My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Think again! Destroying judgemental mental tapes while performing

© max5128 -
"I can't believe you missed that!"

"What kind of musician do you think you are?"

"You don't deserve to be up here!"

"I can't believe they're paying money to hear you!"

"You should have practiced that part more!"

Sound at all familiar?  I think most musicians have had tapes like these run through their head at some point during a performance.  In my experience they can completely destroy a performance, not only for myself but also for the audience.  These tapes can pull everyone out of the music.  They make the focus on ourselves even though in those moments that's the last thing we want.

So what can we do when we make that inevitable first mistake in a performance and one of those tapes starts playing?  

In an earlier post I wrote about dealing with performance anxiety I mentioned creating an alternative, non judgemental tape to quickly turn on as soon as one of the negative ones pops up.  Mine, for instance is, "SING!"  (Yes, it needs to be capitalized.) I repeat this word over and over again until I start singing the music in my head while I'm playing.  If I'm accompanying someone, I sing their line; if I'm playing solo I sing the melody.  What I have discovered is that when I do this there's no way my mind can come up with anything else - it's too busy with the act of singing.  Whether it takes me a few measures or a few pages - heck, even a whole movement to work,  it never fails to pull me away from focusing on myself and immersed back into the music.  

In my practice session today I discovered a variation of this technique that can be nurtured in the practice room and carried onto the stage when it's time to perform.  When I am learning a new piece of music I work in small chunks, identifying from the get-go what patterns there are in the music.  The patterns can be related to harmonies, melodic movement, repeated motives...I try to make sense out of the notes on the page so that they belong together and are no longer individual notes on the page.  This makes the process of learning the notes much quicker, infuses musicality into my practicing, and gives me something to think about the entire time I'm practicing so that I don't get sucked into the land of the practice doldrums.  It prevents me from doing that mindless, rote practicing that I engaged in for so much of my life and that requires way too many repetitions to make any progress in a realistic timeframe.  It's also in those mindless practice sessions that those judgemental mental tapes can be born and developed to a harmful degree.  Our minds have to have something to do, right?  

Right.  But why not give our brains something more productive to think about.  Starting in the practice room, why not feed our brains information that we can use even when we are performing?  Distractions are inevitable when we're on stage but when I have these mental tapes I created in the practice room playing that narrate what's going on in the music it's less likely.  

If you're curious about this process I go through to learn new music, here is a video of today's practice session.  I tried to narrate my thought process as much as possible - hopefully you can pick up on some of that.

Video streaming by Ustream

Next time you find your mind not treating yourself with respect, think again!  


  1. aw...this is the same Rach prelude I learnt and it's like an old friend to me now because I'm so familiar with every note of it, and it's interesting to hear you practicing it :)
    A lot of the patterns you comment on are things I noticed too and which helped me memorise this piece.

    1. Dorothea,
      So glad it brought back some memories for you! And I'm glad I'm discovering some of the same patterns that helped you memorize it - hopefully that's a good sign that I'll be successful as well.

      Happy New Year to you!