Most of us musicians suffer from nerves in some form, usually centred on one particular aspect of performing – memory, accuracy, or whatever. I’m suspicious, actually, of any musician who never gets nervous. Vulnerability is important for an interpreter – as is humility; and both these qualities are likely to result in nervousness before and/or during a performance. The sort of performer who strides confidently onstage without a shadow of self-doubt is usually not a particularly interesting musician. Great music is full of half-lights, hidden truths, suggestions, questions – and those cannot be understood by those for whom life is all simple sunlight (or spotlight).

My particular fear is of memory lapses; it’s irrational, in that if I DO have lapses, the only reason is that I’m scared of them. But since I do have this issue, I thought that it might possibly be helpful to others to know what I do to try to combat them; definitely no magic formula (since I’m as scared as ever – especially when I play Bach suites!), but a few little ploys that have helped me to survive thus far.

First of all, it’s pretty obvious that one should try not to be too tired on the day of a concert, that one should go to bed early enough the night before in order to get a decent night’s sleep. But if for whatever reason this can’t happen, or if one has difficulty sleeping, it’s important if at all possible to keep a couple of hours free on the afternoon of the concert in order to rest. I find this really useful, just psychologically. If I’m lying sleepless in the middle of the night, I can stop myself from panicking by telling myself: ‘It doesn’t matter – I can sleep in the afternoon instead’. Worrying about being tired is not exactly helpful for getting to sleep!

Personally, I like to rehearse late morning/early afternoon. If there’s no rehearsal, I like to practise by myself at that time – but not the piece(s) I’ll be playing in the evening, because I feel that practising the concert repertoire once on the concert day is enough; repeating it too many times can be counter-productive. Then a large, late lunch follows, so I don’t have to eat again until after the concert. After the afternoon rest, I’ll get up, listen to the Beatles (usually their earlier music, with its more insistent and therefore invigorating beat) to wake myself up, and go to the hall at least an hour before the concert starts. There I will start to practise that evening’s repertoire, and will also go through it either on the piano or in my head, so that I can be reassured that the memory is not only in my fingers. Then, half an hour or so before I have to play, I MUST have a strong, long (definitely not instant!) coffee – my personal quirk. And eventually the time comes for the prisoner to go to the execution…

Now, that’s just my individual routine; everybody will have – should have – one of their own. Again, it’s more a matter of psychology than anything else. I THINK I need a coffee, therefore I need one. It probably wouldn’t make any actual difference if I didn’t have one; but now I have that superstition in my head, I don’t want to try the experiment of being without it! Of course, there are circumstances – when one has to travel in the afternoon, for instance – under which it’ll be impossible to follow parts of that routine; one has to learn to relax about that – and to remember that sometimes the best concerts take place under the worst circumstances. And if one IS tired, one mustn’t fight it; one must, if possible, relax into it.

Once on stage, I try to calm myself a) by thinking ahead in the music – but not too far ahead, since that can lead to trouble; b) by reminding myself that I’ve done it before and not collapsed – and also by thinking ahead to other even scarier occasions coming up; somehow that’s reassuring. (It didn’t work when I played the Bach suites at the Wigmore Hall last year – I just couldn’t think of a scarier concert!) And c) – this being something I’ve only noticed recently – by making sure that my gaze doesn’t get fixed on one spot for too long as I play. It’s curious, that one; but I’ve noticed that if my head is at exactly the same angle for a long time, that means that my neck is somehow locked; and that in turn means that my breathing gets tight – which causes the brain to shut down. So basically, it’s a matter of keeping one’s neck, and therefore one’s breathing, free at all times. Finally, there are moments in which one just has to trust one’s fingers; muscular memory is very strong – and if the brain does shut down for a second, the fingers can usually take over (presuming that one knows the piece well enough). It’s only if the panicking brain gets in the way that this doesn’t work; so one has to learn when to be able to step back, and release control.

This may sound as though I’m not really thinking about the music as I play; but that’s not the case. One’s mind can operate at two entirely different levels simultaneously: one half is absorbing the music and directing the flow, while the other, less productive, half is saying: ‘You’re going to forget the next note – ha!’ That latter little devil is the one that has to be forced down, by whatever method that works best. As I’ve already said, the process is going to vary from person to person; these are just a few minor suggestions from my own particular experience. Perhaps it all sounds ridiculously neurotic, in fact; but I suspect that many, many people suffer from similar stresses as they perform. Well, giving concerts is a scary activity! It’s the price one has to pay; but when it all goes well, it’s worth it…