I’m a few days behind where I wanted to be in writing this, but I have been thinking about this topic in earnest since the preparations for my recital a couple of weeks ago. As is usually the case with solo recitals—and all performances, really—there were things that went extremely well, and things that I wish had been better, but on the whole it was a good and well-received performance. My playing was mostly physically relaxed and efficient, and the few times when this was not the case were, unsurprisingly, the times when I would begin to get into trouble. In all of these cases the culprit was not lack of effort, but excessive effort, or at least too much of the wrong kinds of effort.
I have been honest in this little online space about my own struggles with performance anxiety, a concern familiar to many musicians. Over the years I’ve developed a number of strategies for dealing with this problem, sometimes eliminating it while other times merely minimizing the symptoms, but in nearly all cases removing most or all of the ill effects of anxiety on my performances. Though this is a topic for another time, I have been most successful in ridding myself of performance anxiety when I have set aside my own ego and focused on serving and edifying the audience. During a master class at the Alessi Seminar a few years ago Mr. Alessi told me that to eliminate performance anxiety I must “have no ego.” In other words, performance anxiety happens when you’re more worried about your reputation than about making music. Mr. Alessi’s words were direct—and humbling—but that admonition has proven very true and most helpful.
Of course, saying that one must eliminate performance anxiety is one thing. Achieving this goal is another, and realistically most of us will experience some degree of “nerves” in advance of or during performances that we perceive to be especially important. If this were no more than an uncomfortable feeling that would be one thing, but even a mild case of “the jitters” can cause problems like unsteady tone, limited flexibility, and difficulties in extreme registers. All of these symptoms are, from a purely physical perspective, the result of excessive tension in the body, and it is this unnecessary tension that is increased and magnified when one becomes nervous. If this tension can be removed, then the physical effects of performance anxiety can be largely or entirely eliminated.
I have long been an advocate of brass players having an extended daily routine in which playing fundamentals are systematically reviewed and improved. I will be careful to say that this is more than a “warmup,” and that dependency upon an extended sequence of exercises in order to be able to play at all is a dangerous trap. Nevertheless, the daily routine does provide a good time to thoughtfully examine how one plays, ensuring that breathing, blowing, buzzing, articulation, mechanical operation of the instrument—all of the basic elements of playing—are working easily and with optimum efficiency. It is here that one has the opportunity, away from the demands of performance, to look for and release any areas of tension or overwork that have crept into one’s playing. The thoughtful brass player will soon discover that the amount of physical effort needed to play the instrument well is rather small, indeed, and that most of the sensations that we associate with “working hard” are just unneeded tensions that detract from the quality of our performances at best, and at worst are exacerbated and become serious obstacles during periods of anxiety. Eliminate the tension, and sound will improve, regardless of whether one is calm or nervous.
My current way of thinking about this is to make my goal to become a “do-nothing” brass player. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but the minute I start thinking about working hard is the minute that I begin overworking. When I think of “doing nothing” the actual effect is playing with the very minimum amount of physical effort needed to produce a sound, and the result is a better tone quality, more efficient use of the instrument, and a playing experience that is most physically relaxing and pleasurable—and largely immune to the effects of performance anxiety should it occur.
Of course, this “do-nothing” philosophy does not extend to the mind, which should always be engaged when playing. The body, though, should always be as relaxed as possible. Physically speaking, the best approach is to be a Do-Nothing Brass Player!