Banishing stage fright with the Jazzmen, part 2

Last week I told you the story of Darryl Jones, who played bass for Sting when he started his solo career with the album Dream of the Blue Turtles. Today I want to tell you about another of Sting’s musicians, so that we can learn another useful tool to conquer stage fright.

 

To recap the story…

If you recall, Sting was trying something totally new. He was leaving a very successful band, and was striking it out on his own with a whole new group of musicians. They were about to play their first concert – a new band, playing a  set of songs where half were completely new and unheard, and all of which were being re-interpreted. Sting, if you recall, hadn’t got together just any old band. He had found a group of jazz musicians, and was creating a whole new jazz-rock fusion sound.

Director Michael Apted filmed the build-up to the concert. He asked each musician in turn if they were nervous. Last week we learned from Darryl Jones’ reply. This week we turn to saxophonist Branford Marsalis, to see what he can teach us.

Marsalis

The other jazz man.

Branford Marsalis is another profoundly inventive jazz musician. Back in 1985 he was just at the beginning of his career, but he already had an impressive resume. And he was never one to mince his words! So when Michael Apted asked him if he was nervous about the upcoming gig with Sting, this is what he said:. 

“If I was Sting I might be nervous but I’m not Sting, I play jazz, I know what it’s like to be shat on, you know what I mean? I am a jazz musician, I know what it’s like to play some stuff that nobody wants to hear.”*

I know this is a little stronger language than normally appears in my articles, so bear with me… 🙂

Branford Marsalis isn’t nervous. Why not? Because he is used to an audience not necessarily liking the music he is playing! Marsalis here leads us towards what I believe is a very strong motivating factor that lies behind many performers’ stage fright

they fear the audience’s bad opinion.

Fear of the audience is a strong reason why people fear going out to perform. Back when I worked in professional theatre, I can remember actors nervously  peering out from the wings, scanning the audience suspiciously, and wondering if they would be a ‘good’ house that night. And by ‘good’, they meant an audience that liked them and liked the play.

Wanting to be liked is completely understandable and natural. The problem arises when we think about the audience so much that we begin to lose sight of what it is that we need to do in order to win their good opinion.

We need to perform.

In other words, we need to summon up all that we have learned from our hours of research and rehearsal, all the work that we have done, and carry out the performance in a way that we have reasoned out is going to best achieve our goals.

‘But shouldn’t we be thinking about the audience?’ I hear you cry. Well… Yes, but not in the way that most people do. Obviously we need to remember that the audience is there. But do we need to tie ourselves in knots to try to please them? Well, no, not according to Branford Marsalis! His experience very clearly included situations where, in pursuit of his creative goals, he played in such a way that the audience just didn’t like it. On that day. At that time.

The thing is, not everyone can be happy all the time. But what might you sacrifice in order to satisfy your audience? What if Stravinsky had burned the score of The Rite of Spring straight after its controversial first performance? Western classical music would have been very different!

FM Alexander said, “where the ‘means-whereby’ are right for the purpose, desired ends will come. They are inevitable. Why then be concerned as to the manner or speed of their coming? we should reserve all thought, energy. And concern for the means whereby we may command the manner of their coming.”

Branford Marsalis, when faced with the choice of playing the way he wanted, or trying to be ‘right’ for the audience, chose to play in the way that he had decided was best. He stuck with the process he had chosen. And fear of the audience’s reaction became unimportant as a result.

What about you? Will you stick to the process you’ve reasoned out will get you to your goal?

 

* Sting, Bring on the Night, directed by Michael Apted. Quote occurs at about 60.58 on the DVD release.
** FM Alexander, The Universal Constant in Living in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.587.

Banishing stage fright with the Jazzmen, part 1

Today I want to discuss what we can learn about conquering stage fright (performance anxiety, call it what you will) from jazz musician Darryl Jones.

darryljones_1

One of the first LPs I ever owned (remember LPs?) was Sting’s The Dream of the Blue Turtles. My parents gave it to me for my birthday in 1986 or 1987. I absolutely loved it, and played it a lot. The thing that made it so different, so exciting, was the jazz influence. Sting had managed to get hold of some very well-respected and influential jazz musicians to play in his band, including Kenny Kirkland, Darryl Jones and Branford Marsalis. 

