Posted by: laurie689 | August 18, 2016

Focus and Relaxation: The Essentials of Great Musicianship

The mind is like a puppy: it won’t just automatically do what you tell it to do  – you have to train it.  Interestingly, training doesn’t just apply to the things we need to focus on, but we also need to practice how to relax mentally and physically, and how to develop the habit of beneficial attitudes, in order for the mind to do what we want rather than going off on its own. And I’m sure you know the mind will go off on its own if we let it.

We don’t need to be slaves to the mind’s whims, the stressful thoughts, the fears, the distractions. We own our minds, not the other way around.  But untrained, our minds will do as they wish and will run our lives. Everyone who is very good at something has learned to be at cause, not at effect, of their thoughts. As musicians we can – and must – train ourselves to focus and to relax into our music during practice. We can have “Attention Benefit” instead of “Attention Deficit”.

Focus and relaxation are intimately related. Focus, unlike what is commonly assumed, is not stressful concentration. It is relaxed concentration, the only kind that works. Stress causes the mind to lose focus. Relaxation enhances focus. I like to call relaxed focus “concentricity” (yes, I made up that word) because it also implies centering. The term “centering” is another term for being aware in a relaxed way of having an inner core from which you can effectively operate.

When we relax, we can focus. When we focus, it creates further relaxation. But how do we get that good feedback circle going when we play?

  1. Take the time to be sure you are seated or standing comfortably and ergonomically before starting. That’s just as important as the practice is.
  2. Create a moment of silence before starting. Do this in both practice and performance.
  3. Breathe deeply, visualizing relaxation entering on the inhale, and all else but beautiful music leaving you as you exhale.
  4. Make the first note important.
  5. While playing, “hear” each phrase of the music just before you play or sing it.
  6. Imagine good tone and expression in advance of each note.
  7. Put feeling into your music instead of worrying about accuracy during performance: you should have practiced enough for accuracy to happen automatically.
  8. Feel the tempo and rhythm.
  9. Imagine the beauty of the music flowing through your voice or instrument, out to the audience, back to you, and out again, in a circular fashion, each time becoming more beautiful.

Another technique for achieving a relaxed body and state of mind for performance is to arrive at your performance location earlier than you normally would, and after getting everything ready for your performance, find a quiet spot where others won’t disturb you, and sit with your eyes closed. Visualize the stage, the lighting, your instrument, the audience, and breathe deeply. See your music as coming from the center of yourself. (If you have a spiritual practice, you can incorporate it also.) After several minutes, when you open your eyes, you’ll find yourself feeling quite peaceful.

I also like to sit for a few minutes as the audience arrives and is seated, watching them from an inconspicuous place. I notice what they are wearing, what kinds of personalities they seem to have, and so on. Sometimes I pick out a few particularly cheerful or friendly-looking people in whose direction I will look when I’m talking between pieces. All of this helps me feel like I know the audience, like they are not strangers.

Another practice that I find very helpful: for several minutes just before a concert, I sit quietly and bring to mind all the things in my life for which I am grateful. It’s amazing how many things I can name. By the time I get on stage I am in a great state of mind!

Being relaxed in performance is essential. We all know we can’t do our best when we’re stressed.  Training the mind may require adopting a contemplative practice that you do every day. Some prefer meditation, some contemplative prayer, some enjoy various mindfulness exercises. Even walking in the woods and noticing very purposely every plant, animal, color, and sound, is a mindfulness exercise that promotes the production of endorphins which are beneficial to the body and mind. All of the above activities have been shown through research to enhance the immune system as well.

One last idea: try expressing your emotions through your music. All of them, not just the “good” ones. Studies have shown that it is the appropriately channeled expression of all of one’s emotions that enhances the immune system and keeps us healthy.

Make a habit of these things and see how your music becomes a joy to play in any situation!

Posted by: laurie689 | May 25, 2016

Genre and Style  –  How Much Do You Know?

What’s your musical genre? Have you consciously chosen one? Do you really know all about it? How does it differ from others? Can you describe its nuances?

Every genre and sub-genre or style of music is characterized by specific features, some obvious and some quite subtle, without which it just isn’t really authentic. Many nuances may be completely overlooked by players who don’t realize they are important, and maybe don’t hear them, because they aren’t familiar enough with the genre and don’t know what to listen for.

Some musical genres are intellectually oriented and complex, some are fun-loving and happy, some are all about life’s stories, some are contemplative or even soporific. The differences can actually lead to negative attitudes toward one genre by those who are accustomed to another, because we tend to assume that the “rules” of music are the same for all music. They’re not.

For instance, consider the difference between, say, dancers who perform Middle eastern “bellydance” and those who are trained in ballet. Although both require intense training to become truly skilled, the rules of movement are in many ways nearly opposite between these two styles. One observing the other might think them all wrong!

Watch on You Tube:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qwsz8x5m-Ko

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jjDYW46PjA8

So it is also between musical styles. I once heard a man comment on native flute player R. Carlos Nakai’s music after a fabulous concert, “Doesn’t he know more notes than that?” Obviously this man had no idea that the Native American flute has only six notes, that the music is based on traditional native style, and what Nakai does with those notes is masterful. The man was listening for complexity of melody rather than variation of tone, intonation and ornamentation, and also didn’t realize that most native flute music is meant to be meditative and restful. Listen to R. Carlos Nakai on You Tube:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=19nm5_nAwQg

I heard a story from a Celtic musician who played for a person who had become offended because she was repeating parts (i.e. AABB,AABB). That’s what Celtic music does! (Not to mention most traditional music of various ethnicities.) Listen to these links on YouTube:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yWv6xSagbyU

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UOvsxRPpEcs

Anyway, back to the subject of subtle nuance…

If you play Celtic music, can you describe the differences between Irish, Scottish, Welsh and Breton music? Do you know that Irish music is often ornamented differently from Scottish music and that there are types of tunes in one style that do not exist in the other? (I’d tell you, but that would spoil the fun.) Or that Welsh music is often quite chromatic because of influences from classical styles during the Baroque era? Or that traditional Breton music is a melding of French and Celtic styles?

