February 18, 2011

Trust yourself

Peter Mitchell commented on my "You have to really listen" post:

I think this is related to the discussion around "multitasking". I think the idea that you can passively listen, which implies focusing on other things, and still fully experience the music is definitely not the case. Multitasking is somewhat of a myth when you look at how our brains actually function. Something always has to take priority when it comes to assigning attention. So in this case, it needs to be the music. Otherwise, I think you are missing out on a lot that you don't even realize. 

I agree, and I think that what I encountered in my previous post was that sometimes putting a lot of effort into 'focusing' can be a distraction from what you're actually doing.

You have to listen to what you're playing, and you have to know how to actually play it, but my experience has been that conscious control, especially in performance, can lead to the opposite effect.

In other words, I play my best when I can just let go and trust myself. It's not always an easy thing to do; at least not yet.

How do you learn to trust yourself?

Prepare thoroughly

Learn the music correctly from the beginning. Understand it before you play it. Practice it regularly and efficiently. Don't practice mistakes; focus on solutions before repetitions.

Don't get too far ahead of yourself

Plan to perform mostly music that is within your reach. It's good to push yourself a bit so you can grow, but if your whole program consists of music you can only occasionally perform well, you're setting yourself up for disappointment.

Play with your eyes closed

Playing with your eyes closed will tell you how well you really know a piece, but if you've been playing for a while and you haven't tried it before, you might find that you can do it better than you expected. I think it helps cultivate a better physical understanding of the instrument as well as an aural experience of the music.

Take a leap of faith

Sometimes, in spite of your best efforts, you may end up in a situation where performance day is nearly upon you and things haven't all come together the way you wanted. At that point, the best thing you can do for yourself is decide to just have fun and do your best.

That's harder than it sounds, but it is absolutely possible. You have to make the choice and commit to it. You have to make that same choice at some point even when you're well-prepared, because performing in front of people is a different skill than preparing in private, and it's a different skill than practicing performing or performing for a recording.


PS: My recent bunch of gigs were really fun! I had a duo gig with Jason on Thursday, solo recital Saturday afternoon, fundraiser solo/duo recital with my wife Angeline Saturday evening, and then a house concert in Seattle on Tuesday night. At the last one, I got to play in front of a roomful of guitarists, which is usually the hardest thing but it felt great.

It's a real privilege to play for an audience that understands the music and the effort that went into preparing it!


  1. I think that playing with your eyes closed is important as well, as it eliminates relying on looking at either the music or the fingerboard. One of my teachers would go a step farther, making us prepare by covering our ears during sections of our practice so that we would be able to rely on our eyes instead. (He also slammed doors and dropped books, which scared the heck out of me, but was also good preparation.)

    Great post, I really enjoyed reading it!

  2. Thanks for the comment, Adam! I've never covered my ears while practicing like you say, but I have tried listening to something else with headphones on. That was really hard!