I’m often asked whether I get nervous before I perform.
After 10 years in the professional business and years studying and performing at student level before that, the answer is not as much as I used to. It tends to depend on the performance, how important it seems, and the level of exposure!
The 18th performance of Traviata is not nervewracking. Opening night, however, depending on how rehearsals have gone, may be different – the first outing of something, whether opera or concert, is always more unfamiliar and therefore more likely to feature nerves. I expect that when Tristan opens, I’ll be a mixture of nervous and excited. When we did Ariadne auf Naxos – and I played the second violin solo part, I was definitely nervous, because it was out of my comfort zone. Leading a show for the first time can give rise to those sorts of feelings as well.
Concerts on stage are also slightly different – you can be seen, whereas in my usual work, I’m hidden in a pit; however the thought of embarrassing myself by making some loud mistake in front of my colleagues is probably worse than on show in front of an audience!
Chamber concerts and solo concerto performances are less frequent and definitely more nerve wracking.
It does depend on what you’re familiar with – if you’re a concert performer regularly, perhaps those are less nervewracking, or someone who performs concertos all the time, that’s where your comfort zone lies. I think a certain amount of nerves is useful if you can channel it into the music – makes the performance more exciting for the audience and makes the concentration level higher – it’s far easier to make a mistake in the 18th show of Traviata than the first night, at least in my experience.
If however you are unused to any type of performance, any public performance can give rise to terror of a degree that can prevent any sort of performance at all! I am recalling a small 12 year old boy who was playing in a second violin section of a youth orchestra that I was coaching. We arrived at concert day, his parents were no doubt in the audience. They all went onstage, and I got around to the audience to see him walking back offstage. I ran back around to see what had happened, and it turned out that he was so nervous, he’d cut his E-string with a small pair of scissors that he’d hidden in his pocket, hoping to escape from having to perform!