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The Sensible Flutist

The Sensible Flutist: July 2011

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Peeling back the Layers

Since I began seriously playing again, I have struggled with performance anxiety in ways that I don't recall ever experiencing. I have read books, talked to my teachers, and sought multiple performance opportunities in order to practice the skill of performing.

But I still feel like I fail. Why?

Interestingly enough, I had an epiphany sitting in my car listening to the radio. P!nk's song, "F'in Perfect," was on and I really started listening to the lyrics. All of a sudden, I realized that the negative performance experiences I had as a child are still affecting me emotionally and psychologically.

On a personal level, you can hide behind a shell of yourself. As a musician and an artist, you must lose that shell. Losing it can induce anxiety and self-doubt. There are different types of performance anxiety as listed in my colleague Marion Harrington's article; however, when I read these, I found that I couldn't exactly define how I suffer.

I began my musical journey as a singer. As a kid, I sang all the time. I would sneak into my brother's room, play a record, and sing along. If I didn't know the words, I made them up (I especially remember "La Bamba").

As I got older, I began singing in public. I could easily get up and sing in front of a church full of people. I was singing because I loved it, and I didn't have any preconceived notions about what I was supposed to do. I didn't start developing preconceived notions until I began entering talent shows at school.

I grew up in rural Southwest Virginia which is very religious. I sang anything my mom could find a taped accompaniment for, which was usually gospel or Christian contemporary music. And that's what I sang for my talent shows. The rejection that I remember most is a school assembly that I sang for. I don't remember the song, but I do remember looking up into the bleachers and seeing a boy mocking me.

I never tied this experience to my flute playing, but I think that it is a factor in how I deal with my anxiety. As I got older, I began burying more of my true self in order to fit in as most of us do. I have an "old soul," and I had only a few close friends. Because I find myself caught in the middle between those my own age and those older than me who I'm closer to in maturity, I have built layers of walls to protect myself from getting hurt in relationships with others.

We all build walls. Breaking them down in order to perform without fear is perhaps the most difficult part of our job.

Ultimately, this realization peeled back one more layer of my psyche to figure out exactly why I get anxious when I perform. My ease as a singer and a natural performer has evolved into a nervous adrenaline rush that affects my entire performance. It has struck at the beginning, in the middle, and sporadically.

How do I start to let go and enjoy the music?

My most recent post (Opening the Heartspace) is a step in the right direction. I actually started writing this post several months ago, but I've been letting it simmer. There was something there that although realizing that my childhood fears have followed me into adulthood, it doesn't explain everything.

There's something more. Perfectionism.

When we're children, we don't try to be perfect. We are able to perform without expectations or pressure. We sing/play/dance simply because we love to do it. Somewhere along the way, we learn that this isn't good enough. We must be perfect. We must please others. And when someone laughs at or mocks you, then you begin avoiding that which used to give you so much joy.

My experiences make me who I am today and I know who I am as a person, but the more I can break down the walls that I have built around myself to protect myself, the more true artistry will emerge in my teaching and on stage.

Here are some resources to help you overcome the "lizard brain" (as Seth Godin puts it):

Elizabeth Gilbert on nurturing creativity

Seth Godin's Linchpin

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Thursday, July 21, 2011

Opening the Heartspace

The phrase "opening the heartspace" is one I was first exposed to when I started taking yoga classes over two years ago. At first, I thought it simply meant opening and stretching across the chest; however, this phrase has become more significant to me of late.

This summer, I've been reading The Art of Practicing by Madeline Bruser. A piano teacher and authorized meditation instructor, Bruser explores musical, meditative, and psychological aspects in this book. The ideas of staying inquisitive and opening yourself to what can happen in a practice session are firmly grounded in a pedagogical foundation that allows your mind to connect with your body in a healthy, productive manner.

Shortly after beginning to read this book, I attended the Andover Educators' Biennial Conference and was immersed in five intense days of body mapping. As cliche as it may sound, this conference was a life changing experience. I opted to play in one of the supervised teaching sessions, where I worked with a recently certified educator. The concept of "inclusive awareness" is one that I didn't quite connect with, and it showed in my performance. I was glued to the stand, unaware of anything else around me.

And here we are at the heart (no pun intended) of this post: while opening the heartspace is about sharing love and compassion, opening the heartspace in our music making makes us vulnerable and a more likely vessel for the music to flow through, allowing us to connect with our audience and share in the same experience.

Bruser's book has a anecdote where she had someone outstretch their arms. Their response was fear because they no longer felt safe. Through the study of body mapping and tapping into all my senses to maintain awareness of not only the music but myself, along with reading this book, I feel myself connecting more to my audiences and to my music. This is happening because I'm looking at my audience, I'm connecting my movement to the music, and I'm staying open to the experience, not battling it.

Staying open, staying receptive. There are numerous benefits to remaining inclusively aware, and keeping your heart open. Performance anxiety can be minimized, you can enjoy more of your performance, and you are connected on a more human level to your audience. I read somewhere that if you're only performing to please the heckler in the audience, then you're losing a critical component of yourself...YOU! 99 percent of your audience is there to see you succeed.

How do we stay open? I change my body language. If I'm in the practice room, I outstretch my arms as I were giving the room a big hug. If I'm in public, I mentally picture this action. My arms are suspended over my rib structure, my chest opens, and I feel more comfortable and confident.

Please comment if you have any questions. The more I tune into my body, the more musical answers it has given me. This is the gift that all of us should have.

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