I was reading an article the other day about performance anxiety, and those who know me (especially my students) can imagine my chagrin when the author referred to the “twisted neck” position, and to violin playing as a “tension-created” activity. Yikes.
Tension is exacerbated by fear. Tension is a root cause of many of the things we fear about performing…. The old catch 22. Tension also leads to injury (and makes for an unpleasant tone). Doesn’t it seem foolish to make tension part of the ground work for technique? Why not address causes rather than symptoms?
If practice is calm and deliberate, if we really pay attention to, and analyze how we are using our bodies, each of us can be our own best teacher. Just because we were taught to do something a certain way, doesn’t mean it should be considered sacred. We must question and examine things we take for granted.
Since our perception of time ‘stretches out‘ when danger looms (for example, in performance), there is much more time to ‘think’.
Enter ‘The Little Voice’. You know – the one that says “You are going to miss that shift, you’re gonna miss it……. Told you so.”
When the nerves hit, that little voice can be very destructive. Much has been written about ways to get rid of it. I say, give it something useful to do!
We spend a lot of time working with sensory motor issues when practicing, and tend to neglect the rational component of the cognitive process. When the pressure is on and that rational ‘voice’ doesn’t know what is going on, panic ensues.
On the other hand, if you load that little voice with useful information – “I am now playing a diminished arpeggio. It is a c# diminished arpeggio, because I am going to d minor. Diminished arpeggios have a particular feeling because of the tritone relationships across the strings. Next I have a big shift – it sounds like a 10th, but my hand is actually moving a minor third…” and so on.
Now, when the voice intrudes, it has something supportive to say and can buttress confidence and memory. That makes it easier to relax and enjoy!
Probably everyone would agree that, experientially, time is elastic – not at all constant. It rushes here, dawdles there, and is generally erratic.
While other senses are localized in the brain, time is woven into everything we perceive – it is ‘metasensory’, and rides on top of all the others. Perhaps this is part of the reason music-making – which is a way of shaping time – lights up so many portions of the brain.
One hallmark of time’s elasticity is the way it slows when danger threatens.
In such situations, people overestimate the passing of time by about 36%! Last April there was a fascinating article in the New Yorker about time and perception. The article mentioned that time and memory are tightly intertwined, and that one of the seats of emotion and memory is the amygdala. It goes into overdrive when something threatens and records every last detail of the experience.
So – how does this apply to us as performers?
What happens when our attention is heightened by such an expanded existence within time? After a bout of stage fright, I have often heard students complain that they didn’t even recognize their own sound, that they never sounded like that. I beg to differ – they just don’t listen with the same intensity when they practice.
One remedy – SLOW practice. With deliberate FOCUS. Give yourself the time to notice every last little thing…. And I mean slow. I remember reading that it took Rachmaninoff a full minute to get through one measure while practicing. That immediately ranks him as one of my heroes.