In Praise of Anxiety

While playing in a recording session with my pianist this summer (more details on that soon!), I had a startling revelation: I wasn’t nervous, and I didn’t like it!

Sound strange?

The truth is, as I’m sure many performers would agree, that I’m used to a certain amount of adrenaline when I perform. I have come to expect that familiar “butterflies-in-my-stomach” feeling, and I know that it’s there to give me that extra bit of energy that will make my performance more exciting – through an increase in mental focus, perhaps a little faster tempo, scintillating vibrato, and a sense of urgency that aren’t always easy to conjure in rehearsal.

However, on that day in the recording studio, my old reliable frenemy, adrenaline, just didn’t show up.

Maybe it was the lack of an audience (other than the recording engineer in the next room), or maybe it was the knowledge that if something didn’t go to my liking, I could re-do it as many times as necessary, time permitting, but it just wasn’t the same as a live performance.

It felt kind of like being prepared to jump off a 3-meter diving board, only to arrive and find out it’s 1 meter high. The pressure was off, and it felt somewhat humdrum and quotidian.

Fortunately, I had a few tricks in reserve to help bring the edgy feeling back. However, it was startling to find that instead of trying to minimize or control the feeling of anxiety, which is usually the case, I found myself beckoning it!

The next time you feel the internal flutter of those butterflies before going onstage, remember to thank them for being there to help you go above and beyond the everyday.



“If They Only Knew!”: a funny thing about competitions, and how to deal

A young student, wise far beyond her years, said something to me recently that summed up, in a simple way, one of the hardest things about competitions.

We were discussing a competition in which she had won first place, and a friend of hers had won fourth.

She and the friend shared an accompanist, so they had been hearing each other’s progress over the course of several rehearsals before the big day.

My young student noticed how much improvement her friend had made between the first rehearsal and the competition day. She expressed regret that the judges were unaware of that fact.

“I wish that they could hear [the other student]’s recording of the first rehearsal, and see how far [that student] has come,” she expressed.

I nodded in agreement, and her mother and I exchanged rueful smiles, as if to say, “Yeah, that’s pretty much IT.”

I agreed with her that because the judges had no way of knowing the history of every student, they had to make their decision solely based on what they heard that day.

If the competition were tomorrow, the results might be different.

It follows, then, that the only recourse we have to this conundrum is to increase our consistency in performing — that is, our Repeatable Good Performance.

For ideas about increasing your aptitude for Repeatable Good Performance, check out this post:

“It Sounded Better at Home:” Achieving Repeatable Good Performance

Have you ever asked yourself, “Why did my playing sound better at home/in the practice room than in my lesson? You should have heard me on Tuesday afternoon – my neighbors thought it was Heifetz!”

Impersonating deceased violinists aside, it is frustrating when our efforts in the practice room yield less-than-stellar results. It can feel almost like all that practicing never happened! Here’s where the concept of RGP (repeatable good performance) comes into play.

Sports psychology researchers define RGP as the ability of athletes to consistently perform at an optimal level. Notice that it doesn’t state, “at peak level,” but at an optimal one. In other words, an optimal level is the best possible performance given the circumstances, which may be less-than-ideal.

So it would follow that the real challenge is to increase your optimal level on any given day, through practice.

What are the steps to achieve that? Below are a few guidelines.

  • Set an outcome-based, i.e., a measurable goal for your practice session or even a small part of a session. For example, “I will play measures 90-100 five times with 100% accuracy.”
  • Simulate a pressure-inducing environment by imagining an auditor or by recording yourself.
  • Use mental imagery to picture yourself performing the specific task successfully. Hear what it sounds like, visualize the movements involved. Define a path to execute the action.
  • Concentrate! Do your best to block out distractions. The more you practice doing this, the more adept you will be when you need it most.

Ready, Set, Go!

Picture this for a moment: you’re on stage – bright lights beaming toward you – you hear the introduction by the orchestra or piano, and you think, “But I’m not ready yet! I don’t know this piece!” You wake up in a cold sweat, relieved that it was just a dream.

These vivid anxiety dreams are all too common before a performance, and they reveal an underlying, understandable fear that many musicians have: that you are not or will not be ready. Despite hours, weeks and even years of preparation and study of your instrument and the music in question, you still shiver with apprehension at the prospect of a big performance or audition. This is when it’s time to take a mental leap and trust your preparation.

Remind yourself of the time you’ve spent and the care you’ve taken with the music. Picture yourself in the practice room. Maybe even go all the way back to your early music lessons, and see the time and effort you’ve put in since then.

Sometimes all you need is a gentle reminder. Recently, one of my students, who is ten or eleven years old, came to me nervously just before a student recital. “Can I use the music?” she asked.
“N., how have you been practicing?” I asked.
“By memory.”
“And remember how great you played, by memory, in your last lesson?”
In the end, she DID perform by memory and played beautifully. I think she just needed a reminder to trust her preparation.

It’s funny that, no matter what, I always wish for more time before a performance. I think, “If I only had one more month…” But I’m sure that, even if I DID have an extra month or two to prepare, I’d say the same thing! There comes a time when the preparation phase is over, and it is time to go out and do it. You’ve done the work. Now trust your preparation.

Making goals, breaking goals

A new year, a new opportunity to re-evaluate our goals and set new ones for the year…what resolutions did you make this year?

We all know the drill: set specific, measurable goals and then define the steps to meet them. But what happens when the unexpected occurs, interfering with our goals?

