I promise not to do this very often, but I just read a blog post that perfectly captures my views about freedom and liberties when making classical music. This post says it so eloquently that I can’t resist linking to it. Here’s a very short quote from the article:

“You can’t craft every second of the plan – you can’t know in advance exactly how you are going to present any given note or phrase. It could be that a colleague tosses you a turn in an unexpected way, and you choose to respond to that. It could be that the audience is giving you a particular energy and you need to wake them up, or calm them down. It could be just how you are feeling in the moment – different for whatever reason than in your last performance, or practice session.”

This is from Jennet Ingle’s blog, ProneOboe. There is a lot of great stuff there, and I highly recommend it!

So for today’s installment in the series, I promised we would explore this idea of playing completely without fear. “But wait…” you’re saying “…you just got through telling us how fearful you are when you play.” And that is absolutely true – under certain conditions. But there have been several times in my life when I truly played my ass off. In those couple of instances, I somehow reached an entirely new place, where I was completely without fear (and perhaps even ego). For now, let me just say that in those moments, I not only played at what I thought was 100% of my capability – I played well beyond it. I was actually amazed at my own playing. There are already terms for these kinds of experiences in the literature, and my favorite one is “peak experience”. Right now I just want to describe these events to you, and afterwards let’s talk about what conclusions we can draw from them, and what they suggest for the future.

I have had several of these experiences. Two of the times I was playing jazz when this has happened, and they were both essentially the same, so let me just describe the first time. I was actually a pretty young jazz player – I had only been studying jazz on my own for maybe 6 or 7 years – but I was really steeping myself in jazz. I listened to jazz in every free moment, and I really was a huge fan of “hard bop.” (Think of Hank Mobley, Donald Byrd, Pepper Adams, Lee Morgan, Wynton Kelly.) So on this particular night, I was just sitting in a club where a local group of guys were playing, and the rhythm section was really tight, so I asked to sit in, and they let me. I don’t even remember what we were playing, but when I started to play my solo, all of a sudden I was completely checked out. I couldn’t see anything. It wasn’t that everything went black. It was like I had never ever seen anything in my life and there was no such a thing as seeing. I guess maybe if you’ve been blind since birth, that’s what it would be like. I don’t know, but there was no visual stimulus of any kind, and I wasn’t even thinking to myself “Hey the lights just went out”. Also (and maybe more importantly) I wasn’t thinking about the music or the chord changes or what the rhythm section was doing either. I could kind of hear myself playing, but it felt like it was actually someone else playing instead of me. I couldn’t feel my body, my hands, my sax, my breathing, nothing. It felt like I was just listening to the music, or I was actually becoming the music, like I was the music. I wasn’t first hearing a melody and then trying to execute it on the sax by hearing intervals – it was just happening! I wasn’t worried about the fact that I couldn’t see anything, or feel anything. I wasn’t worried about playing wrong notes. It was just a state of pure being, and I wasn’t aware of anything you would call a “self.” There was literally no desire or fear. It was a state of perfect contentment. I didn’t even desire to know what was going on, nor was I concerned about how I got “here” or what I needed to do to stay in that state. It just was. (For the record, there were no drugs involved !) Anyway, when the solo came to a logical stopping place, it was just over, and I was standing there with my horn, and everybody was staring at me and smiling and clapping like “Wow man, what the heck did you just play!” and I knew it was the best I’d ever played in my life. Ever. I had never played that well. I had never played even close to that well. It was sublime, amazing, and I have been trying to get back to that place ever since.

Now what is most important to me about this is not necessarily the relatively unusual experience of being disembodied (although there are things to be learned from that). What is most important is that this experience showed me how good I can really play. If you’d asked me at the time, I would have said my playing was usually in that 50-60th percentile of my capabilities, and I occasionally got near 100%. After that experience, it was quite clear to me that what I thought of as 100% was actually about 60%, and there was a whole world of better playing inside me – if only I could tap into it. 

You may be saying “This is all well and good for the jazz player, because it’s all in your head, but as a classical player, I have to keep my eyes on the music because of all the notes, and the articulations, and I have my music marked up with a billion little scribbles and they all help me play the piece better.” Well I would like to put a little perspective on that, because I actually had a similar experience in a classical setting, and it surprised me as much as it will you.

