I have worked in theatre for most of my adult life. Nerves are a huge part of what I do, and not handled correctly the can be debilitating to a performer, but under the right circumstances nerves can also be exhilerating and be one of the driving forces in creating a magical performance.
Most of my experience with nerves is performance based, but the ways to deal with them are universal, whether it’s exams, a driving test (which just the thought of actually makes me shake!) or delivering a pitch at work, first date or new experience.
In my 30 years, I have been on the receiving end of the positive and negative sides of nerves. And whilst it can be horrible, dealing with them is part of life and once you know how to use them to your advantage, there is something comforting about their presence.
I guess the best way for me to try to explain, is to describe how I go about using my nerves positively and times in the past when I didn’t have the wisdom of a 30 year old!
1) Don’t make a mole hill a mountain
When nerves get the better of us, we have allowed the idea of whatever the challenge to get too big for us. We have built it up into a big insurmountable task, and in doing that we are setting ourself up for a fall.
In my mock history GCSE (it’s probably important to know that I was useless at this specific subject) I broke the exam down in the following way: each question was a mini (and completely separate) individual problem. I didn’t think of it as an “exam” but just a load of questions that even I, would have been keen to put my hand up for in class. After all, what is an exam but a load of questions?
In my final exam, I allowed the task to take control of me. And in doing so I stopped thinking of them as simple questions and instead factored in that if I failed I wouldn’t get in to uni, my parents would be disappointed, my life was over etc etc. What did the nerves make me do? I answered the wrong questions. I misread the first page and subsequently did the wrong questions. I scraped a pass out of nowhere by retaining some knowledge from a documentary I had watched years previously about Russia during the war! (A country that we had not studied)!
2) Take control
Nerves can dictate the way that we speak and move, but if you know this, then there is nothing to fear! Use the fact that you are nervous to your advantage. It is when you are unaware of how your body may react that things can spiral out of control.
When I have a singing audition, 2 things happen, firstly I become self conscious and retract into myself, and secondly my right leg shakes. It stands to reason that if the casting director is looking for a macho bodyguard, a cocky prince, or a plethora of many other roles, shaking in fear ain’t gonna cut it! So here’s what I do, I give my body things to do to bridge the gap between walking through the door and the start of the practical part.
I walk straight through the door to the table and offer my hand. I then ask a simple question “would you like a copy of my CV and headshot. This will show that you are savvy and prepared (tick & tick). When they speak to you (which they invariably do) I nod and physically show that I am listening. Before I know it, it’s time to sing and because I am in control, they are at ease and so am I. Then when I do sing, I have basic movements (not choreography) but just appropriate moments to move on. This means that even if I do shake there are physical things that I can concentrate on.
(Side note here, remember about your proximity to the panel. I once finished a huge jazzy musical number stood right at the table, this resulted in a very loud long note being belted into the face of a casting director… Not a good ending!)
3) Be prepared
It’s a saying for a reason. By being in control and knowing you have your pencil for your test, music in the right key (this is another first hand experience example) know your lines, are knowledgable around the product you are selling, believe in yourself… There is no reason to get nervous. Just trust in your preparation to get you through it. This includes not having a hangover from the night before on your first day of work, and ensuring you are rested for any big day.
4) Have a clear perspective
Wedding day jitters. In this instance you can’t escape the enormity of what it is that you are doing. But as a person with a bit of a nervous disposition, I was somewhat surprised not to have even the slightest twinge, and that’s because of the realisation that if I plucked up the courage to ask then I really wanted it. My perspective on the situation is that I was (and am) in love and that trumps anything that could make me nervous. In fact the love of my life is the one constant in my life. I can be goofy and vulnerable, happy and afraid, tired and full of energy because she is my better side.
5) Know yourself
In new surroundings the nerves of what people will think of you, can change the person that you are perceived to be. Be honest. Be you. Because you don’t need to be a “better version of yourself” or anything other than what you are. The nerves come from scenarios where you don’t live up to new people’s expectations. Stop and think really carefully. What is most important? What you feel, Or what they think of you? When you put this question into perspective, you realise that the nerves are unnecessary.
A certain level of nerves will not inhibit you, in fact you may find that they help to present the best you. But nerves are fickle friends and also can stop you from reaching your potential. Don’t let them. That way you can be the best of you. All of the time.