the other hand, to completely ignore nervousness and send kids out to perform with no performance training is also irresponsible and can even cause lifelong psychological damage.

Developing the proper mental attitude is the best way for controlling stage fright. If you can get into the frame of mind that performing is a wonderful experience of making music for others and develop proper reactions when you do make mistakes, nervousness will not be problematic. There is this huge difference between, for example, creating humor out of a mistake or recovering nicely from it and letting that mistake look like a disaster that mars the entire performance. Here again, we must know what not to do. That is why it is so important, early in a student's career, to play very easy pieces that can be performed without nervousness; even just one such experience can provide the existence proof that performing without nervousness is possible. That single experience can influence your performance attitude for the rest of your life. The best way to guarantee such a flawless performance is to develop a secure mental play, which will allow you to start playing from any note in the piece, stay ahead of the music, create the musicality in your mind, develop absolute pitch, recover from flubs or cover them up, play mental music all day, practice any part of the music at any time or place, etc.; these achievements will give you the confidence of an accomplished musician.

In summary, stage fright is nervousness that has spiraled out of control. A certain amount of nervousness is normal and necessary. You can minimize nervousness by delaying its nucleation by keeping busy and reducing its growth by playing musically. Thus it doesn't make sense to ask "do you get nervous when you perform?" Everyone does, and should. Such a question can actually nucleate nervousness. We only need to contain nervousness so that it does not grow out of control. Thus realizing that a certain amount of nervousness is normal is the best starting point for learning how to control it. Of course, there is a wide range of individuals from those who don't get nervous at all, to those who suffer terribly from stage fright. The best policy for nervousness is honesty -- we must acknowledge its effect on each individual and treat it accordingly. Gaining confidence in your ability to perform can usually eliminate nervousness, and perfecting the art of mental play is the only way to really achieve such confidence.