Updated: Mar 19, 2020
Let’s say you have to start on an F# above the staff at a soft dolce dynamic at the beginning of a piece. How does this make you feel? Anxious? Unsure of whether it will come out? I have heard a lot of squeaky pinched high notes for this reason. We usually think its just a physical motion and our thoughts don’t have anything to do with it, it’s just a hard note. Our thoughts have everything to do with it.
Think about this note and you’re in a lesson or a recital (performance setting). What if your self-talk is: I really hope this comes out...Pretend for a moment that you are actually about to play that note to start said recital and that is your thought. What does your body do? How does that thought make your body feel? Mine feels tense, my chest gets tight and so does my throat. Even before your note comes out your feeling is setting you up for a risky performance.
The possible outcomes:
1: The note comes out (thank goodness!), but it is pinched and sound restricted, not the beautiful note that came out in your practice room yesterday.
2: The note doesn’t come out, confirming your worst fears and in a small way feeding the negative self talk by proving your doubts right (real talk).
There’s no scenario three in this case. Unless... you think another thought! You could choose to think: I am so excited to play with a beautiful open sound. Now, how does that make your body feel? For me, my shoulders go down and I take a big open inhale. I feel open and less closed off in my chest. Now, I know how to get the note out because I have played an F# above the staff many times. If you practice and choose to think this thought, this is what can happen:
Your throat and lungs are working together as your windpipe is open and unobstructed. Your support does its job because there is nothing pinching off the air in your mouth or embouchure. Result: You play with a beautiful open sound.
These are little thoughts we sometimes don’t even realize we are thinking. This is just a small example of one aspect of our playing that we’ve all stressed about at one time or another. However, if you do have to start a recital on a “stressful” note, and you do it unsuccessfully, how does that impact the rest of the recital? How would playing the note beautifully impact the rest of the recital? Of course I mean for ourselves, the audiences will forget it happened in about a minute and a half. Our thoughts create feelings whether we are aware of it or not. A big part of the process of performing is to know what to think when, and how to get back on when your thoughts fall off.
Our thoughts about ourselves in the practice room are just as important. Practicing on autopilot is extremely dangerous if you’re preparing for a performance for just this reason. Without very conscious and planned thought process, your mind will race in a performance. You won’t be able to focus as easily because you haven’t been focusing in your practice. Choosing thoughts that will have your desired result is extremely important, and then to practice those thoughts.
How we perceive how a performance went is entirely based on what we think and how we feel in the moment. If you are being hyper critical and focusing on the errors during the performance, that is what you will remember. Have you ever listened back and thought: well that wasn’t actually so bad...? Our thoughts are extremely powerful. To give another example I have had students who claim they just can’t play with the metronome.
Let’s pretend you’re an advanced student who thinks and believes they can’t play with the metronome, a skill essential to having good rhythm and being a good musician. How is that thought going to make you feel? Guilty? Sad? Frustrated? Probably. Are you then going to take action and power through the guilt and sadness? Probably not. You’ll probably avoid it. Then what is the result? You still can’t play with the metronome. Our thoughts and results are directly linked. Next time you pick up your instrument or decide not to use the tuner or the metronome, observe your thoughts and feelings. Ask yourself, are these thoughts serving me?
What could you think instead?
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