February 8, 2021
by Amy Littlewood
‘I’ll just go over that passage one more time’. These sound like the words of a diligent student? Well… not in this case! This was me, back when I was at music college. On the face of it, my practice looked to be well structured, detailed and with hours of commitment each day. Why then, did I not feel adequately equipped when I walked out on stage?
Essentially because I had been doing what I now describe as ‘panic practice’. Fuelled by poor self-trust, my practice was not adequately strengthening the ‘right’ areas. Instead, I was embedding faulty practice techniques. What exactly was happening? Well, I would go over and over passages, trying to embed the physicality and connection in to my subconscious, in the hope that each tricky passage was etched into my brain, ready to serve me when the moment came on stage.
These repetitions in practice were fuelled however by a lack of self-trust – I didn’t believe I could play the music well enough, so I kept ‘checking’ that it was all OK.
If a play through didn’t go well, practice would have to be elongated, until I’d rebuilt trust. I’d practice with a feeling of ‘I hope this goes well on the day’, ‘I hope I don’t miss that top note’ – nowhere in my self-talk featured self-trust. Over time, once I’d finished a practice session, instead of putting my violin away, I would keep it out as I knew I’d keep going back over ‘the corners’ again, just to check. Although repetitive and bite-size type practice can be a useful tool, the way in which I did this was not producing positive effects. Did I feel settled? No. Did I really feel ready for the performance? Kind of, but not on a deep level, only through this kind of obsessive, panic practice routine.
Was I getting to proper depths of practice and exploring all I could develop? No. I was limiting my progression and success. Engaging in weeks and sometimes months of preparation for a concert in this way was instead building shaky foundations.
So how did all of this change? Fundamentally, I became very interested in the mind. I noticed that how one views something can have a profound effect on the mind. Repositioning thoughts by either changing focus points or gaining a new perspective, enabled something that initially felt intimidating and perhaps overwhelming, to transition towards feeling achievable, to eventually something positive and enjoyable. I decided that instead of giving into the pitfalls of a lack of self-trust, I would instead delve further and explore – by questioning and challenging all the ways in which this type of low self-trust was presenting itself. I would say I had always been very self-aware from a young age, but mostly hyper aware of the discomfort I used to feel. Instead, I channelled this self-awareness towards faulty processes that were popping up, this time, seeing what fuelled them and unravelling the process. It’s at this point that everything started to shift.
Opening the lid on all this inevitably opened a can of worms, and one thing led to another.
My inner critic needed serious attention, which if unchecked would poison my self-talk, not to mention my compassionate self – there was little evidence of this kicking into action for me.
It’s interesting, the skills needed to be a good musician – we need to have a strong sense of self discipline, be able to critique our own and others’ playing, nit-pick detail, strive for perfection (which is an issue in itself!) and possess obsessive type practice qualities. However, we’re not taught to balance these hardened qualities with any type of compassion. We as musicians tend to be very hard on ourselves, however, there is a line (particularly those who are sensitive by nature) where the healthy balance can tip towards an unhealthy and destructive one.
I started to relate most things back to self-trust, which in turn fed into all the other areas that were affected, and enabled me to focus on better practices in my music making. I was able to choose better focus points and goals, I would go slow in areas that needed time to shift (my compassionate side helped me here), I created a whole support system of practices and routines that helped me prepare in the way I truly needed.
My violin practice was changed, I started achieving so much more in sessions and I felt good inside. It isn’t much surprise then, that my performances started to improve too. Of course, inherently, we are all wired in certain ways; we will each lean towards certain tendencies by nature, however, personally I know what to look out for and I know how to help myself. This has enabled my attention and focus in playing to become more outward rather than inward. This is when the real fun begins. To achieve this viewpoint and sense of perspective whilst playing is so important, but we need our secret weapons at the ready – one of mine being self-trust.
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