Music Can Be Easy

The performance is about to begin.

In a few minutes, I’ll step onto the stage with nothing between me and the audience. I’ll be put to the test.

All my hard work, all my practice is suddenly in the past now. I can’t go back and revisit any problem areas. There is only this present moment.

Somehow, though, things are different this time.

The journey that I’ve been through – the new perspective that I’ve discovered and accepted has changed me.

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Some things are almost the same

I’m still a little bit nervous. I can feel that my heart rate is up and my palms might be a bit sweaty.

Occasionally, I’ll feel butterflies in my stomach and my arms might even feel a bit shaky.

But these things don’t bother me now.

I accept them as normal, and even welcome them as helpful.

I know that the performances where things are most in danger of going badly (or at least being uninspired) are the ones where I feel no nerves whatsoever before the start.

There’s more.

In the hours before the start I feel excited about the chance to perform rather than anxious or apprehensive like I did in the past.

And I recognise that any slightly uncomfortable feelings are a sign of that excitement.

A sign that I care.

I’m not saying there was never excitement in the past 

But it’s different now. It’s not attached to anything.

In the past, there was the excitement that things might go well. But this never came on its own.

There was always its mirror image along for the ride, too – the fear that things might go badly.

Sometimes that fear was front and centre in my mind. Sometimes it lurked unacknowledged and unrecognised at the back.

It was always there, though.

Always ready to take centre stage if my emotions suddenly shifted.

But now it’s not about things going well or badly.

It’s pure excitement at the thought that I get to perform and share music with people.

The outcome is irrelevant.

I’m no longer playing “not to lose”

It got so tiring spending every second trying hard not to make a mistake.

It never completely stopped me making them anyway. And the focus on mistakes meant that anything that did slip through ruined my enjoyment of performance.

I was too busy trying to perform well to enjoy myself.

I was also limiting myself massively.

By trying to rein in from mistakes I was also shutting myself off from moments of inspiration. The opportunity to just go for it and maybe play something inspired.

All because I was concerned about what would happen if I went for something and didn’t get there.

I thought it was a fair price to pay at the time.

I’ve changed my mind completely now and I could never go back.

At last I feel like I’ve become a real performer.

And yet, the actual changes that have made the difference seem tiny.

They seem simple and insignificant.

Almost too simple to put into words.

It’s easy to forget what things looked like back when I stood the other side of the gap. Before I crossed the bridge to where I am now.

The heart of it all is that I’ve learned to play in and savour the MOMENT

No thinking about what’s just happened. No thinking about what’s going to happen.

Just the moment right now.

When I take each moment for what it is, I immediately experience a sense of calm.

I experience a sense of strength and energy. I feel more positive and in control. Things start to flow automatically. No tension, no anxiety, no fear.

Sometimes I slip out of the moment, though. I start thinking about how well I’m playing, about what I SHOULD have done or what MIGHT happen.

That’s when the negative emotions all come flooding back.

Invariably, the level of my performance drops too.

I spent years resisting this deep truth – now it’s finally clicked

I thought it was too simple. It couldn’t possibly be the answer.

Then I thought it was too easy.

I could surely do this any time if I wanted, so there was no need to practice it.

And yet, when I faced up to my experiences it became clear that I was consistently failing the few times that I remembered to attempt this supposedly easy task.

When I eventually applied myself and got it working, I was amazed at the result. Finally, I seemed to have found the way to where I wanted to be.

Then I made another mistake.

I thought that I’d “learnt it” now so I could move on to something else.

I didn’t want to accept that this requires ongoing attention.

When I reckoned I didn’t need to think about it any more I found I lost it again.

Maybe someday I’ll get to the point where it just happens automatically without me having to think about it. But, for now, I need to constantly remind myself to focus on staying in the moment.

It’s well worth the effort.

I don’t have to try to concentrate or try to perform well.

I just do.

I’m no longer fighting against myself. I now know what it means to flow with the current rather than against it.

It’s been a tough road to this point

I paid a high price to get here.

I went through years of struggle, frustration, self-doubt and pain before I accepted the need to spend time continually working on this stuff.

I often look back and wonder why that was necessary for me.

What made things so hard? I kept getting in my own way!

I tried harder when I should have stepped back and let myself try softer.