I was a couple semesters into my woodwind degree, and I was still playing tenor sax as my primary instrument. I decided to do an audition for a military band on tenor sax, and it was coming up quickly, so I picked an easy piece – a Handel adagio and allegro that was originally for oboe, but had been arranged for alto by Eugene Rousseau. I was in a hurry to put the thing together, and the audition was unaccompanied so I just decided to play it on tenor, knowing I’d be in the wrong key. I practiced for about a week and then went to the audition. As I began to play for the judges, things felt really good, and the adagio felt really musical and natural. It goes attacca into the allegro, which starts out with an eighth note theme, which turns into a fugue, and the oboe/sax eventually gets all the running sixteenth notes. Man, this thing felt great as I played, and I could almost feel two distinct parts of me – one being the part that was concentrating on the music and feeling all the feedback from my instrument, but there was another part of me that was kind of “outside” me, thinking about how great this all felt, and how the entire piece was structured, and how the “now” part fit into the overall piece. I was really in the groove. And then this weird thing happened. I was in the middle of some of the diddly-fast sixteenth notes when all of sudden my fingers were playing something else – but it was really good! Somehow my fingers played about one measure of new material, and then segued right back into the sixteenth notes that were on the page as if nothing had happened. It sounded like it was written that way. Not only that, but this “outside” part of me heard it, and loved it. I could feel the “outside” part of me thinking “Wow, that was cool, and I’m not sure exactly what happened, but I don’t have time to stop and think about that now!” I finished the piece, and I knew it was another one of those “peak experiences” albeit in a little bit shorter version. 

To this day I find this experience fascinating, and I have to wonder if there weren’t people playing in baroque times who had this same kind of experience as they created ornamentations and variations, all instantly synthesized from their vast knowledge and experience of playing. So classical musicians, if you think this topic about fear and performance anxiety is not about you – think again!

This post is getting long, so for now, let me make a few observations about these events, draw a few conclusions about how/why these things happened, and then propose a few ideas on how we can start to drop the barriers that keep us from playing like this every time – that keep us from reaching our full potential as musicians. 

What was my mental state during all of these situations?

First, I was in a state of complete enjoyment. I was having a great time! There was, in all three of these events, enough separation of my mind so that part of it could look “down” on what I was doing and just listen and enjoy it. In the more extreme cases, it really was an “out of body” experience. I’m not saying it has to be like that all the time – but there is a component here of enjoyment that must be present. (Instead of me dwelling on this topic, I will point you to a great book that does a great job of describing this: Mental Toughness Training for Sports: Achieving Athletic Excellence by James Lohr.)

Second (and this is where we will focus during the rest of this series), I was in a state of complete acceptance. I wasn’t in any way worried about what was going to come out of my horn. In the first case, I didn’t know a single person in the room, and I was in a city where I was visiting. No serious consequences if I screwed up, right? But at that audition there were serious consequences to screwing up. There was a lot of money riding on that audition, and it was big deal. I really needed that gig and that money. But somehow, in that moment, that concern was completely gone. Now I want to be clear – I’m not talking about a feeling of exasperation, of throwing your hands up and saying “Oh well,my playing is gonna suck and there’s just nothing I can do about it.” By acceptance, I mean a complete lack of fear. I can truly say that in all the instances I described above (and really, all the times in my life where I really nailed it) fear of how I would play, or how I would be perceived, or losing money or employment – really any fear at all – were completely gone from my mind.

So maybe you believe me now? I hope you do. I truly believe that (assuming you’ve mastered the technique of your instrument) the path to great playing – the kind of playing that really moves people – lies in conquering the mental problems that keep us from reaching our potential. Remember, your best playing is much better than you think.

In the next installment, we’ll talk about how to identify our fears, because you have to first identify your fears before you can face them and eliminate them. Now I know this sounds stupidly easy, but it can be really difficult, and it requires some real soul-searching, so we will spend an entire post talking about it. We will also examine some resources that may help you with this process. I hope you’ll join me next time. As always, I would love to hear your thoughts and comments.

