The Strad’s March 2015 cover star says musicians must always put the music first

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Unless you are a sociopath, you will have experienced performance nerves at some point in your life. They are part of being human, and usually come about when you become self-aware. I remember feeling nervous performing at 14 for the first time. Suddenly I started thinking, what comes next? Usually when you are playing, you have to trust that your fingers know the music. But when you start thinking in that way, you interfere with the process and things starts going wrong.

The way I dealt with the nerves at first was through intense preparation - almost like taking out insurance. I got up and practised three hours before rehearsal, even when it was first thing in the morning. This routine evolved to become playing through the whole piece before I went on stage.

After a while I thought, 'I can’t let this rule my life. I want to be able to go on stage, come off and be normal'. I didn’t want this feeling of high adrenaline to go on all day before the performance or, worse, for days beforehand. So I learned to switch on and off again. Breathing became very important. Today if I feel some of anxiety I will do breathing exercises.

When we perform, we have to ask ourselves who are we performing for? The audience, ourselves or the composer? The answer is a little bit of everything. If there is no audience we don’t have that heightened sense of tension and awareness that is necessary for us to be our best, so of course we must share the music with the audience.

But our playing can’t only be for the public because if we are not sincere in our musical intentions, it will be detected immediately. Human beings have a very acute sense of insincerity. At the same time we can’t be so absorbed in our performance that we are not aware of our environment. So in the end we must play for the music. The more sincere we are in our performance, the more we convince our audience, and it’s conviction that creates stage presence.

Read Nikolaj Znaider's blog on the importance of practising basics.

Nikolaj Znaider is The Strad’s March 2015 cover star. Subscribe to The Strad or download our digital edition as part of a 30-day free trial. To purchase single issues click here.