Now, as part of my current general revisiting of things past, I went in search of the documentary Bring on the Night that director Michael Apted made about the beginning of Sting’s solo career.

It is a fascinating film, and a great piece to watch if you want to see a document on the way creative process is both sheltered and commercialised by artist management. To my mind, however, the most fascinating element occurred towards the end of the film, as the band prepared for their first live gig. Apted asked the members of the band in turn if they were nervous.

Now, let me back up a bit and explain the background. Sting had just left The Police, one of the most successful bands of the 1980s. He was creating a rock/jazz fusion album that most people at the time thought would be a disaster. The jazz musicians were not only doing a different style of music, but flying in the face of general opinion that they were ruining their careers. And  they were all about to go on stage for the first time; a new band, to play a set list where half the songs would be completely new to the audience.

If you were a member of Sting’s band and Michael Apted asked you if you were nervous, what would you say?

Would you be nervous? Would you be scared? Would it affect the way you played?

You see, many people would have very definite answers to these questions. They would feel nervous, and they would view that as a negative thing. And the combination of the physical sensation and their negative interpretation of it would then affect their performance, causing them to play less brilliantly than they would wish.

But is this what the Jazz Man says?

This is what bassist Darryl Jones said in reply:

Darryl Jones: “yeah, always. I mean, I think that’s a good space, to have some nervous energy. So many times that first night is the best night because of that nervous energy.”

So often the thing that separates the truly great performers from the rest of us is their attitude towards nerevousness. We feel the butterflies in our tummy, and conclude that it’s a bad thing. Darryl Jones feel the butterflies, and knows that he’s “in a good space” and ready to go out and have fun.

So, today’s lesson about conquering stage fright from the world of jazz:

We can change our attitude toward nerves.

FM Alexander said something similar when he commented that “a changed point of view is the royal road to reformation.” *  If we change our point of view, we can help ourselves and turn something we have labelled negative into something that can help us.

Do you have a performance or a presentation coming up? What would happen if you took the butterflies as a good sign? 

** FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.44.

 

 

You’re hired! Why FM Alexander would win The Apprentice

sir-alan-sugar-boardroom

The BBC TV series The Apprentice is my not-so-secret obsession. I love watching it. There is much that this programme can teach you about how (and how NOT) to set up and run a business, and how to deal with people. For those of you who don’t watch the show, this is how it works. At the beginning of the series, sixteen candidates come to London to vye for the chance to run a business (and a £250 000 investment) with entrepreneur Lord Sugar. Each week the candidates are split into two groups and given tasks relating to selling, branding, marketing and entrepreneurial skill. And each week one candidate from the losing team is fired.

While watching the most recent series, I’ve come to notice something very important. I think I’ve found the secret of Apprentice success. It’s the reason why so often the candidates fail in the tasks set for them by Lord Sugar. It’s the reason why FM Alexander, were he alive and interested, would be a strong contender to be hired. And, even more exciting, it is a secret of success that transcends mere televisual entertainment.

Have I got your attention yet?! Good!

 

First … Why the candidates fail.

Every week’s Apprentice episode begins with Lord Sugar calling all the candidates together (usually very early in the morning) and explaining the new task to them. He does this succinctly, carefully and thoroughly. For example, in last week’s episode, the candidates were called to a warehouse, and the teams given pallets of goods to sell. These are the instructions Lord Sugar gave the six contestants:

I’ve got you an arrangement of goods over here… I expect you to sell that stuff as quick as possible and smell which item is the best seller. Come back to places like this and buy some more and just keep going… At the end of the two day period you’ll have some stock left over, which is fine. We’re gonna count the value of the stock and the money in your hand and at the end of the task the team that has the greatest amount of assets left will win…It’s the simple principle of business – turning your money over, increasing your assets.”*

Clear instructions. A simple task, yes?

