I have an ideal version of my playing. I don’t always have access to it. I only reach it after a secret combination (unbeknownst even by me) of warm-up, playing done in a given week, and time of day. I know immediately when I am in this ideal state of playing. Playing the flute is easy, not hard. My sound comes out effortlessly, and my body is doing what it has to do without my mind trying to think about it or force it. The ease at which I am able to play allows me to release tension and relax, which frees up my sound even more. This creates a positive feedback loop that fuels the ideal state even more.
Yet as I mentioned, I only reach this ideal state when the conditions – some in my control, some not in my control – are perfect. I wish I could have this ideal experience every time I play, but the truth is, this is not realistic. Here’s how I like to think of it: Playing is not an act of balance, but an act of balancing. The word ‘balance’ implies a type of static equilibrium. The word ‘balancing,’ however, implies a constant back-and-forth movement. Having the perfect sound all the time would mean that I as a physical and mental being would be static and unchanging. But humans are dynamic creatures. Our sound changes just as our mental, physical, and emotional state change. In other words, our playing is a direct reflection of our physical, mental, and emotional states. We have to learn to live with this fact rather than fight against it.
Becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable.
We cannot expect to always be in an ideal state when we practice. In fact, I believe that it is crucial to practice specifically in times when we are not in our ideal state. Why? Because this will help us prepare for the reality of a higher-stakes performance or audition, where we are certainly not going to find ourselves in an ideal state, no matter how much preparation for the event we may have done.
Because no matter what you might do to try and prevent it (sleeping well, eating a banana before, visualization. etc.), there will still be that element of uncertainty, the nerves may evidently show up. However, rather than letting the certainty of uncertainty, if you will, be a reason for us to give up, we can learn to work with the uncertainty. We can accept that the nerves may evidently be there without letting them have complete power over our capabilities as musicians.
“Looking deeper, we could say that the real cause of suffering is not being able to tolerate uncertainty – and thinking that it is perfectly sane, perfectly normal, to deny the fundamental groundlessness of being human.” – Pema Chödrön
Practicing in a non-ideal state: playing “on the edge”
Learning to play comfortably in a non-ideal state is learning to play “on the edge.” At the risk of sounding cliché here, the playing “on the edge” as often as you can allows you to become more comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. First, figure out what times and conditions you generally avoid practicing in. This could be playing at a different time of day than you normally would, such as in the early morning, playing in situations where you feel nervous or on edge (in front of people, in public places), or playing when you don’t feel you have enough energy, such as at the end of the day.
Before you even play your first note in this uncomfortable place, accept that this state you are in is a temporary reflection of your situational state and not a permanent representation of your identity. There is nothing morally wrong with how you are going to sound. Let go of the notion that there is only a good sound and a bad sound. They are simply different types of sounds with different qualities, and each has its own value.
Be prepared to hear your inner critic’s voice a little louder than usual – you’ll have to learn how to turn down the subjective judgment and turn up the objective, neutral observation. Yes, you’ll have to live in that sound you don’t like for the time being, but don’t lose yourself to a snowball effect, letting every aspect of your playing go to the wayside (well, my tone sucks, so I guess I can’t articulate as clearly, so now my rhythm is off…). Instead, notice what you can and can’t control in this non-ideal state. Hone in on the aspects that you can control.
One way to neutralize the inner critic is to replace judgments with key words that can act as gentle reminders to bring you back to what you are doing – such as “relax,” “breathe,” and “listen.” Let’s go over each of these key words.
First, relax. You may notice yourself tensing up the muscles more. Repeatedly stop and tell yourself to relax. Don’t try to force the sound out. Restrain yourself from making constant adjustments to your instrument in the hopes that a better sound will come out (doing stuff with the reed, adjusting the headjoint). Try to soften the muscles around the area of tension. A progressive muscle relaxation meditation can also help with this.
Breathe. When our body is relaxed, we can breathe more deeply. See my previous post for breathing advice – think about breathing low and full, from the diaphragm. Especially for wind players, when we are breathing more deeply, we can move more air through our instruments, thus giving our sound a nice cushion of support.
Listen. The number of elements we can potentially notice in our playing can be overwhelming, especially when we don’t feel in complete control of all of those elements. Instead, choose one thing to listen for at a time. As my teacher Karla Flygare says to her students, “focus on the note you are playing and its relationship to the next note.” That’s all you need to do. This focus can help melt away irrelevant thoughts that are getting in the way of your playing. Try also singing along in your head to the music. That is, instead of monitoring and judging what you sound like as you play, focus on what you want to sound like by singing along with the music in your head. Think, for example, of pianist Glenn Gould’s habit of singing to guide his piano playing. For more information on this idea, see Noa Kageyama’s article: What Should You Think About When You Perform?).
“The terror of performing never goes away. Instead, you get very, very comfortable being terrified.” – Eric Whitacre
The most rewarding part of non-ideal practice is when you are able to get over the initial hump of discomfort and forget that you are in a non-ideal state. You may still sound the same, but your mind is no longer obsessing over the way you sound. Your muscles are more relaxed and you can play freely and with ease. At this point you have entered a flow state despite being in sub-optimal conditions. You realize that your musicianship is unconditionally contained within you, it is not something elusive that must be externally sought after. When you have let go of striving to arrive in a perfect or ideal place, you have the freedom to enjoy what you are doing. You are reminded of why you fell in love with music in the first place.