How to break down crippling and stressful anchors in the instrument you practice most.
Most serious musicians, myself included, have spent countless hours working tirelessly at the technique and proficiency of their most practiced instrument. Through the long tedious hours of practice your state of mind can actually become quite negative or ‘stressed out’. Many of us actually spend years practicing in this mind set, unintentionally reenforcing a negative physical association with touching and/or playing our instruments. Sometimes, it manifests in a negative internal dialogue such as, “who’s that sax player that’s so much better than me and why can’t I play that well” or “who’s that old legend that I’ll never be as good as” and many other sentiments of borderline self-loathing. Because you spend so many hours in this mind set while physically touching and practicing your instrument, a powerful link is created between the negative state of your brain and the physical feeling of holding and/or playing your instrument.
Here’s a video interview and improvisation I did for a web series called Counterpoint Vancouver. In this, we talk about what these barriers are and how to overcome them, among other things.
How do you break down heavily ingrained mental associations or “anchors”?
A lot, if not all of the information I’m talking about, I learned from Kenny Werners: effortless Mastery. If your interested in the high performance of any activity I highly recommend it.
Step 1: Meditation
I’m not going to go too in depth into guided meditation in this post, but I will briefly outline the general idea of what you are trying to achieve. Remember, all anyone can do is tell you the different ways they manage to control their mind and different tricks and methods that work for certain people. The only thing that matters about your meditation method is that it works for you.
Start in a nice comfortable chair where your feet can be flat on the floor and place your instrument in front of you. For piano, just sit at the piano bench, but try not to acknowledge the instrument too much. Take some really deep breaths. Start thinking about something you really enjoy, whether it be a food, drink, activity or person. Picture each breath filling you with that taste or emotion. As you feel yourself relax more and more you want to gradually try and watch different parts of your body relax from your head to your toe. Try and imagine every square inch of your body relaxing as you breath in and breath out until you’ve felt a warming sensation all over your body. To get to this stage it may take 2 minutes or it make take 20 min.
The next step is quieting your mind. For me personally, it’s best to try and become the observer. I find it very helpful to try and see myself in a 3rd person point of view. I deliberately end up viewing myself in a side profile where I can see my hands if I’m playing piano or the side of my face and horn when I’m playing saxophone. Some people find it helpful to think about flying out of the back of your head and then flying out of the back of that head and again and again until you can see a row of ‘backs of heads’. Again, whatever works for you is all that matters.
I truly feel that once you’re in this stage, where you are an observer of your own body, you can really elevate the execution of all sorts of different tasks. For starters, the relaxation techniques can be used during very difficult and physically grueling technical passages. Even in the most strenuous melody you can find relaxation and comfort through this method.
At this point you should be at a near euphoric state and extremely relaxed. The next step is to open your eyes and acknowledge or grab your instrument. If it’s piano, just place your hands on the keys. If it’s voice, just sing a few notes or even think about singing. If it’s guitar, just pick up your guitar and place your hands on the neck. As soon as you pick up your instrument you will immediately be pulled out of your meditative state that you spent so much time conjuring. Do not play your instrument for the rest of the day. Stop, and put your instrument down. Come back to it the next day and start the process all over again. For the first few days you should be barely able to pick up your instrument before getting pulled out of the meditative state. If you do this process for a week, hopefully by the end you’ll be able to hold your instrument and play a couple of simple notes or lines for 5 or 10 minutes before you are snapped out of it. I assure you that after a week of this the changes in your technique and performance will be so dramatic it will shock and amaze you and anyone else who knows your musical tendencies. These techniques are especially helpful for live performance and composition.
Once you have started to break down these negative barriers the effects will go up and down like a roller coaster. Sometimes it will be amazing and you will be playing far beyond your presumed skill level. Other times it may seem like you are back where you started. Remember, if you ever have a problem trying to think of a lyric, learn a difficult passage, or you want to approach a line that really makes you uncomfortable, the more you can approach it from this mind set, the faster you will learn it, the more you will enjoy learning it and the better you’ll perform it after it has been internalized.
Try this out for your self and please comment and let me know how your experiments go. Or, feel free to ask any questions in posts to this blog, I’ll try and get to them in good time.
Thanks for reading,