Monday, November 18, 2013

Creativity Killer: Anxiety and Stress

The life of a performing musician is stressful. Why? One reason is time. Music is an art form whose canvas is temporal. It exists in a finite space. As a result, anything that goes wrong in that little window of time cannot be corrected. The flaw remains.

I often envy some of the more "asychronous" artists such as painters, novelists, poets, sculptors. These artists create outside the boundaries of time. They can stretch their projects out for days or years. They can add or take away as needed until they have a finished project. There is much less urgency in these arts.


I'm sure many still work with deadlines and as a result feel a bit of anxiety. But it isn't the same. A mistake to a painter may only cost some materials and the time already spent on the project. They can go back and make corrections as needed. Sometimes a mistake may even open up new options. However, an error in a musical or dance performance if not handled correctly could derail the whole experience. There is no going back and correcting anything. It has happened and will always exist.


Stage fright is a very real phenomenon that every musician has experienced at least once in their life, usually at the beginning of their career. Sometimes the effects can be debilitating. No matter how much mastery was achieved in the practice room, when that adrenaline kicks in the novice performer stalls. Their body tenses. They forget to breathe. Mentally, they tell themselves, "Don't mess up!". Which, of course, results in another mistake. Which will snowball into more errors. They feel trapped, yet there is no place to go but forward in the performance.


This performance anxiety can be debilitating and it affects some more than others. To some extent it is always present, even in the most seasoned performer. However, the masters know how to channel this energy into creating a positive performance. How can we get to that point?


There are techniques one can use to help with this. The Inner Game of Music by Barry Green is often recommended as a manual for overcoming stress in performance. This principal bassist of the Cincinnati Symphony outlines a method for quieting that inner chatter that causes stage fright by defining two "selves". Quoting Green:
"Self 1 is our interference. It contains our concepts about how things should be, our judgments and associations. It is particularly fond of the words 'should' and 'should not' and often sees things in terms of what 'could have been. Self 2 is the vast reservoir of potential within each one of us. It contains our natural talents and abilities, and is a virtually unlimited resource that we can tap and develop. Left to its own devices it performs with gracefulness and ease."
Green's techniques are very helpful. The tricky part is practicing it. If you only perform intermittently, you will not be able to master these techniques. The more you perform, the more you will be able control the fears. It may even be the case that forcing yourself to perform a lot works as a kind of exposure therapy. In extreme cases, medicine like beta-blockers can assist if needed. However, none of these techniques will work one bit if the musician hasn't properly prepared. If you haven't put the time in the woodshed learning every nook and cranny of your art, no self-help book or psychopharmaceutical will help.


The Brill Building
However, there are some artists who work at their creative peak when they are stressed. In the 1960s, Aldon Music Publishing employed professional songwriters to work in the Brill Building in NYC. Their daily task was straightforward: write a hit pop song. Each morning songwriters like Carole King, Phil Spector, Neil Diamond and Burt Bacharach would clock in for a day of menial labor. Their task was to slave on the piano in their cubicle and write a tune. At the end of the work day they had to present their songs to the their boss, Donny Kirshner. Their paycheck depended on their creative output. To ramp up the anxiety, Kirshner would even pit the composers against each other. Despite this (or maybe because of it), many of the top hits of the early 1960s came out of this building.

In improvised music like jazz, the seasoned musician will note that there can be no mistakes if you are listening and reacting carefully. Because even if you start a melody on an unintended note, the best jazz musicians craft the notes AFTER the mistake to make the mistake sound correct. Sometimes these "mistakes" wind up creating some very interesting lines. The rest of the ensemble may respond in kind. Beginning improvisers often hear their mistake and cringe, thus making more mistakes. Master improvisers hear the mistake, embrace it and make it their own.


I leave you with this TED talk with Stefon Harris entitled "There are no Mistakes in Jazz". They start with a free jam that morphs into a tune. The talk begins at 6:30. He highlights the importance of not only embracing your mistakes but also the mistakes of your ensemble mates.




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