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.


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:  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.


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.


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.


Posted by: laurie689 | June 17, 2015

We Can’t Hear What’s in Your Head

Your audience can’t hear what’s in your head. They can only hear what you actually play, and that could be a good thing, or it could be not so good.

What is in your head as you play a piece of music? Is it the “soundtrack” of the first time you heard the piece played on a recording or in a session or concert? Is it your version of how the piece or song should sound? Is it your own memory of how you’ve played it in the past?

Performers need to make conscious decisions about what to hear in our heads, because it affects what comes out our fingers! But at the same time, we have to remember that no one else knows what’s running through our brains.

What’s good about that fact is that when you play notes or chords you didn’t intend to play, or even get lost in a whole alternative melody or arrangement, how would we know you didn’t intend that? You might be convinced that we all know what you know and are therefore appalled at how wrongly you played something, but really, we don’t.

We don’t unless you give it away with your body language, facial expressions and comments. If when you err, you visibly or audibly react, you’re telling us all about something we probably hadn’t noticed. If you hesitate or go back and correct those unplanned or skipped notes, you’re subjecting us to unnecessary discontinuity. If you apologize, you’re embarrassing yourself and therefore us as well.

The appearance that many professionals give of playing perfectly is only that: appearance. Often what they are doing is using unplanned notes as inspirations to create variations and improvisations. The ability to do so is a result of the confidence borne of adequate practice and of knowledge beyond just how to play the right notes. Music is so much more than the right notes.

I know many people who, when they play something unexpected or miss a note, think they have failed. They have put themselves in a prison of their own making. What a shame. Music can’t be perfect, but it ought to be gratifying to play (otherwise, why play it?). We can allow ourselves that joy in playing by giving ourselves permission to play with more freedom. Despite our best efforts we all make mistakes, but if we treat errors as opportunities for variation and improv, we experience less stress and more gratification.

If you make some errors, who cares? You are the one who gives the clues about how important it is. If you’re ashamed of errors, the audience will be embarrassed for you. But if you ignore errors, they will also ignore them (unless there is an occasional jerk who thinks it’s his duty to point it out to you later. In that case, consider the source and don’t take it personally). And if you good-naturedly laugh off the errors that stand out like the feathers on a cat’s chin, the audience will laugh as well.

So… what’s the flip side of this? The negative aspect of the fact that an audience can’t hear what’s in your head is that many musicians never stop running in their head the first arrangement or recording they heard of the piece, or are “hearing” an idealized version of the piece, and don’t realize it isn’t how they themselves sound. All the audience gets is what they actually hear.

One of the most common examples I can think of is someone who learns a tune/piece they’ve heard someone else do well, and assumes that their being able to play the notes means it sounds just like what they originally heard. It doesn’t. It can’t. Every musician is an individual and you will, no matter what, sound like yourself. We must hear our own music. We must assess what we actually sound like.

When you play something, be sure you’re creating a piece that has structure, context and content, even if it’s as simple as a single-line melody. It doesn’t have to be complex. But you do well to hear it with the audience’s ears. They can’t fill in the chords or choose between several random notes to figure out which were the right ones. If you don’t use those random notes (mistakes) creatively to make some kind of structure, the audience can’t discern any structure, and structure is the key to understanding and integrating a piece of music. Pretend you meant it, use it well, and move on. Like the famous cat Haiku:

Grace personified

Leaps into the window pane

I meant to do that.

To reiterate: how do you reconcile between the first idea (they can’t hear what you intended and that’s good) and the second idea (they can’t hear what you intended and that’s not good)? Practice, practice, practice… and learn to play with the freedom of someone who knows their music structures well, so you can improvise around errors, yet play well enough to make a piece sound like a cohesive entity. It’s not difficult; even beginners can do this.

We can’t hear what’s in your head. Use that fact to your advantage! You’ll be a happier musician.

Posted by: laurie689 | April 30, 2015

Music Changes the Brain

In the last twenty years or so it has come to our attention that there is researched proof that music positively affects how our neurology develops. Humans are musical beings and have always used music for entertainment, ritual, and mood enhancement. Now science is beginning to be able to tell us why it is so important to our well-being and our brain health.

