Self criticism while performing – and how to avoid it

Do you struggle with self criticism as a performer? Me too. I’m telling this little story about my own self criticism, partly so that you can all feel a little better by having a laugh at me, and partly to make a point about why we don’t need to do it in the first place!

The self criticism tango

Just recently my group Pink Noise played a concert at a small church in Somerset. We finished our programme with a lovely arrangement of Astor Piazzolla’s Oblivion. I play the lead line. This is a fairly accurate rendition of my thoughts as I play the first phrase.

Will the high D sound? Please God, don’t let it crack!
Brilliant! But it sounds so thin. Argh!
Argh! Relax those fingers!
The note’s so boring. Finger vibrato!
Argh! Not enough finger vibrato!
Argh! Too much finger vibrato!
Argh! Finger vibrato isn’t even enough!
Running out of air – gotta breathe…
I hope I didn’t sound like an asthmatic walrus…
I never get the articulation right there…
Phew – made it!

And that’s just the first phrase!

It feels like I never do the piece justice, that I never manage to play it as cleanly and smoothly as it deserves. Frankly, I always feel like I struggle with it, and wonder why the others in the group don’t take the part away from me.

That’s how it feels. And that’s how I’d see it, if one of our group hadn’t made a video recording of the performance. I finally got round to watching it. And what did I find?

The awful truth… isn’t that bad

Actually, it’s okay. I was pleasantly surprised. There are things to work on for us as an ensemble (we haven’t performed this piece very often yet), but it holds up. And my lead line isn’t nearly as bad as it sounded in my head. I hesitate to say it, but it’s really quite decent.

FM Alexander warned us all decades ago that our feelings aren’t a reliable guide to anything much. Anyone who has had an Alexander Technique lesson will have seen or experienced a session in which they are convinced they’re about to fall over backwards, only to be told they’re standing perfectly straight. Or that when they think they’re turning their head, they’re actually turning at their waist. Or that when they think they’re bending their knees, they’re just not! What we think we’re doing is very often not what the outside world sees.

What I love about watching videos of my performances is that I get to see a view from outside my own head. I get to listen, maybe not to a studio quality recording, but at least to something that is outside of me and the processes I’m engaged in to make the sound. I get to experience what the audience might experience.

The lessons for today?

  • Teachers aren’t perfect. Thank goodness. That’s why we understand the struggles our students go through.
  • If you’re a performer, or are having to give some sort of speech or presentation, find a way to get objective feedback. Video yourself. Get a person you trust to watch you. Do what Alexander did and look at yourself in the mirror, if you can bear to. Find some means where you can evaluate your own performance, and preferably AFTER you’ve done it, not DURING. During, you should be far too busy doing it to evaluate anything.
  • And finally, if you’re having a thoughtfest of self criticism like the one I wrote out, be kind to yourself. Notice that you’re doing it, then get back to the job of playing/performing. Evaluation comes later.

Conquer stage fright by… changing point of view

alchemist2

Can you conquer stage fright by changing point of view? Or are the physical sensations of nervousness always going to get to you in the end? This is my story of how I came to realise that between physical sensations and thought patterns, thought patterns are the more destructive agent when it comes to performance anxiety.

When I was young, everyone was certain I was going to be a musician. I played flute and recorder. Recorder was my true love of the two instruments (and still is). I played in the school recorder ensembles and bands. I was always off to some rehearsal or another. I was pretty good – in spite of the fact that I never learned how to practice effectively – and was keen to go to a music school in the Netherlands to further my recorder career.*

So why didn’t I go? How did I end up where I am today?

I couldn’t cope with the nerves. Particularly before solos, my heart would race, my hands and knees would shake, my blood would pump so loudly in my ears that I could barely hear. But worse than that were the fears of getting things wrong, of disappointing people. I spent much of my time before every performance in the grip of a forecast of doom. I was convinced that my performance had to be note perfect, and that anything less was a failure.

