Blessed Assurance

cloud-897444_640It really isn’t enough to just be able to play the music. What we want is the confidence and control that allows us to play it, understand it, and even feel comfortable varying and modifying it on the fly. We want to be in the moment, with the music as our natural vocabulary, used in a conversation, both with the audience and with our fellow musicians.

We have all experienced this “flow” from time to time, seemingly able to calmly supervise the proceedings, unhindered by fast-moving events, panic or confusion. We can control time, at least internally, and place our ideas into this space.

How can we achieve this glorious creative trance consistently? 

I don’t think we can do this every time we perform, and even the most renowned artists often say it is a fleeting thing. That said, we can improve the odds that we will be comfortable and assured, even if we can’t expect brilliant moments every time we perform.

Let’s start with what goes wrong, and what those things mean:

  • Under-prepared: Sadly this is the obvious first issue, and all others are somewhat related to this. There are several different types of preparation, and any of these can cripple us when neglected. We will look at them below, along with some possible standards we can set for ourselves regarding practice and study.
  • Anxiety: Assuming you know the music well, this crisis can come from several sources: excessive thought, particularly repeated visualization of failure, leading to lack of trust in your preparation, or social concerns, such as “imposter syndrome.” (I’ve been through all these!)
  • Self-conscious: Related to anxiety; here we are attempting to see ourselves as we imagine others see us, complete with any scorn or disdain they might have. We seldom naturally assume everybody digs us! (At least I don’t.) For me, playing with other musicians is not usually an issue, but somehow playing for those same musicians as an audience is nerve-wracking.
  • Memory lapses: For me these manifest themselves as “blank” moments where it seems my brain has shut off completely, even after having played the passage many times. In truth, there are several issues leading to these, including the technical and emotional ones mentioned above. There is also the potential of “programmed hesitation” as an artifact of a flawed practice strategy.
  • Random digressions: Here, we have played the music many times, yet suddenly we find our hands playing some weird alternate dead-end thing that we have never played before, as if we had been possessed. This musical gibberish is seldom a good thing.
  • Panic: Slightly different than anxiety, more of an acute fight-or-flight moment rather than the simmering fear mentioned above. This often is the sum of all of the above issues, rendering us literally unable to play at all, for a moment. This has happened to me a few times when I had to start a piece; for some reason everything was gone, leaving me in the spotlight figuratively naked.


Practice Strategies

As far as preparation and technical command of our music, there are some ways we can make our playing stronger, if not “bulletproof.”

  • Study the most difficult parts first: go through the piece (or even the whole set) looking for the most challenging spots. This might sound obvious, but I have many students who insist on plowing through the whole piece every time they practice. This will build hesitation and anxiety as the tough spots loom on the horizon.
  • Refrain from full-tempo run-throughs or playing along with a recording if you are not ready. This will set you up for a “fail” and you will more easily visualize this disaster, since you just simulated it. Instead run sections and spots for a while, holding off on the full rehearsal.
  • Feel free to run passages very slowly, without concern for how soon you will achieve full-tempo. One ingredient of assurance is to have played a passage correctly a certain number of times, regardless of tempo.
  • Be able to sing the passage, even if you aren’t a vocalist. Knowing how it goes is a big part of being able to master it.
  • Find the patterns and shapes in the music; sometimes these are hidden from us when we read through casually; in most well-written music, there is a way to conceive of the ideas that helps, and others that confuse. Find the logic in the music.
  • Understand the harmony: Know the chord-changes even if you are playing a classical piece or if you are learning music by rote. You can’t speak a language unless you know the meaning of the words. Analyze the progression, the voice-leading.
  • Practice each point in the music as if it is the beginning. This is one of the main reasons I write fingerings in: it allows me to start anywhere. If you can’t start in the middle, you are not ready. This is a big one.
  • Find the transitions and hesitations and play through them. Play the end of one measure and the first beat of the next, if there is a glitch in between them.
  • For complex passages, practice them in an alternate meter. This might seem strange, but I often practice 8th or 16th-note runs that are naturally grouped in four as if they were triplets, and vice versa. Suddenly it sounds like a completely different piece, and this allows you to approach it anew.
  • Take your time: Of course, there are always deadlines and urgent last-minute gigs, but even then, the moments you are practicing have to be calm, outside of the world of time. Go at the pace you know works.

What about all that fear (and loathing?)

Unchallenged, these non-technical issues can lay waste to the best prepared gig, if they are allowed to take over your mind. Let’s take these on.

  • Avoid imagining yourself crashing and burning. It is very easy, when you make a mistake while practicing, to suddenly imagine that screw-up taking place in front of an audience. We do this in a flawed attempt to anticipate and head-off disaster. Instead, we make it more likely, and we experience all the humiliation in advance. Train yourself to come back to your practice space and out of this imaginary hell.
  • Try playing while distracted: Not a lot, but as a test of what will happen in a real situation. Use the data about what failed to guide your subsequent practice.
  • Realize that even the most admired artists are often as insecure and full of “imposter” feelings as you. It may even be that fame and adulation makes that worse. Don’t worry about elitist jerks and snobs; they are covering something up.
  • Surround yourself with people who respect you: Not always easy, since we don’t always have control over the situation, but in general, it is possible to distance ourselves from toxic individuals. Over time, our social anxiety will be reduced. Life is short; don’t spend it with people who make you feel unworthy.
  • Don’t define yourself by your lowest point. Everyone fails. When you sound the way you intend to, feel strong and smart, have time to think, this is who you are.

Finally, remember: It’s just music. Not a sport, not a war, not a fight or a contest.

What are your strategies to be confident and assured?

  • Thomas Leopard

    Wow Randy, you’ve hit the nail on the head with this. The under-prepared scenario really sets up the rest of the dominoes for the fall. It is not a good feeling performing in this situation but I’ve done it more than a couple of times. In the past I always jumped on any gig that presented itself, even if I wasn’t familiar with the songs or genre, because I felt like I was supposed to be able to pull off any musical situation. Often I’d just assume that I could review a couple of passages and then wing the rest. Sometimes it works, but most often the result is that imposter feeling. I’ve learned the hard way that it’s okay to say no to a gig rather than being on stage wishing you had. These days if I’m tasked with playing something I’m unfamiliar with I spend as much time as I can learning the changes first, then the melody if applicable (usually is), then any other instrument specific nuances . Sometimes a phone call to the gig leader or other bandmates can help too. It’s a great experience when you can take your axe and swagger to the bandstand knowing ‘you go this’!

    • Thomas Leopard

      my day job boss was coming so I misspelled ‘got’….classic