It’s a shame that music has largely been removed from our public schools because it is deemed unnecessary. Current science, however, says otherwise. Researcher and neuropsychologist Ani Patel, associate professor of psychology at Tufts University and author of Music, Language, and the Brain, says “there’s now a growing body of work that suggests that actually learning to play a musical instrument does have impacts on other abilities,” including speech, understanding emotions in vocal inflection, and even multi-tasking. “This could have a real impact on the value we put on it as an activity in the schools, not to mention all the impact it has on emotional development, emotional maturity, social skills, stick-to-itiveness, things we typically don’t measure in school but which are hugely important in a child’s ultimate success.”

At Boston Children’s Hospital, research is being done on how music-learning affects language development. PET scans show that musically trained children and professional adult musicians have “…more activation in prefrontal areas of the brain compared to their peers”.

There are several different neurosystems involved in learning and playing even a simple musical piece: the auditory system, motor system, executive function system (decision-making), and so on. Patel states, “There’s overlap between the networks that process music and the networks that are involved in other day-to-day cognitive functions such as language, memory, attention and so forth… music sometimes places higher demands on the brain, on some of the same shared networks that we use for other abilities.” Music learning and playing enhance those networks.

Yunxin Wang, a researcher at the State Key Laboratory of Cognitive Neuroscience and Learning at Beijing Normal University, examined the brains of 48 youths between 19 to 21 years of age who had studied music at least one year between the ages of 3 and 15. After controlling for gender and the amount of time they had been learning/playing music, she found that those who had been playing since before age 7 had significantly better developed language and executive functions.

It has also been found by researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden that after a stroke or other negative neurologic impact, beginning music-learning enhances one’s ability to recover lost functions.

Musical study also affects how our personalities develop. Through cooperative music study such as school orchestras, students learn to work well with others. Through inevitable failures, students learn how to achieve a goal through persistence. Through experiencing such successes, they gain self-esteem. They learn to interpret and express ideas in new ways. They learn that hard work and dedication are more productive than raw innate ability.

What a shame that music has largely been cut from public education. How many young people will grow up with less cognitive and functional ability because they were not given the opportunity to learn to play music? We have no way to measure what the difference could have been for any given individual.

But we can still learn music-playing as adults, and those who do can vouch for its beneficial effects. Fingers stay more limber, the brain more “plastic” (able to learn on a broad scale); we retain memory better, we track conversations better, and of course we derive a lot of enjoyment from our increasing ability to make beautiful music if we stick with it. Not to mention the wonderful camaraderie of playing music with friends.

Music, by the way, is a language. It is learned and processed in the same way as the spoken word, because it contains the same elements: tone and pitch, manipulation of a specific body part or parts to make the necessary sounds, vocabulary, memory, intention, and communication. What we communicate in music tells a story or elicits an emotion, just as any language does. With this in mind, I’ll cite a study done years ago that is commonly referred to as The Nun Study:

The study was published by the journal Neurology and suggested that people with sophisticated linguistic skills can avoid developing dementia in old age, even if their brains show the physical signs of memory disorder such as Alzheimer’s. This long-term study 600 nuns in Minnesota, done by Dr. David Snowdon, uncovered a correlation between the nuns’ language skills and the likelihood that they would develop Alzheimer’s later in life. The young nuns who had sophisticated language skill, defined as the density of ideas per every 10 written words, turned out over time to be significantly less likely to display symptoms of Alzheimer’s or dementia fifty or more years later.

I believe there was an added component: not only the language skills they started with, but the fact that they were teachers who constantly used those skills through teaching far into old age, keeping those neurons firing. I tend to think that this constant usage was the more likely factor in retained brain plasticity. Like practicing a musical instrument every day.

What’s the upshot of all of this? Don’t let your music slide. Keep playing. Don’t just play what you already know all the time. Keep learning. Keep challenging yourself. Your brain will be happier for it.


-for more info on this and related subjects, see my book Body Mind and Music, available on the books page of this site.

Posted by: laurie689 | March 28, 2015

Are You Teaching Your Students How to Learn?