I quit. There’s only so long that anyone can take that sort of pressure. At that time, in that place, I couldn’t conquer stage fright. It conquered me.

When I say I quit, I need to be more precise. I quit music. I didn’t quit performing. When I went to university, in addition to all the sensible courses, I enrolled in Theatre Studies for a bit of fun. It became my passion.

I loved the academic approach to theatre, but if I’m honest, I loved the acting and directing the most. And I never suffered stage fright. In fact, I didn’t really experience negative nervousness at all. Not once.

Did I feel my heart go faster before I went onstage? Yup. If anything, it went even faster. I can remember waiting backstage before one performance and wondering what the fastest heartrate recorded might be, as I thought mine at that moment probably rivalled it!

Did my hands and my knees shake? Yes. Definitely yes. When I was in Samuel Beckett’s Play, in which the three actors are encased in urns, mine could be seen vibrating!

But it never bothered me. I was having too much fun.

Now I look back and I can see that, logically, there is little difference between standing in front of an audience wearing a fake beard and carrying a sword, to standing in front of an audience with a recorder mouthpiece between my lips. But at the time, the rules and stories I told myself about each activity were very different.

Music = getting it right, being perfect, being in control, trying to block out the audience (who were ‘against’ me and judging me), getting things wrong and beating myself up for failing

Theatre = experimenting, having fun, having a sort of conversation/interplay with the audience, getting stuff wrong and trying to find a nifty way out of trouble

 

Some of the ideas within these categories may have been picked up from other people and places, but I was the one who held them together and believed them. I created paradigms that made one activity (music) a kind of living hell, and the other (theatre) a paradise of playtime. If FM Alexander had been around to see me, he would have said that he had “no hesitation in stating that the pupil’s fixed ideas and conceptions are a major part of [her] difficulties.” **

One of the unexpected joys of studying the Alexander Technique for me was that the “mental rigidity” (FM’s words) that had fossilised my ideas about music was broken up, and my fear of playing or singing in front of audiences conquered.***

So if you want to conquer stage fright, have you considered whether your ideas and attitudes about the activity of performing might be a significant part of your difficulties? Is there a similar activity that causes you no problems at all? What is the rule that makes the difference?

And it isn’t just stage fright that can be helped by looking at hidden rules and preconceptions. Go hunting, and you may be surprised what ideas you have that rule the way you operate/behave in everyday activities.

Yes, we can conquer stage fright. And sometimes looking at how we think is the first step on the path.

* The Netherlands is one of the major centres of recorder teaching, and early music in general.
** FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.294.
*** FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the IRDEAT edition, p.123.
Photo of Jen in a fake beard as Face in Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist, 1993. Photo by Rex Bunn.

Conquer stage fright by changing point of view

alchemist2

Can you conquer stage fright by changing point of view? Or are the physical sensations of nervousness always going to get to you in the end? This is my story of how I came to realise that between physical sensations and thought patterns, thought patterns are the more destructive agent when it comes to performance anxiety.

When I was young, everyone was certain I was going to be a musician. I played flute and recorder. Recorder was my true love of the two instruments (and still is). I played in the school recorder ensembles and bands. I was always off to some rehearsal or another. I was pretty good – in spite of the fact that I never learned how to practice effectively – and was keen to go to a music school in the Netherlands to further my recorder career.*

So why didn’t I go? How did I end up where I am today?

I couldn’t cope with the nerves. Particularly before solos, my heart would race, my hands and knees would shake, my blood would pump so loudly in my ears that I could barely hear. But worse than that were the fears of getting things wrong, of disappointing people. I spent much of my time before every performance in the grip of a forecast of doom. I was convinced that my performance had to be note perfect, and that anything less was a failure.

I quit. There’s only so long that anyone can take that sort of pressure. At that time, in that place, I couldn’t conquer stage fright. It conquered me.

When I say I quit, I need to be more precise. I quit music. I didn’t quit performing. When I went to university, in addition to all the sensible courses, I enrolled in Theatre Studies for a bit of fun. It became my passion.

