Getting Control of the Drunken Monkey
By Jeffrey Agrell
Both internal mental processes and external physical appearance and gestures are extremely important factors in the success of a musical performance, yet both are seldom given the attention they deserve in the course of traditional studies.
We spend countless hours in the practice room working on mastering our instrument. But finally the day of the performance arrives. Like an evil magic spell, we step on stage and face the audience – and in an instant the world changes – we become different people. The horn now feels like an unfamiliar clumsy lump of metal. Our vision clouds, our fingers cramp, our mouth goes dry, and as we struggle to cope with these awful conditions, everything we worked so hard for goes right out the window.
We feel cheated – all those hours! We may not, in fact, have practiced the other half of performing – learning how to feel comfortable on stage (known as stage presence) and learning how to give the audience a good show both with the instrument and with various nonverbal cues.
The usual practice has been to consider performing a single activity. It is in fact two activities, one of which we practice – the technical process of learning the solo – and one of which we practice very little – standing up on stage facing the audience. If the latter is not practice to the level of the former, it will always drag the level of the solo down regardless of how well it is learned. This article is an attempt to aid our understanding and practice of the second – and most neglected – the extra-musical part of the performance: stage presence and control of the physical and psychological processes responsible for it.
Two Aspects of Performance
To begin, it is useful to break down further the extra-musical effects of performance into two categories:
What you feel
What the audience feels
Let’s take up the second one first. Performers sometimes have the misconception that the audience’s perception of the performance mirrors that of the performer. The fact is, that the two perceptions can be vastly different. The player knows the piece in infinitely greater detail, and every tiny error seems magnified. In most cases, the majority of the audience may not even hear the errors that seem as about as inconspicuous as elephants on motorcycles to the player. The player is flooded with a potent blend of pleasant and terrifying sensations that may accompany standing up in front of a crowd of people and trying to deliver a convincing performance of challenging material. The audience is to varying degrees aware of the sounds, but has other personal distractions with none of the intense and magnified sensations of performing (concerning mental distractions: the audience has to deal with the same problem that we as performers do: the little chattering voice in our heads, the mental radio that plays incessantly in our heads. We sometimes mistake this chatterbox for ourselves – but it is not us. It is “the drunken monkey” – very hard to control; it is just something we can do, not our personal identity. This voice is not your friend. It has one value: continuing to chatter. Later we will consider how we as performers can quiet this mental radio.)
So the two perceptions can be very different. With this in mind, the player is in a position to take stock of how to deliver the best performance, i.e. to enhance the audience’s perception of the event regardless of the performance. A good share of the listener’s impression is in fact visual. Audition committees know this – and that is why most auditions take place behind screens. It is a fact that aural perception is heavily influenced by other factors than what is actually played. A great deal of what people think that they ‘hear’ is in fact composed of a visual impression mixed with their personal prejudice and expectations – and they are seldom even aware of this (that’s why one music critic or one audition committee member can have a completely different overall impression than another). As a performer you can’t do anything about audience prejudices – but you can influence their visual impression. Thus, it is extremely important to acquire the skill of being a good actor, which unfortunately is not often touched upon in traditional music study.
The audience begins to form an opinion of the performer the instant he or she comes into view. The performer may have practiced the piece to be performed hundreds of times, but may have only practiced walking on and off stage only a couple times in passing at dress rehearsals. The player must be highly aware of the visual impression he is making at all times. Movements should be done in what feels like a little slower than usual – on stage this means they’ll appear about right. Quick, fidgety movements make the audience unconsciously uncomfortable, since they make the performer appear uncertain and nervous. Consider the movie scene where the mafia boss is addressing an underling. The boss may barely move a muscle, while the underling twists his cap and shuffles and fidgets and bites his lip. Actors and directors know exactly how to manipulate your perception of how you feel about the characters – with or without dialogue.