What about skill? Does it take more skill to play one kind of music than another? Partita #3 by J.S. Bach,  for instance, is all about masterful skills, both of the composer and the musician; it’s very cerebral as well as beautiful. J.S. Bach’s music is mathematically and therefore aurally complex because he wanted it that way. Listen on You Tube:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jjDYW46PjA8

Now what about an even more complex style, which I mentioned in my last post: jazz. Although there are many sub-genres of jazz, and some is reasonably simple, much of what the masters are doing with smooth jazz and such is mind-boggling, even when it’s slow:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cki7_tK321A

I‘ve noticed that the older a continuously-used genre is, the more complex it tends to become. For instance, in traditional Celtic music in the last 40 years or so, elements have been introduced from rock, pop, and other ethnicities, and players have also invented new techniques and written new tunes that are beautiful brain-teasers. An obvious example is that even some staid bagpipe bands play a tune called The Clumsy Lover which, although not as complex as some modernly played Celtic tunes, has a Reggae feel to its quirky rhythm and is not part of the historical tradition. And it’s a great tune:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bOJKAa2ovY8 (listen at 2:44)

I cringe when I hear someone call Celtic music “quaint” or “simple”. Obviously they’re not hearing the subtle variations or the ornamentations that make it truly traditional and define the genre, and they aren’t feeling what this music evokes. Or perhaps they’re learning all their “Celtic” music from a book. You can’t do that exclusively and expect it to sound right  –  it might be very pretty, but it won’t be Celtic. All the nuances that are up to the player just can’t be written into notation. You have to know how to add them in yourself, preferably automatically and habitually. This only comes with years of hearing and playing the music with others who are intimately knowledgeable in the genre.

Here is an example of Piobreachd, an ancient tradition in Scottish bagpiping in which the tune is played repeatedly but with more and more added ornaments each time.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6NAkZPNtYJc  (If you wish to skip to the more ornamented part, go to about 6:45)

I love hearing harper/singer Seumas Gagne say “You can’t learn a musical genre well unless you learn to speak the language”. He’s referring to Scots Gaelic, which he speaks fluently and also teaches. Although I don’t speak Gaelic, I do think one has to immerse oneself in a culture before assuming they can really play that culture’s music. I notice that I can really “get” Spanish and South American music, Celtic music, and Appalachian music because I have studied those cultures all my life. On the other hand, I love hearing Bulgarian and Swedish and Greek and Mongolian music too, but I can’t pretend to learn to play them well; I know next to nothing of those cultures.

Another good example of what one might not hear without listening closely is how in French Medieval music the tunes sound simple at first hearing, but in fact this music is subtly complex (that’s not an oxymoron). Listen to these links on You Tube:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h-kRHwVWTR4

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-hrt9o2qzWM

To understand a genre, it’s a good idea to listen to live performances. I used to hate Bluegrass music until I heard it live  –  now it’s one of my favorite styles.  It’s the complex side of Southern American music; playing bluegrass well music well requires great skill.  Listen on You Tube:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fB8UTheTR7s

On the other hand, with banjo at least, there is a contrasting style: mountain “clawhammer” banjo traditionally was zone-out music, even when it was fast. You have to play it to really feel what I mean, but below are links to examples of a slower and a faster piece. As you can see, the faster piece is almost as mesmerizing as the slower one. This style developed in the remote mountains of Appalachia where farming was tough because the ground was rocky and the fields steep. After a day of farming, people just wanted relax with something that produced theta brain waves (though I’m sure that’s not how they would have described it).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hHJ973_-WqQ

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uyXhu3dZUHw

A big mistake would be to open a book of music notation that says “Bluegrass Tunes” or “Celtic Tunes” or whatever, and think that because you are playing the notes you are playing in the style. Aside from the fact that some books are not written by people who are truly masters of their stated style, you just can’t notate all the nuances of a style. They can only be learned by integrating them through many, many hours of listening and, ideally for traditional and ethnic musics, also learning by ear at least to some degree. And if you want to get really good at it, study with a master of that genre. Whatever you do, don’t give up  –  sure, it takes time and focus, but the journey is ninety percent of the fun.

Immersing yourself in the culture from which a style of music arose makes a huge difference in how you appreciate it and how you play it. Studying everything you can about what, specifically, makes a genre unique will give your music that “certain something” that sets it apart from just playing notes correctly. It’s worth the effort, and can have a very positive effect on how well your practicing drives your skill level forward. Try it  –  you’ll enjoy it!

Posted by: laurie689 | April 16, 2016

Teaching for Passion, Practicing for Joy

Last night I attended a concert of the Victor Provost Quartet, with guest artist Paquito D’Rivera. These are some of the world’s finest jazz musicians (google them for info). I was awed, as I always am by Victor, because his music is so amazing that I can greatly enjoy it even though I have little familiarity with his style of jazz. Truly, there is a level of musicianship there that goes far beyond anything many of us can imagine, and it’s clear where it came from: not just their obvious exceptional talent, but from a passion for practice. As they played this unbelievably complex music (I looked at one of the scores and it made my brain hurt), they were grinning and glowing, obviously enjoying themselves tremendously, and playing expressively. What a contrast to the way so many musicians just try to get through a piece without messing up.