I loved the academic approach to theatre, but if I’m honest, I loved the acting and directing the most. And I never suffered stage fright. In fact, I didn’t really experience negative nervousness at all. Not once.

Did I feel my heart go faster before I went onstage? Yup. If anything, it went even faster. I can remember waiting backstage before one performance and wondering what the fastest heartrate recorded might be, as I thought mine at that moment probably rivalled it!

Did my hands and my knees shake? Yes. Definitely yes. When I was in Samuel Beckett’s Play, in which the three actors are encased in urns, mine could be seen vibrating!

But it never bothered me. I was having too much fun.

Now I look back and I can see that, logically, there is little difference between standing in front of an audience wearing a fake beard and carrying a sword, to standing in front of an audience with a recorder mouthpiece between my lips. But at the time, the rules and stories I told myself about each activity were very different.

Music = getting it right, being perfect, being in control, trying to block out the audience (who were ‘against’ me and judging me), getting things wrong and beating myself up for failing

Theatre = experimenting, having fun, having a sort of conversation/interplay with the audience, getting stuff wrong and trying to find a nifty way out of trouble

 

Some of the ideas within these categories may have been picked up from other people and places, but I was the one who held them together and believed them. I created paradigms that made one activity (music) a kind of living hell, and the other (theatre) a paradise of playtime. If FM Alexander had been around to see me, he would have said that he had “no hesitation in stating that the pupil’s fixed ideas and conceptions are a major part of [her] difficulties.” **

One of the unexpected joys of studying the Alexander Technique for me was that the “mental rigidity” (FM’s words) that had fossilised my ideas about music was broken up, and my fear of playing or singing in front of audiences conquered.***

So if you want to conquer stage fright, have you considered whether your ideas and attitudes about the activity of performing might be a significant part of your difficulties? Is there a similar activity that causes you no problems at all? What is the rule that makes the difference?

And it isn’t just stage fright that can be helped by looking at hidden rules and preconceptions. Go hunting, and you may be surprised what ideas you have that rule the way you operate/behave in everyday activities.

Yes, we can conquer stage fright. And sometimes looking at how we think is the first step on the path.

* The Netherlands is one of the major centres of recorder teaching, and early music in general.
** FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.294.
*** FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the IRDEAT edition, p.123.
Photo of Jen in a fake beard as Face in Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist, 1993. Photo by Rex Bunn.

Thought – performance mismatch: How to actually do what you think you are doing

marxmirror

Do you reliably do what you think you are doing? Have you ever had the experience of doing an activity (like singing or performing) and discovering afterwards that you’re not doing it the way you thought you were?

It’s a disconcerting experience. The last time I experienced it most forcibly, I was playing recorder and preparing for a concert with my group Pink Noise. We were playing a rather lovely piece called La Lusingnola by Merula, and we wanted a sound at the beginning that was not legato, but not spiky either – more a sort of portato articulation. So we played and rehearsed, and thought we were doing rather well.

As part of my rehearsing process, I began using my iPad to tape my practice sessions. I taped the Merula, and then listened back to the recording. Imagine my surprise when I found out that I wasn’t playing portato at all! What sounded to me like portato as I played was coming across to an audience far more like staccato. It was too spiky.

I wasn’t doing what I thought I was doing.

As an Alexander Technique teacher, I see a lot of actors and singers with a similar issue. They have a lesson with me because  when they open their mouths to speak or sing, they feel tension in the back of their neck that troubles them and affects their voices. Typically, I will ask them to sing a little bit for me, or at least do everything that they would normally do to begin singing and then just not sing.

And what do I most often see?

They aren’t doing what they think they are doing.

They are not opening their mouths to sing.

They are leaving their jaw still and ‘opening their heads’ to sing instead! In other words, rather than just let the jaw drop and leave the head alone, my students are trying to leave the jaw completely still (using muscular tension) and then use muscles at the back of the head to pull it back.

