Every performer has to deal with nerves to one degree or another. There are a couple of myths that I've learnt about through experience. The first of these is that nerves reduce as you get older. The second is that the problem of nerves has a solution. Realising the first myth is simply a matter of experience and many performers find that, rather than abating, the opposite happens and nerves become worse with age. That's a simple fact; the second myth is more complex.
It's true that nerves can abate with the repetition of the same type of situation. If you perform once a year, easing off won't happen; if you perform every night of the week, by the fourth or fifth night, the novelty will be wearing off and with it the accompanying nerves, too. However, let's just look at this a little more analytically.
Performance nerves are essentially the symptom of a physical response by the body to a stressful situation, namely the creation of adrenalin in the body and the mind's preparation for "fight or flight". For a performer, flight is not usually an option. This response is generated by the anticipation and the excitement of live performance which promises a potentially dangerous situation in which one seeks to perform at ones best but with the fearful possibilities of failure or an adverse audience reaction. Basically, there is no escape from the chemical reaction and, as a performer, if you don't sense the anticipation and resultant adrenalyn hit, then you probably are missing what live performance is all about.
So, that leaves us with the impossibility of getting rid of nerves. The exception is by using a physical solution to combat the physical cause, namely with the use of beta blockers, or, potentially disastrously, alcohol. In my time I've explored different non-physical, that is, psychological, approaches to quelling nerves and none has worked. Now I've changed my approach to management, rather that cure, there is one technique that I've found more than useful and that is meditation.
By this, I don't mean oriental meditation discipline where the aim is selflessness and an emptying of the mind, but a more western approach where the aim is relaxed awareness. In a stressful situation that is not easy to achieve and is where the discipline of practising this type of meditation comes into play. The separate conditions of relaxation and focused awareness are quite normal but mutually independent states of being. Put them together and that is not usual at all and yet this is what is required. Being relaxed enables a musician's playing technique to be utilised unhampered; being fully aware and "in the zone" means that the music can be articulated and played expressively.
Each constituent elements can be practised separately, for example the use of breathing techniques enables the body to relax. Breathing deeply and regularly is a good start. Becoming aware of what thoughts may be hindering the musical flow is a useful preliminary exercise, too, as self-doubt and over- anticipation of difficult passages in the music can block the inner musician's natural flow.
I'm not promoting meditation as a cure but as a tool for managing the symptoms, so that the natural musician can emerge, rather than the self-doubting, critical, back-seat musician who just gets in the way. Meditation was one of the techniques with which I tried to cure my nerves and which didn't work. Now I'm using it as a management tool and having much more success. In my time I've written three books on the subject of meditation and one is still in print if you are interested in digging it out. Published by Duncan Baird, it's called, Live Better: Meditation. Next year, I'm planning on running a couple of day courses for musicians, one on music history and theory and the other on this rather fascinating topic of the inner musician, or what goes on in the mind when you are playing, with particular reference to meditation and relaxed awareness.