The amount of practice it takes to accomplish this may seem unimaginable. But if it were, they could not have done it. The fact that these guys can do what they do proves that it’s possible. That we CAN practice enough to be that good. That we CAN have the passion and WANT to practice that much. Practice isn’t just about getting something to the point where you can play the notes right, but where you can play them easily and expressively and happily.

Obviously, these people had teachers from an early age who made music fun, and made practice not feel like drudgery. Teachers who showed them what is possible, what they could accomplish, instead of just telling them to practice without knowing what they were working for. Who let them hear examples, and gave them experiences that rewarded their efforts. Maybe took them to concerts to witness what studying music is for. Maybe had them play in ensembles. Maybe praised them when they did well. More than anything, it’s obvious that these teachers did not approach their students in the belief that they could only accomplish up to a certain limited level. They didn’t say, “They’re just kids, so don’t expect too much.” They nurtured exceptional accomplishment.

More than anything, it’s clear that these teachers made sure their students’ parents were invested in their children’s musical success. I can’t think of anything more important than this.  But parents need to be instructed in what constitutes encouragement. Lots of praise, taking kids to great performances, and participating with them throughout their young lives is essential.  Just telling children to “go practice” is not a positive reinforcement.

Balance is important. Not allowing a child to have any other life is not helpful. I know a fellow who as an adult wanted very much to learn to play an instrument well, but could not make himself practice. After some self-examination, he reflected, “My parents required me to practice every afternoon after school instead of letting me go out and play with my friends. So I’ve come to associate playing music with sacrificing fun and friendship.” I know many adults who are resentful of being forced to practice instead of being encouraged in positive ways. As adults, they have a very hard time learning.

BUT… let’s not let our pasts determine our futures. If you were not encouraged positively, if practice was drudgery for you as a kid, if your parents were not invested in your musicianship, if your teachers did not expect greatness from you, you can choose to change how that plays out for you now. It is not too late at any age to excel. Don’t limit yourself.

Go to great concerts. Listen to good music at home. Set high goals and work for them by practicing. And then practicing some more. Allow yourself the time. If you must take the time away from something else in our life, let that something be one of the things you enjoy less. Pay no attention to the voice in your mind that says, “But you should be doing this or that before you practice.” You have a responsibility to your dreams: they are what your life is for. Life is short. Do it now.

 

 

CEO’s of large companies, stars of sports and movies, and professional musicians have something in common: a large majority suffer from something that has come to be known as The Impostor Syndrome.

I knew a talented young man who graduated Summa Cum Laude from an important music school, with a major in classical guitar. He continued to study with a famous instructor in New York City whose students’ albums were in the top ten on the charts of popular music. This young man became a guitar teacher, accepting students at home. One day, he seemed depressed. I asked him what was wrong, and he replied, “I’m afraid they’ll find out I’m a fake.” It was a mystery to me that anyone with his accomplishments could feel that way.

Over time I learned that many top people in their fields feel the same way, and keep it to themselves as a dark secret. It is usually unfounded, of course, but they can’t be convinced of that. It helps tremendously to know we are not alone in this fear, and to accept that if we have “done our homework”, we are not fakes, and no one will think we are.

What we believe deeply about ourselves is a hundred percent of why and how we live and behave. It’s not just how we consciously view ourselves, and certainly not entirely what we consciously tell ourselves. I used to do everything I could to give myself positive messages, but my progress in life was slow and poor. Finally, I asked myself what I saw deep in my mind’s eye as the essence of “me”. What I saw surprised me greatly. Instead of a capable, intelligent person (the one I consciously thought I was), I saw an image of myself as a cowering, shameful, and basically flawed being. I recognized immediately that this was who, as a very young child, I’d been told I was. Nothing I had accomplished in my life had changed that image, and I had not been aware I still carried it, yet the consequences remained. As long as I had this subconscious image, no matter how many positive affirmations I used and no matter how much recognition I got, I could never live up to my capabilities. After recognizing the existence of that image of myself and seeing it for what it was, I was able to redefine myself realistically and on purpose. I began making progress in life. I tell you this story because so many people hold unrealistic, negative images of themselves, and thus hold themselves back from doing and being their best.

Some believe deeply that they must be “humble”, and not shine their light in the world. But not doing all we are capable of doing is a statement that says we don’t want the gifts and abilities we’ve been given. True humility is doing what we are meant to do, using the passion we’ve been given, and accepting it as our job in life, rather than rejecting it for something more “normal”, more responsible, or that someone else said we should do.

I love the following quote from Marianne Williamson, which Nelson Mandela used in his inauguration speech:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? … Your playing small does not serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, … and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we’re liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Maybe you’re not yet the best you can be skill-wise. We all have farther to go. That doesn’t mean we have to get to the ultimate level to be very good at what we do (there is no ultimate level  –  it’s a continual process). Confidence is not arrogance. It is merely the knowing that you can do what you say you can do, you are who you say you are and who others say you are.

The Impostor Syndrome exists in most of us. In most cases it is an inner judge lying to you. You don’t have to listen to it. Go out and shine your light.

Posted by: laurie689 | February 18, 2016

Building Repertoire and Building Skill

It’s easy to assume that there’s one definition for musical skill, but in fact there are different sets of skills for different musical situations, and each needs to be defined separately. Some people shine in one skill and some in another, and some are adept at more than one.