I thought that the way to move forward was through sheer brute force of practice.

I was forcing it.

There’s a difference between trying harder and giving 100%. I still give 100% but I do it gently – I don’t get in my own way so much anymore.

And I was scared to spend time on other things. Focusing on what was going on in my head when I could have been playing my instrument instead felt like a waste of time.

I’ve changed my measure of what matters

I used to worry about the audience and what they were thinking.

Now I just pay attention to what I can control.

That doesn’t even mean the exact notes that come out. There are all sorts of things which might interfere with that – how I’m feeling that day, what’s going on around me.

What I can control is that I’m focusing completely on the moment.

I play better as a result.

More than that, it makes it fun again. I feel good.

Don’t misunderstand – it doesn’t always feel like this

I still lose it occasionally.

But I’m winning the battle more frequently now.

And when things slip, it’s not the end. Usually, I manage to push through and turn it around.

I take the attitude that things are going well and that I’m enjoying it no matter what the voice in my head is telling me about how well I’m playing.

Often, that’s all it takes to push things back into a good place again.

I could have got here much more quickly and more easily

Sometimes I wonder how I’ve managed to keep playing music seriously. How I’ve continued to practice and develop so faithfully over the years

I could easily have given up at so many points.

I could have resolved just to accept that my current level was where I’d stop. Then watch that level drift slowly downwards once ongoing practice was no longer keeping things tuned up.

Ditch performing and just play for myself occasionally.

It was a tempting thought.

There were times when I wondered about giving up altogether. It took me a lot of effort to push through this.

It’s been worth it now I’m on my way to the other side, though (not finished – I’ll never be finished).

I’ve got a real sense of achievement as a result. And not just from the massively improved musical results. It’s also hugely satisfying to have overcome the obstacle.

I suppose the price was necessary for me.

I’d rather it wasn’t necessary for others, though.

If I can get them to understand. If I can share what I’ve learnt, then their journey could be that much quicker.

Will it all seem obvious, or like simple platitudes to them, though? Will they nod their heads in agreement but not take the action that will make a difference?

Maybe. But I hope not…

I’d love to hear how this compares to your experience. Does it sound achievable, or does it feel like a fantasy? Leave a comment below.

  • if most of the audience are not classical guitarists, any musical mistakes that you make will not be noticed Mark. And then sometimes the audience drifts away from the listening experience because they have other non musical concerns on their mind. I’m sure any musical mistakes you do make are for sure forgiven. Stage fright is something everyone can understand.

  • What you say is absolutely correct. My most memorable experience takes me back to being a high school senior. I’m in my 70s now but I’ll never forget it. I had played a Beethoven piano sonata in recital and had received a Superior rating when played at state music festival. All performers who had done well at state competition got to perform their piece at the school Thanksgiving day assembly…an opportunity to show off your stuff in front of all of your peers. I felt so confident that day, I felt like I could play the Beethoven in my sleep. Come performance day, in front of 500 friends and teachers, I walked out, sat down at the piano, played the first chord, and both my brain and my fingers suddenly forgot everything they ever knew. I have no idea what I played, in the moment, but I ended with a nice run down the keyboard, got up, took a quick bow and walked straight into the music room where I sat at the piano and played the whole piece….alone. After that, I always remembered it’s better to let the butterflies be with you than to be too cocky. I’m still an active and frequent performer, and still enjoy a good audience.

  • Hi Mark,
    Thank you very very much for this piece of advise. It’s very simple, as you say, but it had never crossed my mind to apply meditation to guitar playing.
    I’ve always been very afraid of making mistakes. That’s focusing on the bad side of things, right? What you suggest – focusing on the present moment – seems easy and I felt so nice while reading it… I’m excited about next gig!
    Thank you again 🙂
    Lluís

    • So glad this helped, Lluis. However, I’m going to warn you that it may well be harder than you think to just focus on the present moment. It’s hugely powerful and brings great results but it does take a lot of practice. If you’re anything like me, there’s a huge temptation to go back to thinking about mistakes etc again when you’re actually on the gig.

      You can definitely overcome this with practice. But it will probably take time.