No, apparently not. Both groups strayed from Lord Sugar’s instructions. They variously failed to reinvest, or didn’t restock the bestsellers, or decided to sell to high street retailers instead of the public, or stopped restocking from fear of being left with unsold stock at the end of the task. And this isn’t an uncommon experience – it happens almost every week!

So what happens? Why do the candidates fail to follow Lord Sugar’s instructions? As far as I can see, the answer is very simple. They allow their enthusiasm to dominate their reason.

 

Enthusiasm vs. Reason.

FM Alexander recognised as early as 1910 the danger of allowing one’s enthusiasm to run away unbridled. Recalling his creation of the work we now call the Alexander Technique, he wrote:

“one of the greatest, if not the greatest danger against which I had to fight was my own enthusiasm… I should never have worked out my principles, if I had allowed it to dominate my reason.” **

A £250 000 investment is a strong motivating factor for any individual. I suspect that, in their efforts to stand out from the crowd and (hopefully) please Lord Sugar, the candidates let their enthusiasm run away. They forget about the task. They forget the instructions. Each week one candidate or another becomes fixated on an idea or concept (in episode 7 it was Melody and Helen wanting to sell to retailers instead of the general public), and allows this to skew their decision-making processes to the point where the original goal of the task is totally lost.

This is, of course, what makes the programme such good viewing. We love to see Lord Sugar’s aides Nick Hewer and Karen Brady shake their heads in amazement at the bizarre decisions that are made. Indeed, we enjoy it so much that when one of the contestants, Tom Pellereau, began the series by taking notes during Lord Sugar’s opening address, the viewing public mocked him mercilessly.

But aren’t we all guilty of this, at least on occasion? How many of us lose sight of our goals, allowing our enthusiasms and transitory whims to sidetrack us and take us away from what we really want to achieve?

 

Simple Steps to Success… FM – You’re Hired!

So why would FM Alexander be such a strong candidate on The Apprentice? Because he kept his enthusiasm in check. He never lost sight of his goal, and worked according to principle.

What does this mean in practice? Well, I can imagine FM sitting neatly on the packing cases in the warehouse. He would listen carefully – very carefully – to Lord Sugar. He would take note of the goal of the exercise. Then he would analyse the conditions present. He would look at the stock on the pallet, and take note of the location of the selling pitches. He would take note of warehouse locations.

Then he would start to plan the steps that would lead him to his goal of having the most assts. He would take care to send stock to each location where it would be most likely to appeal to the passing customers. When stock began to sell, I can imagine FM sending one of his team off to the warehouse to purchase more. And if circumstances changed and items began to stagnate on the stalls, I can imagine FM being flexible enough in his thinking to alter his strategy to make the best of the current conditions.***

So these are the steps to success:

  1. Keep your goal in mind.
  2. Analyse the conditions present
  3. Construct a series of steps to lead you from the conditions present towards your goal.
  4. Carry out those steps, but be flexible enough to change if circumstances demand it.

What is your goal? What are your present conditions? What is the first, smallest step you can take towards your goals from where you are now? Tell me in the comments!

 

 

* Transcribed by me from Episode 7, Flip It. See www.bbc.co.uk/apprentice for episode details.
** FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat Complete Edition of Alexander’s books, p.90.
*** I apologise if you find my use of FM here a little flippant, or not sufficiently respectful. From my reading of Frank Pierce Jones and other authors, I have a strong faith in FM’s sense of humour. I hope he wouldn’t mind!

Turning Off Your Limiter

shower

Yesterday, I was working with one of my students – a lovely man called Ian – on standing and looking up to the ceiling. To begin with, Ian’s head came forwards to look at the floor quite happily. Looking up to the ceiling, however, was a different matter. It just didn’t happen. His neck wouldn’t extend at all. After some discussion about necks and what they are capable of (in theory, you understand!), a bit of hands-on work and some gentle cajolery, Ian’s neck extended just a little, and he looked in the direction of the ceiling. Wht follows is what happened next, as closely as I can remember it.*

“What do you notice about that?” I asked.
“Someone’s pushed the red button,” Ian said.
“What do you mean?” I asked, puzzled.
“On the electric shower. The shower has a limiter to stop the water getting too hot for children. If you want warmer water, you press a red button and the limiter turns off.”
“Ah,” I replied. “So your neck had a limiter?”
“Yes.”
“And it’s just switched off?”
“Yes,” Ian said.
“Cool!” 

