Music and Psychology – Performance Strategies

Thinking back on the last rehearsal, and looking through the feedback that I have previously received, I took some time out to think about what it is that I am doing which helps and/or hinders my performance. Analysing previous performances, I noticed that some tracks were highly praised, whilst others were less so. Breaking it down I thought, for example, on each recital my level of technical proficiency has not changed throughout the course of the evening. From this, I can narrow down the inconsistencies in my playing to two areas;

Knowledge of material.

It goes without saying that the songs I was able to rehearse more often were firmly in my mind. The songs that I felt more familiar with seemed a lot more natural during the performances. I could focus more on the nuances of the performance, as opposed to the particularly tricky sections. It was, in part, this which provided the essence of fluidity within certain songs that I had performed. I find that knowing the material well provides me with mental escape routes; in my mind I feel that nothing will go wrong during the performance, however I know what to do if something does. Needless to say, the songs that I didn’t know quite as well did not give me this feeling, and that tentativeness would show through my performance. This brings me onto my next point:

Thoughts, emotions and feelings.

I recently read a very interesting book by David Buswell, Performance Strategies for Musicians, which discusses the importance of the performer’s frame of mind, and the impact that this has on a performance. He explains how what you are thinking directly affects a performance because the mind and body are ‘inextricably linked’. He argues, ‘What you are thinking and what you are feeling at this present moment is taking place in your conscious mind, but these thoughts and feelings are the result of a process of which you are not conscious’ (p16) He uses the example of making a cup of tea (conscious decision) – the action being prompted by any number of unconscious decisions (thirst, comfort, etc.) He goes on to assert the importance of the unconscious mind, as it controls bodily processes (breathing, hunger, circulation), retains learned skills, instincts, emotions and is the source of our creative ideas and intuition.

Buswell goes on to discuss a system called Mental Skills Training or ‘MST’, which helps to harness the power of the unconscious mind, minimise negative feelings and thoughts, ultimately enhancing performance. The three key aspects to MST are breathing, relaxation and mental rehearsal. There is too much to go into in detail, but hopefully I can provide an overview of this system and the benefits:

Breathing – natural breathing keeps balance. Stress leads to the innate and instinctive ‘fight or flight’ feeling. Breathing changes to fast and shallow, providing muscles with oxygen to burn to take ‘fight or flight’. Hyperventilation creates an imbalance between oxygen and carbon dioxide, which can lead to tingling face, hands and limbs, muscle tremors and cramps, dizziness, visual problems and increased anxiety. He argues that breathing should be gentle, even and smooth, through the nose and not the mouth, filling the lungs completely. Also, it should be into the abdomen area, and not the upper chest.

Relaxation – ‘True relaxation in achieved at the moment when the body, the mind and emotions are till and not stimulated’ (p52). With relaxation, the heart rate slows, breathing becomes slow and regular. Less oxygen is consumed and the muscles relax. He goes on to discuss different methods of relaxation, including the Feldenkais Method and the Alexander Technique.

Mental Rehearsal / Visualisation – Buswell explains, ‘although a very sophisticated mechanism, the central nervous system does not differentiate between real and imagined events’ (p77). He uses the example of how we will occasionally wake from a dream with a pounding heart, or a sense of impending danger. He continues, ‘a musician can mentally rehearse a piece and impress it in the muscle memory in the same way as it would be imprinted if it was actually being plated; at the same time it is also being imprinted in the auditory memory’ (p78-79). Mentally rehearsing relaxes the body by creating the connections between the nervous system and the muscles. It also accelerates the learning process.

I have taken these ideas on board and have attempted to use them into recent gigs. It has actually helped a lot, more than I expected. I have really tried to relax during performances, and attempted to put myself in the correct state of mind. I try and think, ‘nothing is going to go wrong’ and ‘I’m in control of my own playing. The techniques Buswell discusses within MST really help with this. I’ll keep trying them out and try and log my process as I go along.

Buswell, D. (2006) Performance Strategies for Musicians. Hertfordshire, United Kingdom: MX Publishing.

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