Flutist Dawn Weiss, teacher, event performer
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by Dawn Weiss,
November 30, 2007

Got performance gremlins? Here's a little secret: EVERYONE has them! Okay, but you think to yourself, "Mine are worse!" You see that others appear confident when they play. They don't seem to shake, their tone is steady, they take a relaxed, big breath, they play by memory without a slip-up, etc. And you think, "How can I ever be like that?"

Performance gremlins occasionally invade everyone, even the greatest musicians. It is not just the physical discomfort of too much adrenalin, but also the anxiety that something might happen causing a well prepared performance to suddenly turn upside down. It is true that some people's nervous systems can tolerate more of this than others, and some people enjoy the excitement of taking big risks. In fact, there are those who admit a kind of "addiction" to the adrenalin rush of performing. Regardless of your personal degree of performance comfort, the ultimate answer lies not in how to get rid of performance anxiety, but rather, how to wrestle with the unpredictability of performance gremlins, how to make peace with them when they pop up, and how to perform well (or even better!) in spite of them.

When I first became principal flutist of the Oregon Symphony, I used to have chats with my other woodwind colleagues. We would talk about our good and bad nights and describe the "self-talk" that would sometimes take us off guard and overwhelm our concentration, undermining weeks of dedicated practice. Some nights during a concert series, our performances flowed with grace and confidence, while other nights of the same series could be filled with mental distractions. One never knew ahead of time what might crop up with regard to these inner demons. After many such discussions, and after years of performing, one begins to accept and even appreciate these aberrations. How do we do that?

First, we acknowledge that they are there and will be there. We don't try to get rid of them. We all know our areas of weaknesses and our fears, which tend to rear up their ugly heads when we are in the most vulnerable situations. So we first say, "Okay, I know you are there and you have a message for me. I'll listen to your message and hear what you have to say." (Maybe your gremlin has a personal message for you!)

Example: Many years ago, I was getting ready to perform the Mozart Flute and Harp Concerto by memory. That is a very long piece, and performing with a fellow musician (both of us without music) has a double risk. Maybe one of us would forget a passage. What would happen if she missed her entrance and I didn't pick up on my next cue? What would happen if I missed my entrance and it caused the whole piece to break down? So, the first order of business was to address that issue. We spent months memorizing and working on the piece alone and together. We practiced playing the piece with a "Music-Minus-One" approach. This means we practiced having the piano play the orchestral accompaniment without the other soloist so we would know what it sounded like in case the other person became lost. We also practiced our own parts together without the accompaniment so that we could get used to the sound without the orchestra, just in case an important orchestral cue was omitted. This helped our level of confidence. We were prepared! Yet fearful voices still loomed in our heads.

Isn't that an interesting expression! Playing from the heart allows you to be in touch with your spirit, your soul, your passion. When you play without the music, you have more freedom to connect with spirit in your performance. That is, of course, if you are not terrified out of your wits and mentally spending every moment of your performance trying to visualize the notes on the page as if you are still reading the music. But something does tend to happen when you play by memory. You open your ears and your heart. When the performance date got close, anxiety started to grip me. To address this, I worked with a counselor and experienced a gestalt counseling session where I had a "talk" with that part of myself which occasionally ruins a perfect performance, the subconscious part of me that insists on playing a glaring mistake. In gestalt work, one enacts a conversation with an aspect of oneself. In this case, I sat in one chair and talked to an empty chair across the room, as though a live being were sitting there. That "being" was the part of me that tends to screw things up. I asked, "Why do you do that?" The answer came to me loud and clear and was very revealing: "Because I am the part of you that allows the magic and beauty to come through. I give your performance its life and its freedom." Learning this was a remarkable revelation for me. It reminded me why some indigenous cultures believe that a work of art, such as a tapestry or woven basket, should contain a mistake. Perfection is left to spirit, alone. It was a reminder to me that in art, the beauty comes from beyond. We are not the creators of the beauty, however, if we get out of the way we can allow the beauty to come through us.

' Our concerto performances began. The first night went pretty well. It had some fine artistic moments although we probably were a bit stiff. I don't recall much about it. The second night, however, stands out in my memory. I recall feeling like I was swept up in the performance. It was going extremely well. I had relaxed and the phrasing and ensemble was sublime. And then it happened: We started the gorgeous second movement and I squawked on the second note! I mean, it was UGLY. As I continued playing, I could have gone into a panic, worrying about the possibility of making more mistakes. But, instead I acknowledged the gremlin and said, "Hello! Thank you! Thank you for being here with me, for helping me take risks, to play from my heart, to allow the art to come through. I appreciate you and I will let you remind me that I am the messenger, not the creator." And that was the end of it. The rest of the performance was clean and beautiful. At the end of the performance I was moved to tears for having been able to tap into the flow. I accepted the imperfection and rejoiced in the moments of beauty.

Most people don't want to experience the embarrassment of a flawed performance. Some people live in dread of it. Attempting to squelch potential mistakes, many musicians compensate by trying to over-control everything. But they end up often squeezing a lot of life out of their performances. For me, the true artist takes risks and allows the Muse to come through. Without taking risks, the performance can be perfect but meaningless. Due to the advanced state of recording technology, we are accustomed to listening to absolutely flawless performances. The recording artists usually created that "perfection" by spending hours in the studio correcting notes, intonation, attack, etc., even being able to replace a single note! The technology has gotten to the point that it is even possible to silence a loud breath, change the timing of an attack, change a pitch, create a diminuendo or add more fullness of tone color! No performer plays so perfectly. We live in an age where we constantly hear this perfection, so we train ourselves to strive for such perfection. In the process, the soul of the performance is at risk. Is achieving "perfection" worth the price of losing the real meaning of the music?

As performers, we have the opportunity to be part of the creation of beauty. Our imperfection reminds us of our place in the universe. With gratitude we can acknowledge and accept our limitations and begin to focus on the blessings of being able to be part of such a wonderful creative process. When we accept our humanity along with its imperfections, we can tap into the essence of our artistry. Mastery over the gremlins comes when we embrace them rather than fight them. They are there to help us. It is our job to hear their messages and learn from them. Wrestling with our gremlins is an ongoing process, filled with formidable challenges, poignant moments and rich rewards.

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