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.


Earth Wind and Fire – ‘Getaway’ (Andrew Gouche version)

‘Getaway’ kicks in with some odd off beat pushes, and for the most part consists of a 4/4 funk groove. This track has an odd structure; the head consisting of uneven bar numbers and the odd 2/4 bar here and there. The jam section was tricky in this one, as it went over a strange chord progression:

[Fm9 /// | Bbm9 ///| Fm9 / Bbm9 /| Dbm9 ///]

There is a push on the last 16th note before each chord too which made for some interesting rhythmic fills. The only downside to this is that as a drummer, these 16th anticipations often lead to you finishing a fill on the opposite hand than usual. This isn’t usually a problem but can get tricky when doing other rhythms such as triplets across different drums. The improvised sections were inspired a lot by the original track, which leans into a number of different genres, including fusion, funk, gospel and RnB. We spent a lot of time just jamming over ideas and a lot of the ideas we improvised in rehearsals became themes that we used for the final performance.

I thought the live performance of the track went well overall, and I focused on locking my kick drum in with the bass line. The groove is very punchy, and through rehearsals we found that keeping the kick drum and bass guitar linked tightly was the key to this. During the live performance, I think on the whole it went well. The solos built nicely, however there was a technical problem with Phil’s guitar amp which threw us off with some of the themes linking to other sections, but we managed to get through.



Rehearsing Continues

Taking some time to reflect on yesterday’s rehearsal, I have notice a few different things. First and foremost, the accuracy in which we play as a band has increased substantially. I know I’m getting used to the way the other band members play. This helps a lot when it comes to locking down grooves, but I never appreciated before the amount in which familiarity with the playing of other musicians enables you to be dynamically mobile as a group. Playing music successfully with a group of other musicians relies heavily on each person’s ability to listen. However, as you get used to the playing of another person, you can really become proficient with dynamics. I have noticed two key elements when rehearsing.

Dynamics – Amount: Listening and watching for facial expressions and gestures to collectively decide how much to raise and lower the dynamics of a track. As a drummer, a lot of the finesse within my playing lies within dynamics, as we do not share the tonal variety that other instruments do. Progressing through this project, it has become more and more apparent that dynamics do not stop solely at volume. The groove can be changed and adjusted to create an entirely different feel. Even something as simple as moving the right hand from the hi-hats to the ride cymbal will often create a more mellow sound and instantly change the tone of the group. The type of music we are playing contains a good deal of improvisation.

Dynamics – Position – Getting used to the other members of the group has really helped. Understanding what direction to take dynamically is one thing, but one of the hardest things to judge is exactly when to ‘go’. During some of our earlier rehearsals, and even now occasionally, there will be sections where the dynamic is lifted or lowered to a certain extent, and everyone is unsure as to where to go next. But, speaking for myself, the more I understand the playing of the other band members, the easier I find it to know where they want to go during an improvised section.

I think these notions begin to touch upon the psychology of performance and rehearsal – both of which I’ve always been interested in. I intend to continue learning material, writing scores, but also investigating this area to see if there are new approaches that I can incorporate into my performance.

The Sorceress

For today’s rehearsal, we’ll be looking at a Chick Corea track called ‘The Sorceress’. Should be an interesting one to run through. There are quite a few different riffs, changes in feel and tempo, odd bars and more. The majority of the song consists of solo and improvisational sections, so we will all have to watch each other closely and build the dynamics together. Below is a drum transcription and the actual track we have been looking at.

Chick Corea – The Sorceress [PDF – Drum Transcription]

Beginning the final stretch

Second recital complete and after some brainstorming, it is full steam ahead into the final project of the course. Throughout the previous modules I have developed my technical skills on the drum kit, along with my ability to learn and transcribe complex pieces of music. I have developed my drum technique, specifically looking at my hand technique, rudiments, timekeeping, and feel and knowledge of different styles and grooves. However, it has become apparent that whilst I have improved in these areas of technique, feedback and reflection on the previous recitals indicates my performances did at times lack consistency. So the plan is to expand on the areas I have been looking at, whilst developing my ability to lead and to be a solid consistent performer within a group.

The artistic intention with this project is to perform a number of songs which push towards the peak of my technical ability and musical creativity on the drum kit. Unlike the first two recitals, this project is genre specific (primarily jazz/funk/fusion) and will focus heavily on my ability to attain musical continuity and stability amongst a group of performers. Previously, stability has been at the expense of the difficulty of the tracks. I fully intend to push on with more difficult songs, whilst developing my presence and control within a band situation.

We are using a four piece band line up (Kit, Bass, Guitar 1, Guitar 2). I thought this line up would suit the type of material we intend to play. From what I have found previously, the smaller groups come together quicker than the larger ones, so I’m hoping by the time we begin performing the material we will be a musically tight ensemble. The final performance(s) is still to be decided, but I’m hoping to get a few gigs done with this line up before the actual assessment to help settle any pre performance anxiety.

So that’s a general outline of the project. So far, we have had a couple of rehearsals which have gone quite well. Below are some of the songs we have been rehearsing so far:

  • Billy Cobham – Red Baron
  • Billy Cobham – Stratus
  • Herbie Hancock – Chameleon
  • Matias Damato Band – Tuken
  • Earth Wind and Fire – Getaway
  • Chick Corea – The Sorceress

Over the next few months it will be interesting to see how we grow and develop as a band. The improvisational sections within this genre of music will not only allow everyone in the band to demonstrate technical flair, but it will no doubt improve confidence and communication – the two main areas of my performance that I wanted to focus on.