Or what if we *do* meet our goals, but we end up missing the bigger picture or an even better opportunity?








Don’t get me wrong – goals have their place in motivating us to achieve new challenges. But, we need to distinguish between process and outcome-oriented goals. Both have their place for the fearless musician.

Outcome goals are, as their name suggests, focused on measurable results: to run a mile in X number of minutes, or to win Y championship. Process goals, on the other hand, involve an aspect of the journey: to take longer strides during a race, or to position one’s feet properly before a golf swing. Or it can even be, to keep one’s mind focused on the present during a performance.

During the training/preparation process, outcome goals can be most useful. They motivate the player to complete a training task, staying focused and interested in the practice session. This same outcome-oriented approach, however, can add unnecessary pressure in a competitive or performance situation, however.

In performance, by contrast, the player should choose a process-oriented mindset, such as listening carefully or staying focused on phrasing beautifully. In this way, the player’s mind will stay in the moment and avoid self-judging thoughts or other negative, potentially harmful mindframes.

This week, when considering your musical goals, can you find examples of both process and outcome goals, and make some of each?

Further reading:

Forget About Setting Goals. Focus on This Instead.

The Myth of the Blank Mind

I recently questioned a young student who was preparing for a recital performance: “So, what are you going to think about before you play?”

He carefully answered, “My mind will be blank.”

His answer was one I’ve heard before, and even thought of in the past. The problem is, can the mind ever be completely blank? Is that the goal?

Don’t get me wrong – if you’ve read my blog before, you know that I’m a proponent of mindfulness, a state of being in the present, and that it is necessary to “quiet” the mind to get there.

But even when we are being mindful, aren’t there hundreds, thousands of sensations and observations flitting through our minds and bodies? How could these ever “go blank”? Even when we’re sleeping, our bodies and minds are quite active, evidenced by REM sleep and dreams.

Instead of willing our minds to be blank, instead, we need to “put” the mind somewhere, to focus it on positive, helpful thoughts that are conducive to doing what we aim to do.

What kind of thoughts are helpful? When performing, it is not specific technical instructions – those have hopefully been automated beforehand in the practice room – that are helpful. We need a broader picture, sometimes called a “process cue,” that describes what we are doing when we are performing well. It doesn’t have to be very specific – just something that pulls us back to our center and reminds us of how we feel when we’re playing our best. When distractions or negative thoughts start pulling our attention, the process cue brings our mind back to what we are doing and renews our courage and commitment.

What are some process cues that are helpful for you?


The importance of non-judgment

“It’s so out of tune!” “Ugh, that was a disaster!” “It sounds so scratchy.”

Do you ever catch yourself saying things like this to yourself when you practice or perform? Or worse, have you heard someone verbalize them? (I hope not!)

Going hand-in-hand with the state of bare awareness is non-judgment. This is a crucial component of being a fearless fiddler in performance situations. It means noticing what’s going on, without assigning positive or negative values to it.

This can be such a challenge for musicians, who have been subject to many forms of criticism throughout our training, and often are our own harshest critics.

The real challenge, however, is to keep the keen discernment that we have, while staying neutral. Let’s take the examples from the opening. How can they be re-phrased in a non-judgmental way?

If something is out of tune, is it flat or sharp? Do you know by how many cents? What is its relation to the vertical chord structure, or to the horizontal melody line? What caused the error – was it an error in shifting technique? Maybe it’s time to review some shifting exercises. Now we’re getting somewhere!

If the tone is scratchy, why? Where was your bow? Are you using too much pressure or too little bow speed? What kind of sound does the music call for in this spot?

Reframing statements in a non-judgmental way takes more effort, but is more descriptive, more creative, and helps point to a solution. Simply describing something as “bad” is not very helpful – we do not know what is wrong nor how to fix it, and it’s kind of depressing.

Let’s work on silencing the inner mean old teacher, and institute a policy of non-judgment in our practicing and rehearsing.

Cultivating Bare Awareness

It’s bare awareness week here at Fearless Fiddler – no, scratch that, it’s always bare awareness time! Because bare awareness – call it beginner’s mind, or mindfulness, or what-have-you — is the foundation of performance psychology. It’s the way of mindful practice, and the way of mindful, fearless performance.

How to define it? It’s just what it sounds like — being in the present moment, aware of what your senses are telling you, both internally and externally. For musicians, that translates to:

  • listening carefully to yourself and hearing the sounds you are ACTUALLY producing, not what your mind’s ear thinks it hears or wants to hear
  • listening closely to your colleagues, if you are in a group setting
  • being with the physical sensations of playing your instrument
  • feeling the state of your body (pain, tension, relaxation, fatigue, energy, etc.)
  • watching: your bow, your colleagues, your conductor, etc.

The key to getting into this state more often is to practice it! Take a few deep breaths before your practice session or rehearsal, and remind yourself to cultivate a state of bare awareness. If you feel yourself slipping into old mental habits, simply take a few more breaths and gently pull yourself back to the present.

An active meditation practice is helpful to achieving this state. There are so many good resources that I hardly know where to begin, but one piece of recommended reading is Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki (no relation to the violin guru!)

So, what are the benefits? Here are a few:

  • Increased ability to immediately adapt to unforeseen circumstances or mistakes
  • Decreased stress
  • Increased enjoyment of music-making
  • Heightened self-confidence
  • Heightened self-awareness
  • Ability to quickly notice physical tendencies that could lead to injury, and address them before they pose a bigger problem

Try it and let me know, in the comments, what you notice!