The Dilemma of Performance Paranoia

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Mind over matters.

Occasionally I have internal struggles with my ‘chops’ and how they are feeling. When this happens, it always ends up as a self-fulfilling prophecy – I believe that my facial muscles feel weak, and I end up sounding bad.

“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away,” a teacher told me once that I was not focused enough on my tone while I was playing. “Play by sound, not by feel,” he demanded. I concluded then that if my chops were stronger and in better shape, my tone would be better as a result. Sadly, I misunderstand his sage advice. While I thought I understood, it wasn’t until much later that I really comprehended what he was talking about.

Fast forward to 2004. Yesterday I was conducting a junior high school string orchestra and during their warm-up exercises I noticed many of the students were intensely focused on their fingers while I lead them through a shifting exercise – from 1st to 3rd position. After several attempts it didn’t get any better. Suddenly that old tidbit of advice came into my head – “play by sound not by feel.”

We tried the same exercise again, but this time I asked them to close their eyes and try using their ears and natural instincts to accomplish the shifts. This time it went much better. By simply focusing on sound production the students became less concerned about hand placement and the problems seemed to fix themselves.

Years ago, I saw a television interview of the famous opera tenor Luciano Pavarotti. In this interview, he talked about his warm-up routine and the quality of his voice. I amazed that he only vocalized for 4-5 minutes before performances. I felt that I needed at least 30 minutes or so to get my chops in good working order, so this amazed me. Pavarotti said that he was never too concerned with how his voice felt when he performed. While he did acknowledge that a few times a year his voice would feel fantastic, he said that his voice usually felt terrible. Yet he knew that “the show must go on” and he had to perform. He had to overcome his physical feelings and had to focus on the “show” – the feat of performing an entire opera.

How true.

I too have also felt those magic moments when my chops felt fantastic and I felt that I could play anything. However, as Pavarotti points out, those days are mostly few and far in between. They are fleeting moments, especially as I get older.

I realize now that to focus on how my chops are feeling on any given day is the wrong way to go – it is like chasing a rainbow. Whenever I think too much about the sensation of embouchure, my tone and endurance inevitably suffer.

“Play by sound not by feel…”

Recently a colleague commented to me that during a performance he became obsessed with his right hand placement in the bell. He was feeling that his tone and intonation were suffering because he just could not find the sweet spot he was searching for. I looked at him with wide eyes, nodding my head side-to-side and said, “don’t go there.” He immediately understood his mistake and replied, “I’m thinking too much, right?”

Good tone production starts in the mind with a good mental concept and an active imagination. Outside of daily long tone practice, an active imagination will accomplish more towards a good sound than any intense practice routine or obsessive/compulsive behavior. In other words, a mind focused on the sound of the music will produce better results than a mind set on the physical sensations of playing.

While as a student it is absolutely crucial to understand and focus on solid fundamentals, there comes a time when you must integrate this learning, let go and trust your instincts. “Use the Force,” as the fictional Star Wars character Obi-Wan Kenobi says – or in our case, use your Musical Force.

“Reach out with your feelings,” instructed Obi-Wan. The same can be said for making music.

A mental approach such as this is key to reaching a higher plane of musical existence. It is also a truer path to getting more joy and less disappointment from your performances.

Mind over matter?

Believe it! It matters!

University of Horn Matters