Have you ever been nervous?

A story from the great fiddler, Natalie MacMaster, that inspired me.

This weekend I had the pleasure of playing with the cello section of Symphony Nova Scotia for their performances with Cape Breton Fiddler, Natalie MacMaster. She had such an incredible presence on the stage and it was easy to tell she was having lots of fun, which of course rubbed off marvellously on the audience (and on the orchestra too!). 

During one of the weekend’s performances, Natalie told a story about an experience from long ago when she gave a fiddle concert and came away from the performance disappointed. In the story, she said she felt so nervous that she she lost control and the resulting sound was not good. It was then that she realized that this feeling she identified as “nervous” had a lot of energy in it and that perhaps she could use it to her advantage and improve her performance. She ended the story by saying that this idea completely turned things around and worked like a charm! I can personally attest to the fact that now, years later, she still lights up the stage with remarkable vitality. 

Natalie’s story resonated with me because as a musician and a performer, I too have had cause to think about the mental game of performance. The key word that comes up is perspective, and it’s twofold. For one, in this story Natalie’s changed her perspective by reframing what she was feeling. You could say she actively repurposed her nervous energy, and used it to fuel the performance, but I have a suspicion that the moment she shifted her perspective, changing the words “nervous” to “energized”, the rest took care of itself. Either way, her thinking changed, and so did her experience. 

The other major kind of perspective at play in performance has to do with the musician’s outlook. If I am fully prepared, but still feeling fear about a performance, I noticed it that in most cases, my focus on the audience and thinking on how to please them. The problem with this is I can’t truly know very much about what anyone in the audience thinks, but what I can know about is about myself. When I put my attention on myself, I can ask and answer questions like, what is my intention here? What do I want to say with the music? What is it saying to me that I would like to share? Of course a presentation conceived from this standpoint is still designed to communicate to the audience, but rather than try to anticipate the outcome from the audience’s perspective, I can work on and deliver something that comes from my own interests and enjoyment. 

Whether you are a musician or not, I challenge you to try shifting your point of view from imagining all of the what-if’s and the answers to what-could-they-be-thinking?, to focusing on how you want to be or what you want to say. It could still happen that you stumble or make a mistake, but you will see how very small and unimportant mistakes can be when you are enjoying yourself and sharing that great energy with others. You may come to agree that sometimes your entire experience can be lifted up by a change in perspective. 

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