I’m reading a great book called “The Inner Game of Music” by Barry Green (with W. Timothy Gallwey). I’m a bit late to the party on this one; it was published back in 1986 and is based on concepts put forth in Gallwey’s best seller, “The Inner Game of Tennis.” There are so many ideas, concepts and practical exercises covered in Green’s book that it would be impossible to cover them all here but the basic premise is that by tapping into the creative side of one’s brain to the exclusion of everything else your performance and satisfaction will radically improve. One of those things to exclude is nervousness.
Not everything in the book is applicable to playing the guitar. Green is a classical bass player and professor at a major university, or he was when the book was published anyway. So his examples and anecdotes relate to performance on many other instruments, and the musical examples he uses may not be familiar for someone whose interests and experience are in the world of popular music played on a guitar. However, there are plenty of take-aways.
He puts forth the idea that we are really two people when it comes to musical performance, which he calls Self 1 and Self 2. Self 1 is someone or something that is talking. Self 2 is the person in our brains who’s being spoken to. Any aspect or circumstance that interferes with your potential is Self 1. Any aspect or circumstance that expresses your potential is Self 2.
“Self 2 may have access to the unconscious, or right brain, or whatever; so might Self 1. The point is simply to know whether you are experiencing interference or expressing you fullest resources.”
Of course, it is much, much more complex than that and a host of influences come into play. And when we factor in age and especially experience, pushing away or “leveraging” Self 1 becomes much more difficult for most of us. Think about how children learn and react. If they are trying an activity for the first time and find some success they almost instantly continue with that activity without thinking all that much about it and often find unbridled joy. First steps, blowing bubbles, petting and playing with a dog. It’s only when an adult cautions them (“Careful! Don’t fall!” “Don’t let the soap in the bubble blower get in your mouth!” “Be nice to that doggie!”) that their little Self 1’s begin to be heard.
A couple of my favorite points in the book:
“Permission to fail leads to success.”
This is something I tell my students over and over. To be frank, I wish I was better at taking my own advice! Knowing that you will always have another chance is liberating, if you let it be. The result is often a better performance because you have a deeper sense of awareness. Self 1 wants to be critical and cautionary. Push him away.
“Our musical challenge is to imagine that we always have a second chance. Giving ourselves permission to fail sidesteps any concern we might otherwise feel about performance. We are left free to accomplish the task at hand. We can stop trying, and allow ourselves to become part of the music.”
Sometimes it helps to categorize and deal with exactly what is making us nervous, even to the point of listing individual responses. Green recommends going so far as to write down each physical manifestation of the nervousness. He lists such things as loss of breath, dry mouth, increased heartbeat, sweaty hands, shaking hands, fingers or knees. He also lists mental problems such as forgetting words or fingering, losing sense of timing, even forgetting the music entirely.
Then, says Green, the object is to focus on those individual elements brought to the forefront by Self 1. His belief is that by focusing on them individually rather than in the whole (i.e., I’m so nervous I just can’t play!) you will begin to minimize those individual elements over a shorter amount of time overall. I think this is valid.
As I said, there is much, much more in this book. If I had to find a major fault with it I would have to say that he assumes the player has at least a basic command of the piece of music as a starting point. What if you don’t have that command? Is it possible to still apply his techniques?
I don’t really know. What I do know is that I have some things I do when I’m nervous, which can be from any number of causes.
First and foremost: simplify. Even if I’ve been practicing a piece for weeks before I put in front of people and I’m proud of some elements I’ve added or the overall sound of the piece I always start by playing it without embellishments, “straight ahead” as jazzers say. Maybe I’ll play an entire piece that way. Hopefully, assuming that rendition was satisfactory I’ll try adding those cool little things the next time I play it. Or not. Depends on how I’m feeling.
That gets to another thing I try to do. No matter what has been going on in my life externally or internally I do my best to let those things go before I play a note. This is sometimes difficult, for sure. The trick for me is to refocus. For example, if I’ve succeeded in dialing in the best overall sound possible (new strings, perfectly adjusted amp) I try to rejoice in that. It almost always helps.
Taking my time before I begin to play is key, for me anyway. I know some professional musicians who can arrive 10 minutes before a gig, set up and jump right in and sound great. Not this guy. I always try to arrive AT LEAST a half hour before I’m supposed to start playing; an hour is better. That way I can focus on the playing as soon as I start and my Self 1 is not asking if I left the lights on in the car, if I wore the right clothing, how heavy the traffic will be when I drive home and what I have to do when I get there. None of those things have any place in my consciousness if I’m going to play well and play relaxed.
Breathing. Don’t forget to breathe! I always take a few relaxed, deep breaths before I start playing and things are sure to get off right. This is another thing I remind my students regularly, even when they are about to begin practicing at home. What bookends with breathing is counting a measure or two before I start playing. It’s another way to focus.
As soon as possible when I’m playing in front of people I try to find at least one person who is enjoying the music. This doesn’t always happen of course; most of the places I play are NOT concert situations and the people have every right to pay little or no attention to me. These days, being a recent grandfather, what will banish any nervousness I may have is seeing a youngster enthralled with my playing. Kids are the best audience you could hope to have!
Although I can’t recommend The Inner Game of Music without a couple reservations – there may be some ideas that you just can’t put into practice – I still feel just about everyone who plays guitar, beginner or seasoned pro will find something in there that will benefit their playing, or at the very least give them lots to think about.
Peace & good music,