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Un-Nerving Business? By Arthur Butterworth
WE ALL have nerves - they are part of our physiological make-up - but the expression 'nerves' conveys a very hazy notion indeed. It could mean that we have aches and pains: a trapped nerve in the shoulder, perhaps; toothache; a twitching eyelid - or whatever. To public performers, though, it usually means something that ought not to be confused with the strictly physiological sense of the word. For them 'nerves' connote some kind of mental anxiety arising from their involvement in performing in front of others.
Of course this is not the only situation in which people feel nervous. It can be anything one cares to think about.- personal health; relationships with other human beings; money; risks of every conceivable kind, from dabbling on the stock market to indulging in physically hazardous pursuits - motor-racing, for instance, or being a trapeze artist.
However, public-performance nerves are perhaps of a particular kind. Actors, politicians, public speakers, ballet dancers - and certainly musicians - know what we mean when we use the word in connection with this public exposure risk (I'm not here referring in any way at all to artists' nude models, though perhaps they too have nerves). We mean that in some way or another we are putting our personal activities to the test by exhibiting some skill we claim to possess to the scrutiny of others. By our very different natures, human beings react to assessment by others in very opposite ways. Many individuals could never serve on a committee since they are too shy ever to express an opinion. On the other hand some people just love being in the limelight and are in absolute ecstasy, enjoying what has now come to be known, perhaps not inappropriately, as an 'ego-trip', if they can hold the stage and other people's rapt attention.
So how much of this kind of pleasure is allied to nerves? Even ecstasy can have its element of nervousness - perhaps part of the intense pleasure, the tingling sensations of heightened awareness. There seems to be a fine line between nervous ecstasy and nervous fear and anxiety. However, to be specific, let us consider what we are especially concerned with: 'concert nerves'. We might think that amateur orchestral players are not nervous types, since they take on public performance primarily for their own pleasure rather than to earn a living. Come to that, professional players ought not to be nervous either, since they opted for this kind of occupation in the first place. Had they preferred the quiet life they could have chosen to be a librarian in a small country town or tend plants in a nursery, or settled for some other apparently calm and unstressful career (though how are we to know whether librarians or gardeners enjoy tranquil, stress-free lives?).
There must surely be about all potentially nerves-inducing and demanding occupations an element of tantalising attraction. Even the most anxious, nerve-ridden performer must have felt some frisson about the whole notion of performing in public. No matter, all performers have experienced anxieties when finally it comes to the live public concert.
To a large extent it must be supposed that most anxieties of this kind stem from a lack of self-confidence in the ability to master an instrument. Just what degree of accomplishment is it necessary to achieve? Is there a lurking feeling that one has never really been able to attain that level of expertise by which it might be possible to play anything ever likely to have been written for the instrument? Can we claim to be able to read accurately, let alone actually play, anything ever likely to appear on the music stand in front of us?
Perhaps historically there might have been, at any one time, a generally accepted idea of what the technical limitations of any instrument were. How many now nonchalantly-performed things in the repertoire of amateur and youth orchestras were once looked upon as being quite beyond the bounds of possibility by even the most celebrated professional performers? - Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto, for instance, or Schubert's 'Great' C major Symphony. What of contemporary music? Professionals are now faced daily with some of the most daunting music that it is possible to imagine, but that is nothing new: the latest revolutionary ideas must always at first have seemed insuperable. In its day the Eroica must have been every bit as formidable as The Rite of Spring was until only comparatively few years ago. While nerves might well be severely tested with having to cope with the challenge of the new, they are just as likely to be affected by the old and familiar. The agonising wait while the chorus solemnly intones Since by Man Came Death is a sore trial of dry mouth and nervous swallowing to any trumpeter faced with having to play The Trumpet Shall Sound a brief half-a-minute later. Or consider the shaky bow-arm of the principal 'cellist who has the responsibility of beginning the whole concert alone when the Overture is William Tell, or the first oboe who has the task of playing that long-phrased, exhausting melody that opens the second movement of the Brahms Violin Concerto.
And it's not just principals who are in this particular firing-line: the fourth horn has an especialy taxing part in the slow movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony; and what about the quiet, rhythmical precision demanded of the side drummer at the start of Ravel's Bolero? These and countless other examples are potential sources of the most intense nervous anxiety.
How do players manage? Obviously, first of all, he or she does need to be equipped with a sound and reliable technique. There is no point at all. taking on the responsibility imposed by the music unless you can feel absolutely confident that your basic technique is up to it. But what a even more important than technique is personality, for even persons with excellent technique often find public performance too daunting to contemplate. Many otherwise excellent pianists have never been able themselves to mount the concert platform, though they may have taught and nurtured many celebrated and indeed world-class performers. (There lives in the North of England one of the most distinguished of piano teachers, venerated by pianists the world over, yet who has always shunned the very idea of herself performing). So, while a fine technique is a sine qua non, even more important is to have the right temperament and personality.
Orchestral playing is not for the fainthearted, yet all performers need some degree of nervous energy - that ability to express the music they are called upon to perform with real conviction and emotion as well as with purely technical efficiency. Ideally, however, this nervous energy must be under control, whether consciously or some intuitive way. There are certainly some players who give the impression of being utterly unmoved and absolutely devoid of nerves of any kind: they play like automatons; their reading is totally accurate and their technique almost flawless; they never seem to miss an entry or play a wrong note or rhythm. But these can be also the kinds of players who very often never even know if by any chance they have gone wrong: they never look up to the conductor and blissfully play on, unaware that anything is amiss. These players are not musicians, so do not encourage them to join you! On the other hand other players can be so insecure that they are a liability; not necessarily because they have an inadequate technique, but because - at least as far as performing music is concerned - a personality trait which does not allow them to be in control of their nerves in performance. All this applies equally to amateur or professional. Of course, if they are professionals they are very soon found out, for the profession is a relentless and never-ceasing challenge to one's nerves. In an amateur situation it is sometimes possible, even for years, somehow to get by and not be unduly noticed, or, because amateurs by and large play for the fun of it and are mutually tolerant of individual shortcomings.
Conductors can be nervous too, but maybe they do not often show it. As already remarked, however, there is all the difference in the world between nervousness engendered by personal inadequacy (revealed in the case of a conductor by such things as indecisive or unclear beats, hazy ideas about interpretation, inability ever to hit on just the right tempo, but most of all a lack of an authoritative, strong personality and real charisma as a leader of others) - compared with the nervousness implicit in emotional fervour. But even this latter desirable quality is best if controlled - at least outwardly - by a cool head. There are conductors who can be so carried away by their own emotions, their 'ego-trip', that they lose control of the forces under them, and this often leads to a feeling of contempt on the part of the more level-headed players. But, at the extreme, the cool-head can obviously be just as bad, delivering lifeless, pedestrian performances, inducing in the players a routine, clock-watching and casual response (how many times have we already played Romeo & Juliet this week?). Experiences such as these can lead professional players to resign and take up some other vocation, unable to stand the strain of the hypercharged conductor, or the tedium of the coolhead. There is rarely an absolutely perfect situation - but that's just life, isn't it.'
This article first appeared in the Slaithwaite Philharmonic Orchestra Journal - March 1995
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