Let’s look at the most general skill sets: session skills and performance skills. Each requires a different focus. (Of course in either genre there are subsets of skills, such as improvisation, sight-reading, ear-playing, memorizing, etc. I’ve written about those in past posts, so I’ll focus here just on the difference between session skills and performance skills.)

Session/jamming skills:

As you probably know, sessions are also called jams, depending on the genre. There is a slight difference in the two terms, however, because jamming often implies some degree of improvisation, while in a session it’s OK to just play the tune straight. For both jamming and sessions, you need a large repertoire, or at least a really good ear and improvisational/accompaniment skills, but whether you play the tunes well is of less importance than being able to keep up with the gang.

Playing on the beat, and being able to play either the chords or the melody (or both) to a recognizable degree, are what one must focus on for sessions and jams. Usually no one really knows how accurately you’re playing because there are many instruments playing at the same time, and imperfections are therefore fairly well hidden, as long as you’re not the loudest instrument in the group. (That doesn’t mean you should play softly  –  if you can’t be heard at all, what’s the point?.)

Ideally it would be great to build a big repertoire and also pay attention to technique, accuracy, nuance and expression. But ultimately, unless an audience has paid to hear you play, music is for the player’s enjoyment, so what you do with your repertoire is your call.

Session playing is good practice for ensemble playing, and can also increase your performance skills, since you’re forced to play at the accepted tempo for each piece, to keep it consistent, and to keep playing when you make a mistake, without pausing or repeating. It can also be excellent for alleviating “stage fright” issues.

Session playing can be a bit frustrating no matter how well you do or don’t play, due to the exclusive nature of some groups. It’s not appropriate to snub anyone at a session or jam, for any reason and no matter their skill level, but some groups do. (I’ve seen session musicians treat someone as though they were a dilettante because they didn’t know all the tunes being played, only to find out later that they had just snubbed someone famous.) Of course if a player doesn’t follow good etiquette, there can be repercussions, but participants should be kind to newcomers and explain the rules to them.

I’ve written before about session etiquette (Blog #1 in the archives), but to reiterate just a few points:

  • Before joining in, listen first for a while and observe how the players are deporting themselves. Follow their lead and their format.
  • Don’t pull up a chair into the main circle unless asked. Sit on the edge of the group until you get to know them.
  • Don’t play solos or expect people to know obscure pieces.
  • Don’t talk excessively between tunes. Don’t talk at all during tunes.
  • Stick with the genre being played.
  • Don’t assume turns are being taken. There might be a tune leader or a pecking order.

Performing skills:

A performer needs to play concert repertoire in a clean, accurate and polished way. Some professional performers don’t do jam sessions well because they’ve spent all their time perfecting their concert repertoire instead, which often does not contain many of the commonly heard session pieces. And some jammers don’t do well in performance because they’ve spent their time learning as much repertoire as possible without necessarily having to pay attention to how well they actually play it. Of course there are many professionals who do well in both settings.

Concerts of folk or traditional music usually only require about 90 minutes of material  – maybe 15 pieces, or fewer if some are very long.  But the focus and the time it takes to keep those pieces concert-ready is significant. The pieces a concert performer may choose are not necessarily ones audiences will recognize, because a few familiar tunes are fun, but not a whole concert of them. So it can be hard to develop a large session repertoire when you’re a full-time career musician. And if you do go for a large repertoire you may never develop the finesse and expression and perfection you need for performance.

No Judgment

In either case, session players and performers have no reason to judge each other for having a difference in focus. It can greatly benefit any musician to be adventurous enough to develop both skill sets if possible. Time can be a limiting factor in either case, since getting really good at one skill set can take a great deal of concentration and persistence. But don’t make the mistake of interpreting the purposeful development of one skill set over another as inadequacy. It’s all good.

 

Posted by: laurie689 | January 19, 2016

Excellence is Not the Exception

It’s assumed by most people that only a few can achieve excellence. That’s why the word exists  –  to excel in something means to do significantly better than the norm. But it’s really more complex than that.

If we look, for instance, at what was considered really good guitar playing by well-known folksingers in the ‘60’s, and compare it with the best accompanists today, there’s quite an improvement  –  the average players today are playing as well as or better than the famous folks did back then! And look what happened to guitar playing after Michael Hedges introduced his style of playing in the ‘90’s. The whole concept of guitar playing changed. The same is true with harping; in the 1980s much of what was considered professional-level playing for lever harpists is now common fare for beginners!

Obviously, excellence is a fluid concept. What used to be excellent playing no longer is, because almost everyone pretty much plays that well now. Does that mean everyone plays excellently now? In the literal sense of the word, no. Because others are now excelling above that new level.

What happens is that when a new player hears a great performance or a good recording, they assume that’s normal playing and will assume that’s how they should sound; they automatically aspire to play that way and see no reason why they can’t. Which if course is a valid thought  –  there IS no reason they can’t attain it, with practice. So the norm keeps raising. It’s a good thing.

A related concept to consider is this: to play excellently in performance, we know we have to practice a lot, right? If we practice effectively and we are persistent, we can learn to play really well.  But sometimes our apparent level of skill suddenly disappears when we get on stage. Why?

Suppose you’ve learned a piece and you’re reaching a point where you can play it really well under ideal conditions. Or you practice it badly a few times and then very well once. After you’ve proven to yourself that you can play it well (after all, you just did that once), you stop and go on to another piece. And you expect to play it well on stage?

