Performance Anxiety: Presence

piano-ology-performance-anxiety-presence-featured-photo-by-spencer-imbrock-on-unsplash Photo by Spencer Imbrock on Unsplash

Musical performance at its best occurs when you literally forget you are playing…

… and you become the music!

In this magical place, all self-consciousness evaporates and the music seems to play itself, leaving no room for self-criticism, worry, or regret… and therefore no room for stage fright.

Doing so automatically crowds out all negative thoughts and takes you to a place that joyfully shouts “Yes! Yes! Yes!”, leaving no time or space for your anxious mind to scream “No! No! No!”

Often described as being “in flow” or being “in the zone”, this state of total absorption is not some new age gobbledygook, but describes the reality of playing music at the highest level.

And the great news is this: Getting into “the zone” is something you can practice!

First and foremost, it requires you play with your musical mind. This is accomplished by “singing” the music in your mind’s ear and allowing your muscle memory to follow. Of course, it is not your muscles that remember, but a neural network in your motor cortex that has been trained by expert study-practice to respond automatically and reliably to your focused musical intention.

As you do, keep the following in mind…

  • Simply “play” the music inside your head and allow your body to follow.
  • Such a meditative state is cultivated by listening, not thinking.
  • Listening takes your mind off of you and puts it where it belongs: on the music in the present moment.
  • Don’t stop if you make a mistake. Only stop if you fall out of the zone.
  • When you feel yourself falling out of the zone (in other words, when you start thinking) refocus all your attention on the music by singing it in your mind’s ear as you play.
  • Finding, and staying in, the zone (assuming you study-practiced the right way) is largely the process of learning to trust yourself, just as a competitive golfer learns to “trust their swing” under pressure.
  • Practice being so focused on the music that nothing can kick you out of the zone…. not a missed note, not an out of tune piano, not bad lighting, not an itchy nose, not a stuck key, not the presence of an audience.
  • Your mind’s ear is not just an abstract concept. When you imagine a sound in your mind’s ear, your auditory cortex (the part of your brain that processes sound) lights up…. which, in turn, automatically lights up your motor cortex (the part of your brain that stores and controls physical motions).
  • Playing this way is done with your subconscious mind, which is your right (intuitive) side of your brain at work.
  • Thinking, done with the left (analytical) side of your brain, always gets in the way.
  • Success requires you to allow your right (non-analytically) brain to lead. Such a meditative state is fostered by being receptive to the music, not by trying to control it.

And if you can find the zone, you will not just feel better. You will take your playing to a whole new level!

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