What a great image this is. Ian had a ‘limiter’ that impeded the flexibility of his neck – but it wasn’t hard-wired  like the limiter on the electric shower. Ian found that he had a limiter in his thinking. For whatever reason, he had developed a belief that he couldn’t move his neck in such a way that he could look at the ceiling. The belief led to the impeded movement.

FM Alexander talked about exactly this phenomenon in 1910. He said, “the majority of people fall into a mechanical habit of though quite as easily as they fall into the mechanical habit of body which is the immediate consequence.”**

So how do we turn off these ‘limiters’, these “trifling habits of thought” that stop us from moving as freely and flexibly as we’d like? Today I want to give you a couple of warnings of things that DON’T work, and pointers on something that DOES.

 

Things that DON’T work: Try Harder!

It is really tempting, when faced with a limitation, to just throw more energy at it and hope that it works. This is the strategy I used to use as a musician when faced with a musical phrase that was too tricky for me to play. I’d worry about it all the way up to the troublesome phrase, then just go faster and throw more energy and muscular effort into my fingers and hope that it would work.

It didn’t.

Alexander says that this is a little like placing dependence upon a thermometer that we know is defective. It’s human, but it’s not sensible.

 

Things that DON’T work: Finding out WHY…

When faced with a seemingly random and puzzling limitation – like an inability to turn one’s head towards the ceiling – some students become fascinated with the origin of the limitation. “Why do I do that?” they ask. I don’t know why they do it. More to the point, I don’t really care.

Now, before you accuse me of callousness, let me explain why I say this. You see, knowledge of WHY doesn’t help the behaviour to go away. Stopping the behaviour helps it to go away. My experience as a teacher is that the students who become most obsessed with why they do the things they do, take longest to stop the limiting behaviours and improve. The search for why turns into a “fascinating bypath” (Alexander’s phrase) that leads nowhere useful.

 

Things that DO work: Using Your Head

Alexander comfortingly says that there isn’t a single habit of mind (or resultant habit of body) which may not be altered. Great! But how? By the inculcation (learning) of the principles concerning the true poise of the body, and using them in co-operation with an understanding of the powers of the objective mind. Put simply, we need to learn just how powerful the mind is, and put it to good use.

Most of us never really think too much about the things that we do as we do them. When, for example, was the last time you thought about how to look up to the ceiling, or get out of a chair, or walk, before you did them? But this is what Alexander asks us to do. He asks us to actually pay attention to what we do and how we do it. He asks us to use the power of our objective minds to analyse and plan our movements, and then to follow the plans we’ve devised. If we use our reasoning powers, we will begin to experience the power of the principles that underly all easy and efficient movement.

 

Is it hard work? Sometimes. Is it infuriating? Yep, sometimes.

But does it bring rewards? Yes. Definitely yes. And if you don’t believe me, just ask my student Ian.

 

* A couple of points about this. First, it’s part of the training I received as a teacher in the Interactive Teaching Method for the teaching of the Technique of FM Alexander (ITM AT teacher for short) that accurate recall of a student’s words – or even whole exchanges – is considered essential for good teaching. If you want to know more about this, just email and ask me.

Second, I asked Ian’s permission to quote him and credit it with his name.

** FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.52.
Image by Alex France, stock.xchng

Stage fright? Untwist your thinking!

Yarn-Kitty-500

Perhaps because the topic is in my mind, it seems as though every time I turn on the TV or listen to the radio I hear another instance of a performer whose career was blighted by panic and performance nerves.The most recent reference was on Radio 3 (the thinking person’s Radio 4!), during a programme about the Swiss-Romanian pianist Clara Haskil.

