The Performer’s Mindset
We all know the moment. The lights, the stage, the audience cheering on our hyper-developed pyrotechnics. We all know the feeling. The adrenaline from the intensity, the euphoria from the view, the passion from the 45 minutes you have to melt the faces of everyone in the room. We all remember the time we got it right, just as we all remember the time we got it wrong. We all desire each performance to be perfect, yet these performances only so rarely present themselves. A solo that has been practiced ad nauseum, though falls apart when needed. The iconic riff of your teenage angst, performed as mildly as a first-timer holds a plectrum. Your intensely dedicated focus, strewn across the venue by lingering thoughts of primal self-infatuation. What is it that separates the men from the boys, the rockstars from the bar heros, and the decorated tour gods from the unnamed guy you fired for superimposing “Eruption” over a 12-bar blues? The answer is anything but simple, yet is still surprisingly so. Indulgence. The concept of doing something for one’s own gratification. This is a word that holds mighty value, though is so little recognised in the music industry. One could think of it as anytime you pick up your instrument, since we generally do it out of the love for the instrument. However, indulgence descends to much deeper, darker depths than just our surface enjoyment of music. It is a toxic notion, a concept that can derail even the most professional of players. It is the true enemy of the stage and all that you have worked towards. It is also entirely human. It is you. Being a professional musician is a multitude of things. It is the business, the playing, the communication, and everything else that a career-minded, dysfunctional family emits. However, it is also an innately introspective experience. It is recognising the true nature of who you are not only as a musician, but also as a human. Your playing will subconsciously manifest itself as the human that you are, even outside of the decades of training you’ve put your physical self through. This is what makes your favourite players sound unique, as well as perhaps what lends you to dislike others’ playing. In thinking of our voice on the instrument as something unequivocally human, we can extrapolate other human personalities from the same context of music. A pension for dishonesty may make one’s playing feel inauthentic, just as compassion may bring warmth to another’s. Such complex personalities, and yet so easily read through the lines of a staff. However, indulgence affects all of us, regardless of our base personality traits. To enjoy your playing is one of the best gifts you can be given from your time woodshedding the instrument. However, if left unchecked, it will leave you as empty as the guy who lied his way to the inner circle. Often, our first negative experience with indulgence is one of the most common. It is the moment we are in the light of the solo, nailing every note and dynamic, and then of the realisation that we are doing just that. And as quickly as that thought entered your mind, that thought just as quickly cost you your musicianship. There is a vast difference between indulgence and confidence, just as there is a difference between confidence and ego. However, the difference between ego and indulgence is little more than a hairline fracture. The thought that we’re killing it, that we’re nailing the line and everyone loves it, is what knocks us down all the notches that we tried to elevate ourselves from. These thoughts are incredibly difficult to predict, and even more difficult to prevent, until we experience them for the first time. Though, even many experiences can be difficult to detect when we give the blame to anything but ourselves. Like a trumpetist who begrudgingly glances at the bell of his horn when a wrong note comes out, we are inclined to toss our lesser performances towards our bassist, our floor wedges, or our personal instruments. The road to recovery begins with a dedicated foot towards the direction of ourselves. Controlling a moment that has no desire to be controlled is an innately difficult situation. With so many things working against us in the context of a performance, our mental bridge to introspection is anything but a priority. That bridge must have a foundation, solid pillars, and a path that we can cross for decades to come. This bridge will encompass all that there is to bring your performance forth to a place of musical maturity, as well as understanding your own musical identity. The foundation of our bridge comes from recognising what it is to be human. In short, it is recognising our mentality through a performance. A performance drives a multitude of emotions outside of the music itself. While all of these emotions are entirely useful, we still must learn to gauge ourselves and control what we think throughout a performance. Every performer will be different, as they will bring with them their own life experiences, thoughts of the day, and stresses from home. Many of these thoughts and ideas are important for a performance, though some of them can detract from your focus. However, all of these can be played upon and centered to your musical goals, provided they are funneled through your music, rather than your ego. The pillars that support the path above act as this funnel. The pillars to our bridge are perhaps the most crucial component of our bridge. They are the neural pathways that connect from one hemisphere of our brain to the other. They are born, they develop, and sometimes they disconnect to forge new pathways to new ideas. Taking our emotions and guiding them through these pillars is the hardest step to performance mastery. You’ll need to recognise an emotion, determine its worth and relevance, and either cast it aside or engage it for your music. You’ll also have to recognise when a detrimental thought arises, a thought that has no place amongst the performer. These thoughts or feelings encompass all that drives the ego. The notions that inadvertently separate us from our audience, rather than blending in with them. These thoughts and feelings will again be different for every performer, though the result is always more or less the same - failure. Allowing your indulgence to take hold and forego your measure limit, your stylistic genre, your authenticity, and your instrumental role will instantaneously bring you back to square one. Building the pillars for our bridge requires total and complete musical authenticity; the requirement to leave behind all that keeps us within ourselves so that we can become one with our band, the audience, and our music. Now that we are truly thinking introspectively, we can finally begin placing the stones to the path that we can walk across. This path is more of a reward, rather than a phase, within our bridge construction. It is the ability to think and feel within a unit, rather than independently. It is recognising that indulgence has morphed into a collective concept, rather than a personal one. Indulgence in and of itself is not something to shame or scoff, as it is one of the first catalysts we encounter when learning to play. It is incredibly important to hold on to the passion and release of playing, provided we’re doing it for a unified goal, rather than selfish elation. Our path is what it means to at last come home to the original reasons we started playing in the first place. Pieces of your bridge will falter every so often. Some pillars may crumble as your outside life experiences change in unforeseeable ways. The cement of our foundation may become brittle and our path may lose footing. Structural integrity is something that requires maintenance and dedication. The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, CA receives a new coat of paint every year. Because of how large the bridge is, it takes the engineers the entire year to paint the bridge, only to begin from the beginning the very next year. This level of maintenance requires extreme dedication and observancy, as failure to preserve the bridge could bring forth terrible consequences. Learn your weaknesses, strengthen them every day, and cultivate your indulgence in a positive way. Extend the same level of care to your bridge and the results will be as golden as the bay bridge itself.