Autopilot v. Adrenaline: The practice paradox.


Does your best playing tend to translate from your practice room to your lesson? How about a performance? I’ve struggled with this a lot through countless auditions, recitals, and ensemble performances. I thought I’d share some things I’ve learned about translating my practice room abilities to my on-stage abilities.


1. Adrenaline will happen.


This is something we are sometimes told not to accept. To try to breathe and “relax.” I don’t know about you, but I definitely don’t think I’m ever fully relaxed during a performance. I don’t necessarily thing I should be either. Let’s break this down a little bit further:

What happens when adrenaline decides to show up?


Pule increases, as does breathing

Dry Mouth

Sweaty/cold hands

Sometimes shaking


Sometimes we conflate these symptoms with anxiety and nervousness. We owe it to ourselves to take responsibility for knowing that these physical symptoms are going to happen. Now we just have to deal with them. Instead of viewing these physical sensations as bad, what if we labeled it “energy”? Adrenaline causes a noticeable increase in strength and performance, as well as heightened awareness. When we talk about it in these terms it almost doesn’t seem so bad.


2. Have a plan.


Since we already know that our mind is working overtime during a performance, we need to take this into account. We need to have a mental plan for our performance. Do you know exactly what you’ll be focused on at any given part of your performance? If the answer is no, your mind has room to wander, and wander it will given your heightened awareness.

Some things I’d suggest:


> Plan your breaths, vibrato, and phrasing. And write them all in your music. We are primarily visual animals so giving your brain a visual to latch on to is going to be so extremely key.

> Know how you are going to accomplish these breaths, vibrato, and phrasing physically. If we don’t know where we need to be physically (when we are producing adrenaline!) our mind goes straight to some drama: “I really hope this note comes out….”

> Be so occupied with what you have to do (your plan) that you don’t have time to think: Who’s in the audience? Man it is cold on stage, I basically have frost bite now. I wonder if anyone can see my right leg shaking… ugh I should have worn flats. — Give your hyperactive fight-or-flight mind some things to do.



3. Rethink the run-through.


Often we go on auto-pilot in our practice rooms. Do you ever find yourself at the end of a page, etude, or movement not knowing how you got there? I know I have. When our mind isn’t present when we are practicing, be sure (due to your adrenaline) it will show up to the performance. Do you ever say you’re going to do a “run-through”? I find myself saying, “Oh, I’m just going to run-through this piece.” I have realized recently that saying to myself, “I’m going to perform this piece,” effects my mentality differently.


Some ways to be present in your practice:


> Be physically aware. If we don’t know what our body is supposed to be doing, we won’t know where to direct all of that super strength our adrenaline gives us. This helps us to be more present and in the moment.

> Record yourself and practice your mental plan. Write down your results, what worked what didn't? Do you need to change the plan? Are there holes where you realize you don’t have a plan? Notice when your mind wanders. Awareness is the first step. I used to only be able to go a few measures before my mind would pull an Irish goodbye and leave the party without me realizing it at all.

> Practice performing. Have your family, friends, strangers, or pets come listen to you practice your performance. Then record how it went and what your mindset was going into the performance. We tend to forget how things really went when we try to do recall it the next day. Think of it as an experiment.


We have control over whether we choose to frame adrenaline as a “good” or “bad” thing. It will probably happen because we really care about our performances/lessons/rehearsals. If I am playing an audition for a job I really want, or a recital full of repertoire I care about, chances are I will not be relaxed. Adrenaline will kick in and when it does I know I’ll be ready.


Best of luck on all of your future performances, on stage and in the practice room.

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