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Nerves

November 18, 2009

Having had a few days to think about my performance on Sunday, I’m still struck by how nervous I got beforehand. Nerves are tricky things. They can sneak up on you. You can’t ignore them, but you can pretend not to acknowledge them, or divert your attention to distract yourself from their irritating presence. They can push you to do things you wouldn’t normally do. They can make you feel like you’re dying when you’re not. They are irrational. It’s incredibly frustrating when you know that you’re not going to die if you do X, but your body is acting all fight-or-flight.

I have always gotten nervous before performances. Some people say that it’s a bad thing if you don’t get nervous. I’m not sure about that. Besides, it’s not as if you have any control over whether or not you get nervous. Everyone reacts differently to stress, and I have found that as I get more comfortable and confident I also get less nervous. I did not sleep for about a week before my last recital. It affected my voice, my brain function, and my physical body. As a result, I got a back ache that was so bad I thought I would have to postpone the performance because I could barely stand up. Not to mention the fact that my voice was exhausted, which made keeping my vocal folds together to phonate a real challenge. But this past Sunday was a joint recital, which meant less music to learn. It also didn’t have to be memorized. No one was grading me. All of this contributed to less stress manifesting as heart palpitations preventing me from sleeping. I only had two lackluster nights’ sleep.

As Wendy and I got dressed and prepared to go onstage, we both talked about how nervous we felt. We each tried, in our own ways, to tamp down the butterflies, ignore our racing pulses. But acknowledging the nerves doesn’t make them go away. Perhaps it gives them slightly less power, but they are still there. They peaked during our first song, which programming made sense thematically, but perhaps not psychologically since it was new to me and it’s usually a good idea to start out with something very familiar. I had another spike during my first solo song because then there was nothing else to hide behind. It was just me and the piano. Then I settled in, with other, smaller peaks during less familiar songs, a flubbed word, or unfortunate intonation.

Looking back, I inevitably chuckle at myself for how nervous I was. Though even now, the extreme nature of both the pre-performance nerves, the physical exertion of the performance itself, and the post-performance high have already faded to the point where it almost feels silly bringing them up at all. What was I so worked up about? Why would I want to do that again? Was it really so bad after all? The mind and memory are tricky tricky tricky.

The time before going onstage fades to where I can barely remember how my heart was beating out of my chest. The time onstage now lives in this other place that is not like normal memory. I’m not sure if that’s what happens when you get in “the zone,” or just what happens to me. I see myself on video and remember being there, yet it’s not like normal memory. It’s more intense in some ways and I remember a few specifics better than I would remember other casual events. I’m standing outside myself. Not so much criticizing as carefully observing, both remembering through real memory and creating a new version of memory by watching the recording. Accessing the experience through real memory, while also trying to reconcile the discrepancies with the “unbiased” and “true” document of the event. Eventually, I give up and accept that the two are separate ways to experience the same event. I can analyze my performance by watching the video and listening to the recording, and I can reflect on my emotions by relying on my memory, faulty as it is.

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