Friday, September 12, 2008

What it is...

Student asked me "What do you do mentally and/or physically to prepare for performance?" I doubt she expected a response of this magnitude, but it's a good question, and if you give a musicologist a platform...

Here's my response.l

Both mental and physical preparation are important, of course. I’d break it down to three areas:



Mental state


Of course one wants to have a very solid and reliable command of the music that you’re going to play. If it’s pre-composed music, you want to have the notes all memorized well before the day of the performance. Ideally, I like to have the music memorized at least 10 days/2 weeks before the performance, so that the final days running up to the performance are spent in running pieces and just generally “getting in the zone.” So if I’m preparing a concerto, for example (back in the days when I played such things), I would aim to have the whole solo part memorized at least 10 days in advance, so that I could spend the final 10 days working with the accompanists or conductor, running the piece, experimenting with alternate interpretations, and so on.

In the case of improvised or by-ear music, the situation is a little different: there, you can’t necessarily “memorize” in advance—instead, you have to have played music of the same style or using the same techniques and have your skills well polished. So with this music, you just aim to spend a lot of time, prior to the performance, playing in the style or improvising over the same or similar pieces. You can’t memorize or pre-set the actual notes you’re going to play, but you can make sure you have plenty of prep-time listening to, thinking of, and playing ideas on the fly. That way, when you go into the performance situation, it won’t be unfamiliar.


Technique is another issue. I don’t tend any more to play musics of very high technical difficulty—the virtuosity in Irish music and blues is more one of subtle interpretation, phrasing, rhythm, and dynamics—but when I was (bebop, classical music, Ars Nova), I learned to set limits on the level of technical difficulty I would attempt to pull off on stage. After a number of experiences of trying to play, in concert, music that was at or near the top, 100th percentile of my technical ability—and crashing and burning—I made a self-rule that I should never try to play on stage music that demanded more than about 65% of my technical ability. That is, if the fastest I could play a bebop melody in the practice room was quarter-note = 240bpm, then I would make sure on stage to start the tune no faster than around 180bpm. If I could just manage to play the hardest 4-part Bach chorale in the practice room, I’d just an easier or 3-part piece for the concert. Great musicianship, great musical expressivity, does not emerge, it seems to me, from playing the most difficult pieces in concert. It comes from playing pieces well within your technical limits with great control, relaxation, intentionality, and expressivity. Playing simpler music more expressively is much better than playing harder music without any expression or control—and yet we’re all always tempted to play music that is too hard. I’d suggest that playing within your technical comfort zone is a much better choice.


In some ways I think mental state is the most important consideration in performance and yet it is sometimes neglected. I think many musicians only begin to think about their mental state in performance when or if problems emerge: most typically, if a musician suffers from performance anxiety. That is, if you have shortness of breath, or shaky hands, or palms sweating, or mental blanks, then you begin to ask yourself “what can I do to improve this situation?” But in fact, I think we would all be better musicians if we all asked ourselves, even when things were going well, “what is my mental state in performance and in what ways could it improve, and help me even more?” As most musicians know, “concentration” (on a performance, a composition, a paper, or even a conversation) is not something you can make yourself have—you can’t just say to yourself “Self, You need to concentrate now!” and have it improve your concentration very much. Instead, every musician ought to think about, reflect upon, and consider modifying all the factors that impact on your mental state in advance of and during a performance. What activities do you engage in? On what timetable before the performance? What do you eat? How do you warm up and get in touch with your body? What personal interactions do you have or avoid before the performance? What sorts of physical/mental/body relaxation techniques (meditation, breathing exercises, Tai Chi, yoga, prayer, stretching, etc) do you use, or could you experiment with? If you don’t have a regular pre-show mental/physical warmup, you should look around you at other musicians and see what their warm-ups might be. And even if you do have a routine warmup, you should look at the specifics of that routine, and see whether there are things you could add or modify to enhance your relaxation and concentration even more.

I’m personally a fan of two pre-performance routines, one (mostly) mental and one (mostly) physical: visualization (mental) and Tai chi breathing (physical). Visualization is especially useful if either (a) you’re prone to performance anxiety or (b) you’re having to perform something (a piece, an instrument, or a style) that you feel unconfident about. Both of those types of anxiety, in my observation and experience, result from a concern that you’re not going to be able to do what you have to do.

Visualization is a practice wherein you “visualize” (imagine in your mind’s eye) the performance environment, audience, ensemble colleagues, and visualize the performance going as well as you imagine. You do this both because it creates a sense of positive reinforcement (“yes, I can do this: I can imagine it going well and how happy I’ll be when it does”) and also because it familiarizes you wit h the psychological state you’ll experience. That way, when you do experience the heightened adrenaline, focus, intensity, etc in the performance, it will feel familiar, because you will have practiced visualizing it in advance.

Typically both relaxation and visualization work better if you couple them with some kind of well-thought-out body/breathing practice, such as yoga or Tai Chi. These practices have the benefit of involving your body and breathing, and linking healthy body usage and breathing with a positive visualization and experiential state. If, before each performance, you take a little bit of time to do the physical relaxation technique you’ve been practicing away from performances, it will help you get back to the relaxed state more reliably and confidently. It can even help you get to that relaxed state in the middle of the performance, by visualizing and practicing the same breathing as you play.

Ultimately, I think all of these techniques can be linked under the global heading of “motivation.” Why are we (you) playing this music? Is it to create beauty in the world? To help others? To express love? Remembering that, as musicians, we are conduits for something much bigger than ourselves can in turn help us take ego, nervousness, and ambition out of the equation—leaving the music. I think that’s a good goal, and that all the techniques we use to prepare for performance are actually the means to that greater end.

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