In both cases the mouth is open, but the result is very different.

Open jaw: 

  • small number of muscles used
  • relationship of head to body is left alone
  • breathing mechanisms left free to do their job

 Open head:

  • muscles activated to hold jaw in place – bad for singing
  • muscles activated in back of neck – more muscular tension than needed
  • relationship of head to body altered for the worse
  • combination of various tensions likely to upset breathing and singing mechanisms

If ‘opening the head’ is so unhelpful, why do we do it? How is it that this happens?

According to FM Alexander, often we have never spent time thinking about HOW we go about most of our activities – we just do them. We get into the habit of performing a certain act in a certain way, and we experience a certain feeling in connection with it which we recognize as “right.” (CCCI, p.296.) If we even think about how we are going about an activity, we tend to assume that we are doing exactly what we think we are doing – that intention and results will be perfectly aligned.

So even if we notice that we aren’t quite having the success we want, or worse, we experience discomfort during the activity (like a tight neck while singing), we keep going because we don’t associate it with our manner of going about our activities.

When we go to an Alexander Technique lesson, or see the video that shows us what we are actually doing, we realise that, in FM’s words, “what we have hitherto recognized as “right” is wrong.” (CCCI, p.296.) We have to change our conception of the activity. We have to make a decision to do something different.

Next time you are singing, or playing flute, or even doing the dishes, just remember to take the time to stop and question: are you really doing what you think you are doing? Are you sure? And what will you change to make it even better?

 

5 Alexander Technique steps to everyday happiness: 4. Live in the present moment

Next week my recorder quartet will be playing a concert, and my thoughts about the rehearsal process are what have led me to today’s tip for everyday happiness: being in and reacting to the present moment.

PinkNoise

The piece that my quartet will play to begin our concert is called The Jogger, by Dick Koomans (the Amsterdam Loeki Stardust Quartet play it extremely well here). It is one of those pieces of music where one person starts, then the next person comes in, copying what the first person does. Then the third person joins, copying the first two players.

The trouble we had initially with this piece as a quartet is that the third player didn’t exactly following the style of playing (intonation) set up by the first two players. And if all the players don’t agree, then the result can sound a little odd.

What happens is that each player goes away and practises the piece on their own. They spend time working on their own style of playing it. But when we get together to practise as a group, we have to find a way to play the music together, sounding as one unit. This means that we really need to spend time listening to each other, and responding in the moment to what we hear going on around us. And if we don’t listen to each other and just press on and play the way we practised, then the result just doesn’t sound the same.

 

Lifting past chairs

But it isn’t only musicians who need to spend time in the present moment. Even on the simplest of tasks we can fall into the trap of not sticking with the present moment, but either dallying in the past or straying into the future. FM Alexander used as his example a person asking a friend to lift a chair:

“You will see at once that your friend will approach the task with a definite preconception as to the amount of physical tension necessary. His mind is exclusively occupied with the question of his own muscular effort, instead of with the purpose in front of him and the best means to undertake it.” *

Our friend lifting the chair approaches the task with “a definite preconception” – they will probably have decided upon the likely weight of the chair and tensed muscles in readiness long before their fingers touch the object. To all intents and purposes, they aren’t really picking up the chair in front of them. They are picking up all the chairs they have picked up in the past!

Most of the time it won’t be the end of the world – misjudging the weight of the chair isn’t likely to have serious consequences! But if we keep relying on our preconceptions, to the point where we forget that we are even doing so, then we are locking ourselves out of the present moment. And that will make it so much harder to react quickly when it really counts.

 

So my task for you this week is this: 

  • Think about the times and places where you do genuinely experience the present moment. For blogger Jamey Burrell, it is when he is running. What about you?
  • And for the next week, keep an eye on yourself. See how often you operate on preconceptions, and whether it sometimes trips you up.

Oh, and if you’re in Bristol next Wednesday lunchtime and have nothing to do, come along to my concert!

 

* FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.63.
Image by Gregor O’Gorman