So, in the first installment of this series, I gave you some of my musical background, and explained that I have not been happy with my performances during my recent degree program in woodwinds. Yes, this was in one sense unfamiliar turf for me, but in general, I should have played better. And it is clear to me that simple nervousness had somehow come back into my playing, despite many years of comfort and fun playing music in jazz and commercial music. During my recitals, I’ve been uncomfortable, nervous, sweaty, worried about how I’m going to sound, and generally had trouble concentrating. I’ve read plenty of material and tried plenty of techniques to calm my nerves, but none of them seem to have significantly helped my playing in the field of classical music.

Now I don’t want to discount the many resources that are out there on performance anxiety. Many of them are extremely good and can genuinely help you calm your body and mind. But in general, I find that most of them do not address the root cause of performance apprehension and nervousness. To me, most of them seem to be addressing only the symptoms of a deeper problem. Yes, it is helpful to utilize techniques that slow your pulse, or stop sweating, or that help you focus your mind on the task at hand (or even the whole experience of making music and sharing that with the audience) or that help you build your body strength and flexibility so they can better resist this onslaught of unproductive physical manifestations.

Yes, folks. I am scared. Look at that list. I am literally filled with fear when performing music. After 3 ½ years of studying classical music, I finally figured it out.

But in my analysis of my own playing, it seems quite clear to me that there is one single, unifying issue that causes these symptoms in me, and that cause is fear. Yes. Plain and simple: fear. When I play classical music, I am scared. I am scared to play badly. I am scared that people will think I suck. I am scared to get a bad grade or fail the recital. I am scared that my hours and hours of practice and research on these pieces will be wasted. I am scared I will disappoint my accompanist. I am scared that I will have wasted my money on these years of school. I’m scared that my massive monetary investment in instruments will have been wasted. I’m scared the performance will be so bad that the recording will not be of any use to me when I’m looking for a job. 

So you are probably asking yourself “But how, if this is true, did you manage to play for so long without manifesting that fear in your playing?” Well it’s clear to me that I never truly got rid of this fear. I have always had it. It didn’t just come back during this degree. I simply got good enough that a bad performance was just a very low probability. In other words, I got good enough that I could stop thinking about it. But the fear was always there – it was just not “at the surface” when I played.

This realization, in conjunction with my past experience, has led me to an amazing set of conclusions that are real breakthrough concepts for me. At this point in my life, I feel very strongly that getting rid of fear is perhaps the most important thing I can do, not just for my playing, but for my overall enjoyment of life and quality of living. In the next few entries in this series, I would like to explore fear – how it works negatively in our lives, especially in our music – and then I want to explore some ideas about how we can eliminate fear, and finally, what the positive consequences are (for our playing as well as our personal lives) as we identify and eliminate our fears.

But before I sign off, I need to say one more thing… A lot of you reading this are probably fabulous players already, and perhaps you’re reading this and thinking to yourself:

  • “I’m not scared when I play.”
  • “I play great already – I don’t need this.”
  • “I have such-and-such degrees in music; I’m not afraid to play. I don’t need this.”

If that’s you, I would challenge you to stay with me and continue reading this series. You may still have a lot of fear for which you have found coping mechanisms that allow you to play really well. But those may only work under a specific set of conditions. The wrong conditions could happen to you some day, when you least expect it. Worse yet, you don’t even know what those conditions are, so you can’t plan for them. I don’t think it’s enough to just compensate for your fears. I think the permanent solution is to eliminate them. Then, when the unexpected happens, you are still okay, still having a great time, and still playing great. 

Not only that, I think if you can find and eliminate these fears, I am willing to bet you will find yourself playing better than ever thought you could play. In the next installment in this series, we will explore this state of playing, where you are completely without fear, and what it is like, and what the implications are for your performing. 

You can click here to jump to the next installment in the Fear Series.

 

A few weeks ago I gave my final recital for my master’s degree (Woodwind Performance and Pedagogy) and it has really forced me to think deeply about my playing. I was pretty unhappy with my playing, and was actually kind of surprised I didn’t play better, especially considering how long and hard I’ve been working on the music.