How you actually feel should not carry over to your performance – that’s why they call it acting. An actor must portray anger or love or impatience or joy – it is not necessary to be in that state. We must do the same. Music is not about right notes – it is about drama, about giving a good show. Be an actor! A good actor! Practice walking on and off stage. Have friends closely watch your face, your manner, your movements and give you feedback. For instance, do your eyebrows add editorial comments to every scratch? Videotape yourself (or have a coach watch you) and check your expressions – which, along with posture and movement, influence audience impressions. Be aware and be in control.
Some tips on how to create the impression you want through acting on stage:
•Move ‘slowly’; don’t fidget. Hold still, stand easy.
•Have a pleasant, but not strained smile. Remember you want to let everyone know that you are enjoying playing – this is vital to help them enjoy listening.
•Oral program notes (i.e. talking) are useful for breaking the “fourth wall” and engaging the sympathy of the audience. Caveat: practice your remarks well first. Don’t read them from a piece a paper and don’t memorize them (which is just reading from a mental piece of paper). Do improvise them just as you would a conversation with a friend. Practice until the effect is smooth – fumbling for words or saying, ‘Um…’ may have the opposite effect that you want.
•At the end of the piece, don’t pull the horn down instantly at the last note – freeze! Hold it for ca. 3 seconds – let the magic continue a bit. Then: slowly bring the horn down, smile, bow, acknowledge accompanist, smile and nod in acknowledgement of the applause, and depart. Remember that you are still ‘on’ until you are completely out of view off stage.
•Act! Regardless of inner feeling, act calm, in control. If something goes awry, let it go, and continue with the same appearance of calm. Always look like you’re enjoying it – you may (as that old song from “The King and I”) even end up fooling yourself!
•After the concert, avoid the urge to confess your sins to the first person you meet. Continue smiling. When someone says, “Nice job!” say “Thank you,” not “Man, I wish I hadn’t chipped the first note of the last movement.“ There will be a time to go over the ‘game film’ and analyze and learn. Post-concert is not it.
The audience forms 30% of its opinion about how they feel about you before you play a note. If you look calm and confident, they will feel the same and enjoy it, no matter if you miss a few. If you look nervous and distracted, they will be uncomfortable with your performance even before you play a note and no matter how many right notes you hit.
The audience will form another 30% of its opinion from how you look immediately after you play – happy? Proud? Delighted? Ready to do it all again? Angry? Embarrassed? Confused? Still nervous?
That leaves only 40% -tops- of their opinion based on what you actually played, and a good bit of that will come from how you looked while playing it.
•Learn from the best. Post- and pre-concert, you can engage in ongoing study of how the greats do it: Frank, Frøydis, Doug, Radovan, Arkady, all those folks; but also top performers on any other instrument, in fact, learn from any professional standing up on stage. Then take that image and use it when you act: become that person, act just like them. Actors in fact develop stage characters and mannerisms from observations of other people.
So: practice acting and you will have a great advantage in delivering a good performance (which has little to do with a scorecard of ‘right notes’). Remember what that great philosopher Vince Lombardi once said: “Confidence is contagious. So is lack of confidence.”
One last and very important tip for making the best impression with the audience is musical: use a lot of expression in your playing – don’t play dry and colorlessly. It may feel risky to play with a broad range of dynamics and subtle rhythmic nuances, but as Charles Young says, if you put emotion in your playing will engage the audience and they won’t care about a few scratches. If you play it ‘safe’ – without emotion, without drama, without risk – you will lose their attention and good will, and that won’t have anything to do while your play but count your misses.
How you feel
So we have some ideas on how to influence the way the audience feels about your performance. Now let’s move from the external to the internal. Acting aside, we want to avoid as many symptoms of nervousness as possible in performance. Our most powerful weapon here is the preparation itself – we need to practice every detail of the piece until we can perform it automatically – ‘in our sleep’, as the saying goes. It helps to memorize all tricky passages, if not the entire piece – playing by memory automatically elevates the level of mastery. Go the extra mile – be able to play every passage 10, 20, 30 and more times in a row accurately; if you really want to cement it, then go back again and play all the sticky bits again with different rhythms and dynamics. This last bit of ‘improvisation’ with the material will increase your flexibility. This brings a very significant measure of confidence to the performance. You are also prepared for the unexpected (orchestra plays too loud or too fast or slow, your accompanist gets sick at the last minute and you have to play with a replacement, and so on).