The prevalence of the condition is truly mind-boggling. And the most interesting thing about it is that it isn’t just us amateurs who struggle and suffer. Some truly great professionals have fought their panic every performance night. Laurence Olivier survived by asking his fellow actors not to look him in the eye while onstage. Ian Holm, according to the website IMDb, developed severe stage fright in 1976 while performing in The Iceman Cometh, and has barely returned to the stage since.

The most intriguing reference to stage fright in the past couple of weeks was, again, on Radio 3, this time on the excellent programme Composer of the Week. Last week’s composer was Enrique Granados who, in addition to being a fine composer, also a renowned pianist in his day. Indeed, it was his performing career that paid the bills, and this was a source of difficulty for him. For Granados, like Clara Haskil, like Laurence Olivier, like Ian Holm, was a sufferer of near crippling stage fright.

The reason why I found Granados’ plight so intriguing, however, was because of a short quote that was included in the radio programme. Apparently Granados said:

If, in an audience of 1000 spectators, I know that 999 like me but one does not, I will play poorly, because for me that one person will be the only one out there, and I know that nothing I do will please him.

Take a minute to read that quote and think about it. Granados has just admitted that if the audience contains just one person who is not guaranteed to love his performance unconditionally, he will play poorly. Hmm. The problem with this is that no audience is 100% guaranteed to love you, unless it is entirely composed of your family and friends, in which case you are unlikely to hear anything constructive afterwards that will help you to improve.

Not only that, but it sounds uncomfortably like Granados makes a decision to play poorly, based on his fear-filled assessment of the audience. He doesn’t say “I am likely to play poorly.” He uses the far stronger statement “I will play poorly.” That one person doesn’t like me, so I won’t bother to play well because I know that nothing I can do will change their mind. Those of you with any knowledge of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy will recognise this as a fully-fledged cognitive distortion – a type of twisted thinking. Granados is basing his whole performance on his opinion of an audience whose thoughts and feelings he cannot possibly know in any detail! From the sound of this, Granados’ life as a performer may well have been plagued by the tension created by his desire to play well fighting with his decision to play poorly.

Would you want to live in that particular universe? Does the logic of it sound reasonable to you? I suspect not! Yet, when it comes down to it, my hunch is that most performers, when questioned closely, would ‘fess up to a similar sort of twisted thinking around their performance practice. One of the most common, for example, is an actor looking out at the audience before the show, and expressing a strange combination of fear and hatred towards them as the actor wonders if the audience will be ‘good’ tonight.

Clearly this sort of twisted thinking is of no help to us whatsoever. But how do we get round it?

What we don’t do is to try to block out those twisted thoughts, or to just struggle on past them. This is just adding a whole new layer of tension on top of the stress created by the original twisty thinking.

Instead of this, FM Alexander suggests that we approach the problem indirectly by inhibiting our habitual manner of use in reacting to the old stimulus. We then give ourselves the opportunity of making a new decision.* In other words, when we’re approaching the performance date, or when we’re waiting in the wings ready to come onstage, we feel a strong stimulus to think about the audience. Our instinctive reaction is to be drawn away from ourselves and into a nightmarish fantasy where we leap to conclusions about what the audience will like or want. Alexander is asking us to notice the stimulus, but not to be drawn in. Instead of thinking about the things we can’t control (the audience and their reaction to us), we could think about things that WILL be useful to us. We need to make a decision to think about ourselves, about our role or our music, about the care with which we have prepared ourselves to perform.

And we need to stick to that decision. Alexander said:

We are by nature creatures of impulse … and will remain so, more or less, so long as we are content to struggle on … in the last analysis, success will depend upon the individual’s capacity to carry out a decision.**

So make a decision not to be ruled by the twisted thinking that leads us out of ourselves. Think instead of those things that are useful to you: your preparation, a sense of perspective about performance and audience, sticking with the process of just saying the words or playing the notes, and knowing what you want to achieve with your performance.

And enjoy it!

 

*Paraphrase of Universal Constant in Living, Iredeat Combined Edition, p.601.
** ibid., p.602.