But it was not just this recital. Generally speaking, I haven’t been very happy with many of my public performances during this degree program. Although my latest recital had some very good moments, I would have to say that overall, it was somewhere around the 30 to 40 percentile of what I was capable of doing – as evidenced in my own practicing and rehearsals. And thinking back about my other degree recital (and even my candidacy audition) I would say this is about how good they were too. So lately I’ve been asking myself “Why am I not playing up to my potential?” Especially since I’ve played in plenty of high-pressure situations and acquitted myself well.

Let me take a step back and give you some history about me. When I was a teenager, performing used to really freak me out. I never played solos back then. I was just another member of the band, sitting there with dozens of other people around me. But before a concert, I would get really nervous. I would get jittery, and sick to my stomach, and I usually would even got diarrhea before the concert. (Sorry to be so gross, but it’s the truth.) I hated that feeling, but I loved being in band and playing my instrument, so I soldiered through it, every time. One time, when I was a junior in high school, I tried out for an honor band. It was my first time to ever really audition for anything. I was supposed to play the first movement of the Creston. Wow, what a bad move! I could not possibly have understood the emotional content of that kind of music back then, much less executed the technical passages of it. I was scared out of my mind, and I completely fell apart in that audition. It was terrible. I was a basket case, and I went home really downtrodden that day.

In fact, thinking back on that day, I can say that my terrible performance that day led directly to me choosing a career outside of music, and of all the dumb things I ever did in my life, perhaps the biggest one was going to the Air Force Academy (but don’t worry – I’m not gonna bore you with all that stuff.) Suffice it to say that for the next 11 years, I pursued my musical passion outside of my job. Jazz was my favorite kind of music, so I bought books and practiced it on my own, and took every opportunity I could to play jazz with others. I would still get nervous, but I was determined to conquer it, and I gradually lost my nervousness as I became a better and better player. As I lost the nervousness, I found that my public performances stopped being in the 30th percentile, and started to average more like 50th or 60th percentile regularly, with the occasional really good performance.

I was playing well enough that I decided I might actually be able to make a career playing music, so I got out of the Air Force and went to the University of North Florida, where I got a Bachelor’s in Jazz Studies in 1999. During my time there, my jazz got a lot better, my comfort/confidence level really shot up, and I started playing in real professional situations. Although I was feeling very confident in my jazz/commercial playing, it also became quite clear to me that I was not going to be the next Coltrane, and I didn’t have a career as a jazz soloist waiting for me. There were plenty of younger players who were much better than me, but they were really scuffling. So I took a short time to study jazz composition, and shortly after that, an opportunity came up for me to start working in computers and technology, so I took it. I continued to play jazz and commercial music though, and had some great experiences with groups like The Four Tops.

When I divorced in 2008, I moved back to Mississippi just to take some time off and push the reset button on my life. (I’d been married for 16 years.) But a funny thing happened. My passion for music was really reignited. Within a week of getting back here, I was in the pit with a little theatre, trying to remember how to play clarinet and flute! I was having such fun, and the computer thing had gotten pretty dull. I decided I would get a master’s degree in theory and hopefully teach in a Mississippi community college. Once I started school, it became clear that I really enjoyed the playing so much, it only made sense for me to follow my passion all the way, so I switched into the woodwind degree that I’m just now finishing.

So it really was kind of a shock for me to find myself nervous and anxious before my performances here. The first few times I assumed it was just nerves due to the new type of challenge I was facing with classical music. But now, three years later, after yet another disappointing recital, it’s really clear to me that this issue of performance anxiety is still with me after all these years and plenty of successful, perfectly good performances.

So what is really going on here? I’ve read plenty of material about performance anxiety over the years, been to clinics, read books and web sites on this, but none of these things has ever done more than give me a marginal bit of help. According to some of these people, I should be able to just take a few deep breaths and fix this, or maybe do some yoga, or meditate or contemplate my navel. Not that these things aren’t useful – they can be very helpful – but how could I have defeated this problem only to have it come back? If I truly defeated it, then how could it come back, and why now? Or maybe I never really defeated it at all, and there is something deeper going on.

These are the kinds of questions I’ll be addressing in the upcoming posts in this series. I believe I have some answers to these questions, and some prescriptions of what I need to do to work out these problems. I hope you will join me on this journey, and I think you may find it worthwhile, even if you think you’ve already conquered this problem.

You can click here to jump to the next installment in the Fear Series.