    • Thanks, Martin. I don’t have 50 years of that in the bank. But I definitely spent a couple of decades there before I started to realise there was another way…

  • Kjære Mark, jeg har brukt en del tid på å finne ut av hvor jeg står i alle innslag om hvordan overvinne angst når jeg setter meg til pianoet og skal fremføre et stykke eller et program. Jeg har faktisk hatt grusomme opplevelser som har demotivert meg mange ganger i fortsettelsen. Jeg har lest med stor interesse alt jeg til nå har fått tilgang til, og lest om igjen for å forstå bedre hva som egentlig foregår å totalt bli stiv av skrekk og ikke klare å fremføre noe fornuftig i spilleøyeblikket. Jeg har egentlig gitt opp å overvinne noe som helst, da jeg kom over dette programmet du selv underviser. Jeg er blitt opp i 70 årene nå, meg håper fortsatt å kunne overvinne noen av disse opplevelsene som sitter så fast i hukommelsen og hindrer meg i å jobbe meg gjennom til å kunne overvinne scenariene jeg så altfor godt husker.
    Jeg jobber fortsatt med elevene mine og har glede av det, men selv ønsker jeg fortsatt å kunne dele det jeg bruker tid på å øve selv. Det er en stor tilfredsstillelse å være aktiv fortsatt.
    Takk, Mark for tålmodighet, at det har tatt meg lang tid å svare på dine oppfordringer å være aktiv. Jeg ser den og ønsker å forstå bedre og kunne sette på papiret hva jeg tenker og finne løsninger på mitt «fastlåste» situasjon. Jeg har flere rundt meg som trenger den samme mentale treningen du er inne på. Helt utrolig aktuelt. Tusen takk!;-/) Sigrun

    • So glad you’ve found this useful, Sigrun. And good luck with your journey. I’m sure you’ll be able to work through the bad experiences from your past – keep going!

  • Hi Mark, the way you share so openly and personally with your readers, in the spirit of helping others, is a breath of fresh air and so beautiful. Thank you for your good heart and the spirit in which you do this work. This invites more open and human sharing, from others who may be very grateful.

    For me, I have learned from life itself— and it took a long time to learn this, being knocked on my you-know-what again and again—-that perfection simply isn’t meant for us as human beings. We almost need a bit of shadow, mistakes, etc. If we don’t, we are too judgmental of ourselves and/or others, and our foibles not only musically, but generally speaking, become our source of compassion and empathy. It is when we try to be perfect *All Of The Time!* vs aiming for a high standard in general, including room for some mistakes, that we find ourselves as human beings, in whatever the subject is, in a straitjacket. And that is what greatly contributes to our nerves, in the area of musical performance.

    To help conquer stage fright, I ask my students (after first setting the bar for high standards) to make at least three mistakes for me, on purpose. What I have seen, again and again, particularly with my kid students, is that they begin to improvise. Something about the freedom to make mistakes, liberates our creativity. The adults are not quite as adventuresome as the kids, but they also get the point and the laughter is very freeing for playing.

    Luciano Pavarotti wrote in his autobiography, about becoming so depressed when he reached his dream goals as singer, that he wished for death. A plane crash shook him out of it. My “Take”, for whatever it is worth:

    I think the gap between the human and the divine, will always be there. We will have perfect pictures in our mind, and while it will inspire us to keep moving forward—that is exactly its function—- we will never be able to execute our dream at 100%, even if we may at 75%. Further, once we do arrive fully, in my experience the dream and expectations go up several notches higher. The gap is, also in my experience, what is always constant. I concluded that we require the gap, as human beings, to keep us moving forward. And it may drive us crazy, it may make our inner critic go nuts. Careful there. We must always accept the gap and thank it for its purpose, to inspire us.

    I think the book by Richard Burns MD, a founding father of cognitive therapy, called The Feeling Good Handbook, would help a lot of musicians across the board. His book is all about self talk and the inner process, with practical exercises to break through.

    Very best wishes and thanks for all you are doing Mark. What a great thing and how beautiful that you share so openly. It is touching and uplifting to see musicians supporting each other. I would like to see a lot more of it in the world of music. Kuddos!

    • Thanks so much for these thoughts, Drina. So many great insights in what you’ve written here.

      Particularly important in my opinion is the point you make about understanding that we should not expect to be perfect all the time. And that it’s totally fine if we are not.