Four words to conquer stage fright

As I write this, I have less than a day before I take to the stage area of a local church and perform a lunchtime recital with my recorder quartet. If I were counting (which I’m not), I’d tell you that I’m to be walking out and playing my first notes in 22 hours’ time. And once upon a time, just the act of typing that sentence would have caused within me a paroxysm of cold fear.

I’ve always loved playing music, but I never enjoyed performing. I hated – no, loathed – the act of walking out onto the stage. As the years went by, it became harder and harder to function as a musical performer. This fear, combined with the debilitating pain I suffered in my arms, put a stop to any desire I had to share music with others.

But not any more. I am a recovering stage-fright sufferer.And the Alexander Technique has been the most powerful tool I have possessed in advancing that recovery.

For me, part of the process of studying and teaching the Alexander Technique has been a methodical re-examination of the rules I have made for myself around issues such as performance. So often I see articles in the press and online that stress the physical aspect of this work, as if it was limited only to physical movements such as sitting or standing. But the scope of the Alexander Technique is so much broader than this. My colleagues and I often say to students that it is a physiologic fact that we can’t have a movement without some sort of thinking preceding it. If this is true – and it appears to be so – then we must draw the conclusion that what we think is of vital importance.

This means that the ideas and beliefs that we have about certain activities may be the very things that are holding us back from performing those activities as well as we would like. This is certainly true in my own case, and from the experiences I have teaching, seems to be true for my students too.

Based on my own experience of stage fright and that of my students, these are the major issues that I believe cause the problem:

Lack of preparation.

This is possibly the biggest issue amongst my acting students. This is how it works: I know that I have not practised enough and do not have the music/speech/whatever completely under my belt. So I worry about messing it up. Then I worry about messing it up – in public. ‘What will they think of me?’ My head is now spinning so much that I have little or no chance of remembering my music/speech/whatever.

Perfectionism.

I place pressure on myself by expecting myself to be perfect and to give a flawless performance. I also know that this is pretty much impossible. So I also berate myself first for expecting perfectionism, and second for the mistakes I am certain to make. Now we are back to ‘What will they think of me?’

Etiquette.

People expect performers, especially amateur performers, to display nervousness prior to going on stage. It becomes good manners to oblige. By extension, it is bad manners to appear calm and confident!

Misunderstanding the physical.

Most people experience certain physical sensations pre-performance:  ‘butterflies’, shaky knees, etc. We are conditioned to think that these are bad and will disrupt our performance. What if these are simply side-effects of pre-performance adrenalin – the same adrenalin that sharpens our instincts, our senses, and speeds up our thinking processes…

So, how do we get around these issues? With four simple words! And to help you remember them, they mostly begin with P!

Here are the three Ps and one G:

Preparation.

There is only one way to know something really well, and that is to do the preparation. We all hope and dream that there is some kind of shortcut, and that talented people don’t need to do the long hours of study. Actually, they do. That’s why they are so talented.

Perspective.

Does it really matter if we make a mistake? Realistically, who is going to notice? And even if they do, will one or two little mistakes really outweigh all the good things about your performance? Of course not!

Process

As soon as we start thinking about the audience and wondering what they are thinking/feeling, we have lost our train of thought. We are no longer doing the process of performing, but wondering about the after-effects of it. In traditional Alexander Technique language, we are end-gaining rather than sticking with the means we have chosen in order to achieve our goals. In my experience, when I am staying within the process of singing or playing a piece of music, note by note, phrase by phrase, I don’t have the time to worry about the audience. And my performance, I am told, improves radically as a result!

Goal.

It’s often overlooked, but… What are you trying to achieve with your performance? Do you have a goal? Having a goal in mind for your performance can make a big difference to the way you approach things. For example, my recorder quartet recently performed at a local music festival. Our aim was to test one of our pieces in a hall acoustic, to check whether all the notes could be heard clearly on the instruments we had chosen to play. Because we had a specific goal in mind, nerves weren’t an issue.

So there you have it – three Ps and 1 G towards conquering stage fright, based on my experience. I hope they’re of help. And if you catch up with me on Facebook, I’ll let you know how the concert goes!