One or two times of playing a piece brilliantly isn’t sufficient! We need to play a piece well many more times than we ever played it badly. In other words, if it took three months to learn the piece, and now you play it well, it will take another three months of playing it well to surpass the number of times you played it badly. Then add at least another three months onto that, and you might achieve what it takes to perform it well. If you’ve only played it well, say, thirty times but you played it poorly two hundred times, you have a long way to go before it will become dependably and consistently good. Having the patience to accept this process can lead to true excellence.

The flip side of this coin is that once you have attained a certain level of playing  –  let’s call it a level of 8 out of 10  –  you can never sink below a certain level. In your worst performance you might play at a level of 6, but you will never play worse than that. Your skill level is such that you cannot fail.

Here’s the secret: your lowest level of playing IS your actual level. One cannot play at their peak all the time. But one can always play at their lowest level or better. If your peak level is really high, your lowest level will be better than average  –  in other words, still excellent in the literal sense of the word.

If we strive for excellence, we will achieve a level of skill that cannot be degraded.  Sometimes we will play amazingly, sometimes less so. But we will always play well.

Practice!

Posted by: laurie689 | November 26, 2015

Performance Anxiety – Part 2

This article is a continuation of the one posted last time, which you can find below this one on this page.

As a performer, your demeanor signals audiences how to react; it affects how they feel about you, about your music, and about your instrument, and even how they feel about themselves! The audience will take its cues from you. If you look serious, they will be serious. If you are witty, they will laugh. If you are confident, they will be supportive. Whatever you do, you can count on your audience to feed back to you in greater measure whatever you give to them.

Your audience wants to like you and enjoy your music; they would not be there otherwise. They are there to make you feel good, and vice versa. Let your audience be your support system!

When we forget that our audience is our best source of energy and confidence, we may begin to think they are sitting in judgment of us and are planning to hate us. This is insanely silly, but such fear is all too common among performers!

What are we afraid of? That we might mess up. Have you noticed that a confident performer seems to make very few errors, and a nervous one many? That’s because nervousness causes errors; not the other way around. The syndrome we call “stage fright” is actually self-sabotage. We create it, and we give it power. “There is nothing to fear but fear itself.” The confident performer knows that mistakes account for very little, and so is not much concerned about them.

The physical reaction we feel as stage fright is actually “fight-or-flight” syndrome: when the brain recognizes a situation it interprets as a threat, it orders the adrenals to flood the system with adrenaline, which, if you really were in a threatening situation, could be very helpful. Adrenaline can make you stronger, faster, and more clear-headed. But too much adrenaline when it isn’t needed can make you confused, sweaty-palmed, and shaky-handed. (And it can make you play too fast.)

Why is it so threatening to get on a stage, be in a competition, or sit in front of a teacher? Because someone told us it would be. If you observe children, they are great hams. A three-year-old will readily perform (“Watch me!”). It is only when someone says “Weren’t you scared?” or describes being scared, or they see someone else being scared, that they begin to think that if someone said they ought to be, it must be true. Stage fright is a learned response, not a natural one. How unfortunate.

I find that stage fright is exacerbated if I have not practiced adequately. If there is any question at all about whether I can play a piece of music well in front of an audience, I don’t play it in formal performance.

To assure that you will perform as well as you know you can, here are some guidelines:

  • Practice very, very well. Then practice some more. Make sure you have played each piece well many more times than you’ve played it badly. It should feel natural and easy to play. If it feels difficult, you are not ready to perform it.
  • About 2 weeks before a performance, start pretending you’re in front of an audience as you practice. Visualize the venue and the people as you play.
  • Act confident even if you’re not.
  • Don’t take yourself too seriously.
  • Don’t have any alcoholic drinks or use non­-prescribed drugs before performing.
  • Put feeling into your music. When your mind is thus occupied, it forgets to be afraid.
  • When you can, put yourself in situations that are challenging beyond your comfort zone  –  that makes everything else seem easy.
  • Always arrive at a gig in plenty of time to relax, have a snack, tune more than once, do a lighting and sound check, and practice a bit before the audience arrives.
  • Then, sit where you can unobtrusively watch the audience for a while  –  they will then seem more familiar when you’re playing for them.
  • Before a performance, sit meditatively for several minutes and think of all the reasons you’re grateful for the opportunity to play music. (You’ll be surprised how much this helps!)
  • Hear each part of the music in your head a split second before it’s played, and hear it played beautifully  –  that way you’re choosing how it will sound, instead of waiting to see how it comes out.
  • When a difficult passage is coming up, take a deep breath and then exhale as you play it. You’ll wonder how it got so easy!

Those of us who have stage fright are in good company; Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Lawrence Olivier, and many other “stars” report being severely impacted by it. There is a story about Pablo Casals who, upon injuring his hand, was relieved to think he might never have to perform again. (His hand healed, and his career continued.)

There are prescription drugs for stage fright, which are potent and can be dangerous if used incorrectly. Beta-blockers were developed to slow the heart, so you can imagine what they could do to you if used irresponsibly. Only a doctor can advise you about them. If your career is at stake and you obtain a prescription, there is nothing immoral about using them. Why ruin a career because you refused to use something that could help?

The best cure for stage fright, however, is experience. Once you see that people aren’t going to throw anything at you or stampede the stage, it will become easier and easier.

There is more perspective on stage fright in my book Body, Mind and Music and in the book A Soprano on Her Head by the late Eloise Ristad.