      • Hi Mark, as musicians, we all have a high dream. It as before, inspires us. But the flipside of it is, I think we *all* struggle with the inner critic, or at least *many* do. I think it is probably more common than not, especially in the musical circles. The art is a great gift, but carries the potential for this other dynamic, as part of being a gifted and motivated, inspired human being. We come across the human limits even as we strive for the divine. This is painful and invites thought reels. I think it is really important to discuss it and find solutions. We are also by definition, isolated in the practicing room. In isolation, the inner critic can reel. Human tendencies, generically. And it is great that you are talking about it, as I wish more people would. People keep silent, fearing judgment or whatever. How silly this is. It is so human and I think especially in the arts, and in music, so common. In fact, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music recognizes this dynamic, and includes one session with a therapist for every enrolled student, as part of their tuition. That is cool and I think all music schools should do that. It would be great to pass that around. Maybe music conservatories should even have group discussions about these topics? It would be great if they did. Just putting this out there and hoping some schools will take up the ball. If this happens in music conservatories, then the discussion will continue in the professional circles as well, less stigmatized and more humanized as in fact, probably one of the most common experiences in the world! It is really great, Mark, that you are opening up this conversation since others will find permission and freedom to talk too, as others do. That is in itself, a gift and can lead to greater healing for entire cross sectors of people! So keep going, this is a great thing you are doing! Sending best wishes, Drina

  • hi again Mark et al, do you know, what occurred to me just now as I wrote my post above, is that maybe the nerves are actually a way for our psyche to express the reality that it knows that we are limited human beings. Consciously, we expect the most of ourselves, as musicians and performers. Subconsciously, maybe something in us knows that we are human beings with foibles and limitations. And the “oh no, what if I make a mistake?” thought that makes us so nervous, is a way for the psyche to “Speak”, telling us to accept our limits as human beings. Something to consider.
    Working with our limits instead of through them, does Not mean giving up high standards. Quite the contrary. If we know we have swollen fingers on a particular day after a long plane flight, then we will take extra steps to warm up more thoroughly and slowly. If we know we are going to reach for the cookies inside the cookie jar, we delude ourselves by keeping the cookie jar around, expecting ourselves never to reach into it. Instead, we simply don’t keep the cookie jar around, temptation ended. Working with, instead of through, our limitations has any number of translations into our musical work. It may be one of the keys to happy and successful living. Just a thought.

  • hi again Mark et al, do you know, what occurred to me just now as I wrote my post above, is that maybe the nerves are actually a way for our psyche to express the reality that it knows that we are limited human beings. Consciously, we expect the most of ourselves, as musicians and performers. Subconsciously, maybe something in us knows that we are human beings with foibles and limitations. And the “oh no, what if I make a mistake?” thought that makes us so nervous, is a way for the psyche to “Speak”, telling us to accept our limits as human beings. Something to consider.
    Working with our limits instead of through them, does Not mean giving up high standards. Quite the contrary. If we know we have swollen fingers on a particular day after a long plane flight, then we will take extra steps to warm up more thoroughly and slowly. If we know we are going to reach for the cookies inside the cookie jar, we delude ourselves by keeping the cookie jar around, expecting ourselves never to reach into it. Instead, we simply don’t keep the cookie jar around, temptation ended. Working with, instead of through, our limitations has any number of translations into our musical work. It may be one of the keys to happy and successful living. Just a thought.

  • Hi Mark,
    I have been reading lots of your useful emails and last Sunday played a really exciting concert/workshop here at home. I’m a classical pianist and had the joy of playing trios with a ‘Cellist who drove for two days to get here and a Violinist who lives ten minutes away.
    I won’t bore you with any more detail, but it was great to feel liberated and I think our performance communicated real pleasure in sharing music.Hazel

    • That’s so great to hear, Hazel! Thanks for sharing your experience.

      And remember to give yourself huge congratulations for achieving this. The concepts I’m sharing here are relatively straightforward for me to describe. The tough work comes when you (or others) actually put them into practice.

  • Mark. You are so right about being in the moment. It has been the quest of a lifetime for me. It is such a delicate balance between feeling good about yourself but in a non egotistical way. I am also in my seventies and still learning. Loving the ride now more than ever.

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