The other day I witnessed a shockingly fabulous example of the mind taking control of one's talent and turning it inside-out and upside-down. One of the cellists I accompany and coach on a regular basis had been preparing for an out-of-state competition for several months. For a teenager, this event was pretty big deal; for this young dedicated, hard-working musician in particular, the competition was an extremely important goal for which she wanted to reach a new level of competency in her playing and preparation. We had been meeting for about a month up until the competition date to run through and rehearse the one piece she would have to play with piano and I can say without reservation that piece was firmly in her grasp both technically and musically well before the competition date. On the Tuesday before the big event her teacher held a special studio class for the students that would be competing and this student performed very well, although I could tell that her confidence seemed to be slipping. Then the day before she and her family were to drive to the competition she came one more time to our house, for a final run-through.
The moment she stepped through the door, I knew that her mind had decided to abandon its manners - her own personal Mind Game Olympics were in full gear. She said that things had gone alright in the beginning of the week but since then, every time she practiced, mistakes kept happening. Now she couldn't practice without crying because she didn't think she could play the piece the right way anymore. Oh how well most of us musicians know this feeling! It is complete, utter, torture! We spend hours and hours of concentrated practice, beating ourselves up, picking ourselves apart so that we can perfect our pieces only to have them fall apart on us. How can this be? I decided that running through her piece was the last thing we should do that morning and although at first she looked a little shocked, I believe I saw her relax a little bit. We started by having a conversation first. Here is approximately how it went:
"Have you practiced this piece a lot?"
"Yes." (with the teenager-tone of voice that goes along with "duh...")
"And we've been working a lot on finding careful ways to practice, right?"
"Have you performed this piece before?"
"And it went well, right?"
"Well, so where did all of that go?"
"Where did it go?"
"I don't know."
"Hmmm...interesting...I don't think it went anywhere...I think it's still there. You've just been looking too closely and you're expecting way too much."
Since we still had a lot of time left for this "rehearsal" we decided to just "play." She had started a new piece that I happen to love, Glazunov's "Song of the Minstrel," so we read through that, taking time to stop and work on some sections. I was surprised how quickly she became engrossed in the task in hand, how quickly she could let go of her competition worries, but I was relieved - it felt like the best medicine.
And now for the happy ending, the conclusion to our Mind Game Olympics...at the end of our session, the now-relaxed cellist wanted to run through a fast little technical piece that she will be performing at an upcoming concert. She said she hadn't touched it in months so she thought she should do it with piano to remind her of the piano part. She pulled out her part, smiled at me and nodded, and I started with the introduction. I should add here that by this point, we were both having a great time so the intro was played with a lot of gusto! When she came in with her fast sixteenth-note pattern, she just took off and she flew. Boy, did she fly! And she just kept flying all the way until the end. Every so often I looked up at her and when I did, she was looking at me, smiling right back. That, my friends, is a rarity in young musicians. But she was winning the Mind Game Olympics and she knew it! When we were finished she said, "But I haven't practiced it in weeks! I don't get it!!" I said, "You've practiced, you've done the time, it will be there, it will be there for a long time, because you practiced it correctly, you practiced it well...it's not just in your fingers, it is in your mind. It is the same with the Allegro Appassionato. You don't need to keep practicing that piece up until the competition. It is there. Even if you don't touch it again until your audition, you can still nail it. In fact, it might be better if you don't! Don't let your mind play games with you! You take control of your mind and in the end, it will go much better and will be even more fun, just like that piece we just played was!"
I think she got it!
I hope she got it!