Whether stage fright affects you or not, remember that you took up music for the joy of it, so have fun with it and don’t let anything seem scarier than it really is. If you truly want to share your gift with others, nothing can stop you.

Posted by: laurie689 | September 18, 2015

A New View of Performance Anxiety – Part 1

“Stage Fright”, as we often call it, is the bane of many a performer, both amateur and professional. Although some won’t admit it, a majority of performing musicians experience some form of it, from mild jitters to debilitating fear. When it’s mild, the feeling of increased adrenalin can actually help us perform well. When it’s profound, we can’t perform at all. When it’s moderate, it may make us play too fast, play inaccurately, or just not enjoy ourselves while performing.

I’ve heard budding musicians say they don’t think they are qualified to perform until they get past their feeling of nervousness or insecurity. In that case, they’ll probably never perform! It’s normal to feel some jitters before or during a performance. If you suffer from stage fright, you’re in good company.

Interestingly, very few music teachers address this issue with their students. It’s always a surprise to hear people ask about it as though it were a brand new subject. In actuality, it’s as old as the human race.

What exactly is the cause of performance anxiety? What has traditionally been done about it? What are the current and most effective ways to understand and handle it? Let’s look at each of these questions.

 The Cause

The strangest thing about stage fright is that it has no logical basis. Being anxious actually creates the situation we fear. The shaking hands can cause mistakes. The sweaty palms can make strings and keys slippery. The breathless feeling and distracted state of mind prevent focus.

So what is it that actually causes such a lack of confidence? Here’s a checklist. Before reading on, check off only what’s true for you.

I’m not confident because…

__ I haven’t practiced enough.

__ Someone said this should be scary.

__ I might make a fool of myself.

__ I’m not qualified to do this.

__ The music is too difficult for me.

__ The audience is too large.

As you can see, there are a number of reasons we can develop fear. But only a few of them are valid: if you haven’t practiced enough or the music is too difficult, those are real and can be easily fixed. All the other reasons are stabs in the dark to explain our anxiety, and probably none are true.

For instance, a large audience is no different from a small one. You’re playing for individuals  –  the same as if you were playing for one person. And by whose standards are you not qualified? And by whose judgment will you make a fool of yourself? And what authority told you it should be scary?

Actually, anxiety pops up unbidden in response to putting ourselves in situations where we feel under pressure to do what we assume is the impossible. How many times have you seen a performance that was so amazing that you had no idea how it was humanly possible and the performer must be superhuman? That’s why we call them “idols”.  But the fact is, they are human. Many have stage fright. Some make mistakes. But they excel because they refuse to let their fears run their lives.

Another factor: performance anxiety seems to crop up when we perceive we are committed to doing something that we think is at the apex of our ability. But our apex is merely what we think it is, and it may not really be the limit of our ability. (For instance, public speaking is notoriously nerve-wracking for many. But as a performing musician, public speaking is easy for me. It’s the playing of complex, difficult music that scares me  –  that’s my perceived apex  –  even though I’m a professional )

The obvious fix for this is to purposely do, and do often, things that are way above your confidence level, way beyond what you thought you could ever do (with plenty of practice, of course). If you’re scared to play for twenty people, play first for 300. If you’re scared to play two pieces of music for an audience, play six pieces.  If you are scared to play at a nursing home, play first for a wedding. Everything else will be a piece of cake for you after that.

Another way to get past stage fright is to play in public as often as possible, and is as many different situations as possible.

By the way, I think many an amateur musician doesn’t realize just how confident you need to be with a piece of music before it’s performance-ready.  If you can’t play it without feeling like it’s playing itself, you probably can’t play it on a stage.  It should be as automatic as tying your shoes. That requires a lot of practice. Don’t underestimate this!

Additional advice:

  • Release the idea of “performance” and play the music for its own sake. Show us how beautiful it is, not how good you are.
  • Know that the audience is on your side. They are there to enjoy themselves, not to judge you. If someone is judging you, that’s their problem, not yours.

There are a few people for whom experience and practice are not enough. For them, even over a lifetime of continuous performances, stage fright may actually increase. In such cases the usual logic and the usual advice aren’t very helpful, because for them there are other causative factors. Some are physical.

For instance, for those with head or inner-ear injuries or balance problems, there’s an explanation. My ENT doctor explained that the part of the brain that regulates the fear response is located next to the balance response, so it’s common for the signals to get mixed. Such people can experience unexplained anxiety in many kinds of situations, and anxiety issues increase if the balance problem worsens.  In such cases, amazingly enough, balance therapy with a qualified physical therapist can be helpful.

New Approaches

The best news is that new research has turned up some great fixes for stage fright.  First, I highly recommend this book: https://www.stagefright.com/the-stage-fright-cure-book/  by Marti McEwan. She leads excellent workshops as well.

Certain body postures have been shown to increase confidence. Some postures actually cause a release of testosterone in the body. (Women, that’s OK. We all have, and need, some testosterone.) It is the “confidence hormone”. Other postures tend to release endorphins (positive brain chemicals) that relax us.

I’m not talking about “correct” posture or anything uncomfortable! So don’t go all military. Here are a few of the postures recommended:

Before a performance:

  • Avoid any posture that makes you look or feel smaller.
  • Relax your shoulders, hold your head high, and raise your sternum comfortably.
  • Stretch out your arms like you’re embracing the universe, and hold that pose for a minute.
  • Arms akimbo: like the Jolly Green Giant. Hold it for a few minutes while imagining or actually observing the audience from an unobtrusive place.

More next time….