What are the characteristics of the optimum state of mind and body for performing? We want to be:
Detached from any ego involvement in what we do. Separate self- worth from performance result.
We want to be relaxed so that pairs of muscles do not fight each other so we can play with maximum efficiency and ease. We want to be calm, with no elevated heart rate, no flight or fight syndrome.
Relaxed does not mean sleepy – we want to be totally alert so that our mind is here, now, not speculating on the future or worrying about the past – especially while we are playing.
We want to be concentrated so that we are entirely focused on the task at hand without distractions.
Detaching our ego from performance results is another neglected be all-important personal skill that affects how we play. There are two basic frames of musical mind:
Practice mind – analyzing, looking for flaws, finding solutions and problem solving.
Performance mind. Here you don’t stop to correct or even think about any mistake, small or large. You turn off the internal critic and stand back and watch the performance happen. You don’t feel disappointed or sad or frustrated if (i.e. when) something “unplanned” happens, and likewise you do not feel pride if you have played flawlessly so far. Both are distractions from the task at hand while it happens. As the Kipling poem “If” says, you must “meet Triumph and Defeat and treat these two imposters just the same.”
How Do You Feel About Mistakes?
When something happens that is not as you planned either in performance or practice (and something, somewhere most certainly will), treat it as information. When you clam a note, don’t curse or fret about it; if you react you will lose calm and focus. Remain detached and use the information to adjust something to achieve the desired result next time. There is a lot of information in a big juicy mistake, information that you can use to guide your practice. If you get mad about it or deny that it happens, you are missing the value – yes, value – of the mistake. By the same token, if you hit that high note perfectly, save the feeling in kinesthetic memory – i.e. the settings of breath and embouchure – so that you can duplicate them next time. But don’t feel either bad or good about either happening. If you want to rejoice or grieve sometime later after the performance, go right ahead. But during the performance, you need to remain detached; Dave Krehbiel calls it “creative not caring”.
Achieving relaxation, focus, and detachment, the player can experience what psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow,” and enjoy the process as it unfolds. Achieving flow is also something that never gets touched in instrumental lessons.
What can we do to achieve it?
•Get control of the drunken monkey – Practice focusing (sometimes called meditation). Regularly. Ideal is two twenty-minutes sessions a day, but any amount of time is beneficial. Quiet the monkey mind by doing breath and focus exercises at every opportunity. Control of the mind needs to be practiced as much as – and along with – practicing the instrument. Simply closing your eyes and watching your breath go in and out slowly is a powerful calming exercise. If you practice this kind of focusing (on an image, a word, or the breath) regularly, you will be able to call up this calm and ability to focus when you need it – e.g. in solo performance.
•Practice detachment in everyday situations. If you are in a line at the supermarket (for example) and other lines seem to move faster, observe yourself. If you become frustrated, move to the back of the line. If you are in a traffic jam and the cars in the other lane seem to advance faster and your blood pressure starts rising, take a moment to take a deep breath, have a laugh at yourself, and remind yourself to practice detachment. If you are playing tennis and double fault, instead of cursing, smile and accept the gift of information and use it to tweak your serve the next time.
•Kill your fears with familiarity. Basketball teams have games two or three times a week. Football every week. We have one recital… every 6 months, or a year, or two or even four years. It’s not enough! We need to perform in front of people at least as much as the football team. Jazz players are up on the stand all the time – have you ever seen a nervous jazz player? What can classical players do to greatly increase the quantity of performances? Read on.
Modest Proposals to Acquire More Performance Experiences
We make it difficult for ourselves to learn stage presence when we only combine it with performing difficult material. If we practice working on the two separately, we can acquire a higher level of comfort on stage much more quickly.
1. Redefine where you can play. If you wait for Carnegie Hall or even your school’s recital hall, you will fall way short of the quantity needed to acquire the feeling of being at home on the stage. See “Venues” below.
