One of the most frustrating, dissatisfying feelings you can have as a musician is when your performance falls far short from your potential. After you’ve prepared adequately, played well in the practice room, and in rehearsal, you come to your performance with positive expectations.
When it does go well, it’s the best feeling in the world. You’re exhilarated, inspired and deeply satisfied. When it doesn’t, it can completely de-energize you, leaving you full of doubt and consternation.
Why do performances go badly even though you’ve prepared well for them? Well, some of the reasons might seem far out of your control: One or more of the other performers was just “off’ that night. You couldn’t find a suitable, stable reed for your instrument. The sound on stage was a nightmare. The chairs were terrible. The audience was unappreciative….the list goes on.
But here’s something to consider: The main thing that determines how well you will play during any given performance is how you are reacting, moment to moment, to the stimulus of performing music.
Think about it. Even the things you have no control over (such as the other performers, your equipment, the stage lighting, etc.) often make you play poorly because of how you deal with them.
For sure, playing next to somebody who is perpetually sharp or flat does not make it easy for you to sound your best.
But what do you do in these situations? How do you react to the stimulus of this musician’s poor intonation? Do you find yourself getting angry and tensing up? Do you become frustrated? Do you begin to doubt your own intonation? Do you start stiffening your neck as you pull your shoulders up toward your ears? What happens to your breathing?
Even issues of performance anxiety affect how you play, not because of what you feel, per se, but how you react because of that feeling. Performance anxiety can be summed up as a set of bodily changes in reaction to the thought of making music. (That’s right, the thought of making music!) You might begin to perspire profusely, get a dry mouth, breathe in a rapid and shallow manner, etc.
These types of physiologic changes certainly can certainly impact the quality of your performance. But they don’t have to be the sole determiner of its outcome. If you are able to accept that you feel anxious, yet stay present with the music, present with your intentions, present with your skills, present with yourself…you’ll find that your anxiety soon dissipates.
So what do you do when it’s not going well in a performance? How do you react? Do your reactions support what you’re doing, or make it more difficult to perform?
You can address these questions through one simple lens: Are you mostly contracting and shortening yourself as you play, or are you mostly releasing and lengthening?
If you find yourself physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted after a disappointing performance, you can be reasonably sure that you’ve done lots of contracting and shortening. Contrast that to how you feel after a satisfying performance, and you’ll have clear evidence about what you do with yourself from performance to performance.
You can actually learn how to change how you how you react during your performances. This is the main aim of the Alexander Technique. By unlearning your not-so-helpful habits, you can transform yourself from someone who reacts, to someone who responds instead. Responding with the kinds of choices helpful for maintaining your ease, balance, and calm. Choices that allow your intentions and desires to work in accordance with your design.
One of the most significant things the Alexander Technique has helped me with is how I respond as I perform. Because of that, I’m more consistent than ever before. My effort often reflects or even exceeds my preparation because I’m able to stay present with the music.
That’s a rich feeling. It’s not a question of never being distracted. It’s a matter of being able to redirect myself and my intentions if I become distracted.
I believe it was Leonardo Da Vinci who said, “There is no greater dominion man can have than that over himself.” You can’t always control your environment and circumstances when you perform music, but you can, to a large degree, control yourself. It takes practice and intention, but it’s so worth it!