Posted by: laurie689 | August 28, 2015

Elements of a Successful Gig

Although there are many things to keep in mind in making a gig successful, we can think of it in two simple foundational aspects: logistics and delivery. Logistics is preparation and set-up. Delivery is the actual performance. They are of equal importance.

Logistics:

Naturally, adequate practice is ninety percent of a good performance.  If you’re unsure of or not totally confident with a piece, why perform it? Playing it only “pretty well” at home usually translates to playing it poorly on stage.  It’s a good idea to practice a piece so well that it feels like it’s on autopilot, in different tempos and in many different places such as outdoors or in front of the TV, before you perform it.

When a gig is coming up, it helps to practice in the mindset of performance by imagining yourself on the stage as you play  –  with the lighting, audience, sound system and all the accoutrements and atmosphere of performance pictured in your mind.

On the day of a performance, spend the day focused on preparing and practicing.  Concert day is all day! Doing something unrelated before a gig can make it hard to shift your focus to the performance. If significant travel is involved, do it the day before if at all possible.

Make sure you have made a contract agreement with the management or sponsor that states your needs clearly, including your arrival time, the temperature of the venue hall, provision of a quiet place to tune that is at the same temperature as the stage, when and how you will be paid, what sound equipment you will need, and so on. There’s a reason contracts are commonly used. Don’t wait until you have an experience that shows you how necessary they are!

If the performance is outdoors, make sure your contract states that in case of rain or too-hot or too-cold weather (you can state specific temperatures), an alternative indoor location is planned, or you have the option of not playing. Why take a chance on ruining your instrument (in rain or heat), or playing badly (when it’s cold) and jeopardizing your reputation? And always be sure to make shade a requirement when the gig is outdoors!

A day or two before the gig, double-check the details of your contract or agreement. Sometimes organizers will have changed certain details on a contract without pointing it out to you, and that can lead to disaster. (I almost didn’t notice one time when a sponsor changed the date!!!) Another time I showed up for a wedding a year too early! Had I done a more careful reading of the contract after it was returned from the signator I would have noticed that.

Arrive at least an hour ahead of performance time. That way you won’t have to feel rushed, and if something unexpected arises, such as a sound check problem, you’ll have time to handle it.

But  –  tune your instrument right away! You never know what else will come up, and you could run out of time for tuning the instrument later. Also, it’s a good idea to tune the instrument more than once if possible, leaving it to settle for a while in between.

After you’ve tuned, familiarize yourself with the stage and the rest of the facility. Take some time to stand or sit meditatively on the stage before the audience arrives. Decide what moods and feelings you want to create there. Relax a while and get used to the place.

Make sure the sound system is working well and the lighting is right. Most tech people will be helpful and kind. If they’re not, don’t let them intimidate you. Make sure they get it right. Your performance depends on it.

Bring your own seating if possible. The height and angle, the comfort, and what you’re accustomed to, can make a huge difference in the quality of your performance.

Do what you can to create an attractive and pleasant visual atmosphere/mood. Be sure your instrument is dusted, its stand is attractive, your seat is attractive, and you dress nicely. People do like pleasing visuals.

I like to find a spot where I can look at the audience for a while before the concert begins, maybe from the side of the stage or sitting on the stage stairs. If I can watch them for ten minutes or so, they won’t look like strangers when I  get on the stage.

Delivery­

Good delivery consists of three elements: playing technically well, playing expressively, and connecting with the audience.

Playing technically well involves using a reliable technique that is relaxing and comfortable, produces optimal tone, and enables you to play accurately.

Playing expressively is an outgrowth of having practiced enough to be confident, so you are relaxed enough to plan in each moment how you want the music to sound. This puts you “at cause of”, instead of “at effect of”, your own music. Expressively can be practiced ahead, but it can also happen in the moment as a response to the mood of the audience. I’ve expressed most of my pieces very differently in various situations.

Which brings up connecting with the audience. This is being aware of how your music is affecting them, and in turn using that information to enhance your playing. It’s a feedback loop that draws them in and also makes you perform maximally well.  Also, maintaining a pleasant demeanor, and at least looking relaxed, puts the audience at ease. Let it be fun, even if the music is serious! They are there to enjoy it.

One way to appear engaged (even if you’re actually distracted), is to shift your gaze between several different audience members in various locations around the room, looking just above their heads. This makes it look like you’re looking at people without making anyone uncomfortable.

Other considerations:

How successful you consider a gig to be might also involve how much you are paid, how much feedback you get afterward, whether you enjoyed it, and whether it leads to more gigs.

Good pay is a function of a good contract  – see that info above.

Feedback is something that requires interpretation on your part. Of course there will be those who will compliment you no matter what. Or there will be the occasional jerk who has to criticize no matter what. Don’t let anyone’s words cast a spell upon your feeling about your abilities. You can often discern when a compliment is sincere if the person gives details on what they liked about your playing. Constructive criticism should only be offered by those who are qualified, who have been asked for feedback, and who have no vested interest in putting you down. Consider the motivation involved.

Your enjoyment of the gig will tell you whether it’s the kind of gig you want to do more of. If not, ask yourself specifically what detail was not ideal for you. Then you can determine what other kinds of gigs might offer more satisfaction.

If you sell CDs at a gig, the number you sell is a direct indication of your success. I used to gauge my success on percentages: if I sold half as many CDs as there were people in the audience, that was a good sign. Sometimes I’d sell 100 percent or more. Sometimes less than 50%  –  in that case I’d try to analyze what in my performance was not up to par. Your own percentages will not necessarily be the same, but you’ll figure out what your expectations should be.