In a typical music lesson scenario, a student arrives, tunes his or her instrument, sits down, opens a book, plays the material assigned from the last lesson; the teacher critiques, offers pointers on technique (or not), and makes the next assignment. There may be instruction in music reading relevant to the material they are working on. Teaching methods are aimed toward meeting certain goals and standards. The vast majority of lessons are all about learning repertoire and how to play it to the teacher’s satisfaction. Of course, repertoire at increasing levels of challenge teaches skill.

Music teachers may be academy-trained or may be professional performers (in any genre) who also teach, and in either case some are good teachers, some are terrible, and some are in between, no matter how well trained they are. Some are quite flexible and creative, but many more are formulaic. Students can have rather unpleasant experiences. Often, the more painful the teacher’s own learning experience was, the more inflexible they are. They have a huge investment in that method being correct; after all, all that pain had to be for something, right?

In the teach-learn relationship there tends to be too much focus on the teaching end rather than the learning end. If the pupil can meet the teacher’s expectations, all is good. If the pupil cannot, the pupil is considered to be at fault and must face the drudgery of being forced to adhere to the method or is rejected as “not suitable.”  We fault the pupil, not the teacher.  Even when the learner is making an effort, we still assume that every student must adapt to the way the information is presented or be left behind.  Where is the sense of that?  Ignoring the learning part of the teach-learn dynamic, by ignoring the real goal  –  which is finding a way for the student learn what they hope to learn  –  is leaving a lot of potential talent untapped.  The key is that each person learns a different way, and there is no wrong way.

What every new musician wants to know is how to learn. Not just this tune and that tune and this technique. But any tune and many techniques. Of course we have to teach responsible skills, and of course students want repertoire. But we can offer so much more. A truly great teacher can offer instruction that gives a student wings to fly on their own.

First, helping a student feel successful and building up self-esteem is perhaps the most important thing we can do. And we can show them how to observe, to focus, to practice effectively, to access information, to experiment, to be creative, to improvise, compose, play with other musicians, perform well, and even how to surpass the teacher’s skills if possible. We can give them a foundation for the confidence and ability to be turned loose in the world of music and discover what makes a true musician. Every bird raises its chicks to leave the nest one day.

We can teach to a student’s strengths. Observe what their best method of learning is rather than teaching only from our method: you may be a tactile learner but the student may be a visual learner; you may be an aural learner but your student may be a spatial one. As teachers it’s our responsibility to know and use all the ways of learning.

Here are just a few horizon-expanding things we can consider offering our students:

  • Teach basic music theory. Not the kind that’s done on a blackboard, but the kind that relates directly to their instrument and their music. Teach it without paper first! Music theory isn’t about how to read music; music-reading is just an outgrowth of theory. Theory is about how music is structured: relationships between notes (frequencies) and how they interact with each other and with beat and rhythm and tempo and how to use those essential structures to create music or to understand how others create it.
  • Teach more than one technique/method. There’s always more than one equally right way. Focus on whichever one is best suited to the individual.
  • Encourage the student to listen to others’ interpretations of each piece they learn. This will show them that interpretive freedom is up to the player.
  • Encourage them to know each tune’s history, and its lyrics if it is a song. The proliferation of online information makes this easy. It gives a perspective on how the tune can be interpreted and the meaning of its title (which is not always what it appears to be).
  • Encourage the student to learn the deep cultural aspects, uses and nuances of the genre they are learning. Music cannot be understood when it is devoid of its cultural “clothing”.
  • Encourage students to create their own arrangements. Teach them basic theory so they can!
  • Show them how to create musically emotive statements, as opposed to just the dots and bars on the page, so they can play expressively.
  • Encourage the student to learn to sing or hum the melody before learning to play it. This greatly enhances retention of the music.
  • Encourage memorization. This enhances expressive possibility.
  • Teach them how to practice effectively.
  • Teach them to understand rhythm and to develop a physical sense of it in several esperiential ways: movement, counting, vocalizing, etc.
  • Teach the importance of breathing!
  • Encourage experimentation, improvisation and creativity.
  • Teach them how to compose their own music.
  • Provide opportunities for every student to play with other musicians.
  • Provide performance opportunities and teach stage skills.
  • Encourage every student to seek out more than one teacher and to absorb what they can successfully use from each.

No one knows everything, so no teacher can offer everything. But you can offer the tools that will open the door to your students to the potential of unlimited learning.


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