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:

Left, Right, Wrong: the myth of the split brain

Recently, I came across a survey that asked, “Which side of your brain is more dominant?” Have you taken it? What was your result?

Whatever response you received, the real answer is: both! Or, it doesn’t matter! Actually, it’s always changing!

In “The Brain that Changes Itself,” author/psychiatrist/psychoanalyst Norman Doidge talks about how the brain can and does re-wire itself according to the challenges and stimuli presented to it.

Doidge recounts the story of the dramatic recovery of Pedro Bach-y-Rita, a Catalan poet and scholar, who suffered a debilitating stroke at age 65. Pedro was aided in his recovery by his two sons, one a medical student and the other a scientist. The brothers rehabilitated their father patiently and diligently, teaching him how to walk and talk again. They were so successful after a year of work that their father eventually returned to full-time college teaching.

What was the key to his recovery? It was not that the brain had “healed,” because the damage done was irreparable. No; the brain had actually “rewired” itself! That is to say, parts of the brain that were formerly devoted to certain tasks were re-assigned to do the work of the damaged brain cells.

The phenomenon at work in this case is plasticity: the ability of the brain to re-organize itself at any stage of life. Doidge writes, “The age at which we learn a mental skill strongly influences the area in which it gets processed.”

Further debunking the left/right brain myth, neuroscientist and author Joseph LeDoux explains, “Left-Right talk in the popular media dates back to the 60s and was mostly stimulated by research on split-brain patients, patients in whom the left and right sides are literally separated. In these people, the left and right hemispheres cannot communicate. In most of us though, the two sides are closely interconnected and work together in creating our mental and behavioral capacities.” (full article here)

In short, brain researchers now posit that the purported split between right and left brain is imaginary – in reality, the two hemispheres are highly interconnected. Different people use different areas for processing things, and those areas can even change in a person’s lifetime, owing to neuroplasticity. So here’s to the complexity of the brain in its entirely whole, interconnected state.

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?


Intuitive Practice

Musicians, like athletes, are no stranger to the phrase, “No pain, no gain!” Many of us take physical exhaustion, discomfort and mental boredom as par for the course, and even as hard-won badges of honor for our labors. But experience teaches that in fact, pain can lead to injury, whether physical or psychological. There must be a better way to practice!

Enter intuitive practicing. This is not a hocus-pocus, light-some-incense-and-go-to-your-happy-place idea – it simply means, following your own instinctive sense of creativity and curiosity when you practice. Start off with a question – “Where is this phrase going?” or, “What if I handled it this way?” If you desire to linger on a particular passage, do so — as long as you are mentally engaged. If you are drawn to a completely different section of the piece, go there. Experiment with a different speed of vibrato, a more subtle diminuendo, a surprising change of color. This kind of intuitive practicing stokes the creative fires and encourages expression and engagement. And when your mind, emotions and senses are engaged, you are in an ideal state to create music!

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!


Welcome to the site! Fearless Fiddler is dedicated to helping violinists (and other musicians) realize their potential and achieve their best performance, and to enjoy the process! In my blog you’ll find posts about everything violin-related, from news about upcoming concerts, to reviews of violin literature and method books, to inspirational posts about performance and preparation. It will also feature guest articles, so if you have a suggestion, please go ahead and contact me!