Of course, most importantly, have fun! There’s no use in performing if you don’t enjoy it. Don’t do it because someone pressured you into it or because you think it’s the only way to justify your music. There are many ways to share your music. If you do perform, be assured that it will be enjoyed by the majority who listen. You should be one of them.

Posted by: laurie689 | July 23, 2015

Why Play Music, Anyway?

Ask any number of musicians why they play music, and you’ll get a different answer from each one, ranging from, “My parents made me,” to “I can’t NOT play music  –  it’s my passion!” Assuming we want to play, what is it that drives us to pursue music? The answers are as diverse as are the people.

Have you ever experienced goose bumps while listening to music? If so, explaining passion to you isn’t necessary. Chances are it has driven you to play. If you get goose bumps while you’re playing, so much the better!

From early childhood I always knew I’d be a professional musician. Passion propelled my desire to play well, and practicing was what I wanted to spend my time doing. I probably drove my parents nuts. Why did I love music so much? Because I felt its emotions. Because it spoke more deeply to me than verbal language. Because playing music was how I was able to communicate, and I found that people would listen to my music who wouldn’t otherwise have noticed me at all. It helped me connect with the world.

In a way, music was my therapy. Many years later I would see in a Bill Moyers series, Healing and the Mind, that research had shown that the appropriate expression of all emotions (not just “good” ones) enhances the immune system. (The specific reasons for this are now taught in detail in most therapeutic music training programs.) Notice I said the expression of  –  not just the feeling of  –  emotions. Music expresses feelings as keenly as do laughter, crying, whooping it up, or screaming. When you really listen to music you can hear all those things in various pieces. It is an appropriate way to express emotions of all kinds.

But do you also put those emotions into your own playing? Many musicians are stuck in getting all the notes right above all else, forsaking music’s real purpose. It’s a worthy goal to get all the notes right; after all, that’s one thing practice is for, and since accuracy is what makes a piece musically coherent, it should not be ignored. But it’s not the end purpose of playing.

Can you remember why you started to play music? Surely you didn’t say to yourself, “I want to play music so I can get all the notes right.” Chances are you began to play because you heard some music that gave you goose bumps. If so, that wasn’t so much because all the notes were right, but because you felt the deeper meaning that was inherent either in the composition or in the expressive playing of the musician, or both. If you play expressively, you enjoy your own music far more than if you’re only trying to get it right.

I find it sad that there are musicians who use music as a merely Intellectual exercise, as though they don’t hear the beauty at all. Perhaps they really can’t. Perhaps intellectualizing is their passion, and if so, perhaps for that reason they do get as much pleasure out of playing music as any other passionate musician. That said, regarding listening, the most intellectual individual I know feels and responds to music with every cell of his body.

This discussion naturally leads into the subject of music as therapy. People tend to use music therapeutically even when they don’t realize that’s what they’re doing. We get in the car after a day of work and turn on the music because it’s relaxing or energizing, depending on the genre, and because it can either match or change our mood.  We use music as the soundtrack of our lives.

Aside from the purposely or subconsciously applied therapeutic uses of music, hearing music is like going to a play or a movie. Have you noticed that plays and movies are boring if they have no tension, no negative aspects in the story that must be overcome? That’s because we humans thrive on drama. We create it in our own lives partly because it amuses us, just like movies do. Movies simply reiterate or fantasize life; otherwise, we’d have no interest in movies! It’s the same with music. We sing those sad songs, happy songs, angry songs, celebratory songs because they entertain us by reiterating certain aspects of life. They make us feel our emotions. The brain’s emotion-producing functions can’t tell the difference between an emotion felt while being entertained and one felt due to a real life circumstance. Therefore, playing music is like being an actor. We’re creating drama in music for others to feel. If we don’t allow ourselves to play expressively, there’s little to be felt.

For those who love session playing and jamming, music is also a form of sharing with friends in a way that produces a certain kind of elation. A musical conversation takes place that can elevate the goose-bump factor to new heights.

On the other side of the coin, and equally compelling, is the ego aspect of music-playing, which isn’t so much sharing it as showing off. It’s my guess that this is a struggle for almost every musician. When we’ve worked so hard at our skills, how tempting is it to show them off? After all, why work on them if not to make them heard? So in a way, maybe showing off isn’t so bad.

I would say that developing skill is about one’s own enjoyment. If I didn’t use my best skills in a performance, I wouldn’t feel satisfied. I like to challenge myself. But I will not try to use any skills I don’t truly yet have one hundred percent! That doesn’t mean I play perfectly all the time. It means I play what comfortably challenges me that I know will come out well – unless my finger happens to slip, which can happen on even the most basic tunes anyway. So I play to share, in the hope that it will cause goose bumps, laughter, tears, outrage, and celebration, and that maybe someone in my audience will be inspired to play.

However we use music, it’s good for the brain. All you have to do is google “music and the brain” or some version of that, and you’ll come up with more information than you have imagined on how music listening and music playing affect and enhance our neurologic systems, how it makes us smarter, how it can stave off dementia, how we absorb information better when music is being played, and so on.

So, getting back to the original question  –  why do we play music anyway  –  there are many reasons. Because it’s beautiful, because it’s our passion, because it’s a way to communicate, because it gets us in touch with our emotions, because it gives us a way to challenge ourselves, because it connects us with others, because it’s therapeutic, and because it makes us smarter.  (Have I missed something? Probably.) Whatever your reason, go for it! You’ll contribute to a happier world.

 

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