My recital is just two weeks away (October 22nd at 7:30 in Legacy!), and I’m practicing as much as I can, working to refine my program. I was just working on a particularly gnarly passage in the Röntgen, and after a few botched attempts, instead of throwing my hands up in the air and getting frustrated, I asked myself, “How can I make this better?” I stopped playing and thought more closely about the problem. Was it the string crossings? The bowing? The shifts? My elbow placement? Some combination of them all?
While it’s been a long time since I’ve just thrown up my hands and given up, I find this is not always the case with younger players (and in fact, it’s something I tended to do rather frequently during my student days). Sometimes we just get frustrated that our bodies won’t do what our mind hears, and give up for the time being— often accompanied by less than savory words about our abilities and ourselves.
Such frustration and self-deprecating speech is so common among us musicians, and— bolstered by my now-ancient Psychology degree— I believe it contributes a great deal to the amount of performance anxiety we experience. I no longer get serious pre-performance jitters, but this is not always the case with my students. As a result, we are exploring performance anxiety by reading and discussing Performance Anxiety Strategies, by Casey McGrath, Karin Hendricks, and Tawnya Smith. In their book, they confirm what I discovered at some point during my viola-playing journey: Namely, that what I say to myself tends to be what I believe.
Bombarding myself with negative thoughts about myself and my playing (i.e. “You’re a terrible person because you can’t make this shift cleanly!!”) does nothing to help my abilities. When I’m producing something I don’t like, I work towards finding the root cause, rather than berating myself for not being able to produce what I want. This, then, translates into specific goals to work towards, and leaves no room for self-deprecating speech, because every botched attempt is a chance to learn and improve. And lo and behold, when I’m back stage about to perform, I know I’ve done everything I can to be as prepared as possible for that moment. Rather than being afraid of what might happen, I breathe easy, knowing that I’ve worked out the kinks in a thoughtful and reproducible manner.