2. Redefine what you can play in performances. You don’t have to only play the most difficult literature (a.k.a. pieces you ‘wish you could play’). Consider vastly broadening your repertoire and lessening the stress of performance by learning a passel of Grade 1 and Grade 2 solos – stuff that you can sight-read nearly perfectly and perform it anywhere you can (suggestions to follow) to acquire a large quantity of comfortable performing experiences (instead of a low quantity of uncomfortable performing experiences as happens when we only play one recital of difficult material a year). You can also play familiar tunes, such as folk songs, holiday music, children’s songs, etc. – which are fun to play and more appropriate to some audiences anyway. As you amass experience, gradually add Grade 3 and higher pieces. You can also use parts of longer solos – just the slow movement from a concerto, for example. To feel good about performing you need to have a string of successes, and for this it is important to choose pieces that you can playing consistently highly successfully.
3. Redefine how you play. You can also make up the music as you go: improvise performances (or portions of them)! Improvisation doesn’t mean you have to be Dizzy Gillespie and turn out blizzards of sixteenth notes – you can improvise a beautiful long tone solo in minor at a church service. Or be a giraffe or a turtle in music for kindergartners. Or play some Stephen Foster tunes with variations at the Senior Center. You can also use material from the solos or etudes you are studying as source material for improvisation. Improvisation can be a huge help in our quest to amass sufficient quantities of performances.
In either of the above, you will not be using (at least right away) material of the level of, say, a junior recital (until you’re ready for that recital). But you will be doing something highly useful that you can use for every performance you ever do – you are making the performing experience familiar (invite those demons home for dinner!) and thus friendly, not threatening.
We don’t perform enough. We need to perform more – lots more. Time to brainstorm some possibilities. Below is a quick list to start – add more on your own:
•Play for any/all of your friends
•Ditto your family, including and especially those old aunts and uncles who used to bug you years ago to play something and you didn’t want to but your mother/father made you anyway? It’s Payback Time!
•Schools (especially elementary schools)
•Art and other museums
•Prisons. A captive audience, but they enjoy the break in the routine
•Each other! Get together with fellow musicians who want to work on this aspect of performing. Bring food. Trade off. Make it a marathon. Repeat!
Other Aids to Peak Performance
•Do practice performances and/or dress rehearsals under less-than-ideal circumstances. Play for friends who are under instructions to behave badly during your performance (sit too close, talk or whisper while you play, take flash pictures, take cell phone calls, suck on lemons, shoot spitballs, change seats, have coughing attacks, etc.) – then if something happens you won’t be particularly disturbed by it.
•Affirmations. Keep your mind free of any and all negative thoughts (“What if I miss the high notes???!!!!). Repeat to yourself over and over positive statements about the performance. “I feel relaxed and calm at all times.” “I enjoy the chance to make music for friends.” “My hands feel heavy and warm.”
•Use Humor. Fear and laughing can’t co-exist. Keep things in perspective – don’t take yourself or performing too seriously – and laugh and have fun whenever you can. Enjoy the process!
•Diet and exercise. It’s the oldest advice in the world, but nonetheless very true: to mitigate the negative effects of stress and to feel your best, exercise regularly and eat sensibly. And make sure you get enough sleep.
•Visualization/Auralization. Rehearse the piece in great detail in your mind – perfectly! Repeat! As you do, remain aware of the optimum state points: relaxed, alert, focused, detached. Roger von Oech, in his book A Whack on the Side of the Head relates the story of a champion swimmer who was examining why he won so many races. He said that he worked very hard, ate properly, and took good care of himself. But his competitors did this as well. What made the difference for him was his pre-game mental preparation. He would visualize every detail of the race, including himself winning – and do this forty times before each meet. “When it comes time to swim,” he said, “I just get in and win.” Von Oech sums up: “Thinking… can have an enormous impact on… action.”
•Frame the event. Rather than casting it as an ‘ordeal where you try to deliver a performance and survive the criticism of inevitable flaws afterwards (especially from yourself), re-cast it as a chance to share some beautiful music with others.