Avoiding pain, embarrassment, humiliation. We all do our best to avoid uncomfortable emotions. When we’re angry or hurt, we try really hard to get back to a more peaceful state. What would happen if we chose to remain with the painful feelings and acknowledge their presence? What would happen if we realized that we have a say in the matter and that we have an array of possibilities to choose from, rather than the ones that emotion may dictate for us?
Life, with all its twists and turns, can not stay in homeostasis like our biological systems. Life instead seems to have more bad moments than good. Personally, 2012 wasn’t a particularly good year but I learned a lot of lessons that I will strive not to forget when the times are good.
What does this have to do with music? The image of the suffering and starving artist is a widespread one in our western culture. We become artists not to make money but to create and move people towards change. Some of the most powerful music has been born from misery.
If you would like to become more present or mindful, accepting rather than fighting what is happening at any given time is a critical skill to develop. The hardest lesson for me in all this has been accepting that while my emotions are real, they do not define me. You can accept difficult situations for what they are, but you can simply notice the emotions they produce. They do not have to control you. Biologically, we feel emotions but research tells us that they take about 90 seconds to pass through the body (if we choose to let them go).
Acknowledge and accept. There are so many ways we can apply this to practice and performance of music.
Here’s a way to start in the practice room: when you’re having a bad day, it’s incredibly difficult to not judge yourself. Any element that isn’t going well becomes the focal point of your attention and you gradually pull yourself more and more away from the music itself.
When you notice frustration creeping in, stop and take a moment to notice that frustration and accept it. This doesn’t mean that you have to stay with the frustration but instead, you can make a choice about what it is you want to do next. If you choose to stay frustrated, you will choose to remain focused on the element that isn’t flowing (such as your tone). Another choice you can make is to step away from the instrument and go do something else for a little while.
Finally, a third choice could be to focus on the wider picture and find something positive in your playing. I can guarantee that you’re not going to feel comfortable or even happy about having to play in a frustrated state, but if you choose to not let the frustration control your choices, the negative judgmental voices will dissipate. You may even be able to end the practice session in a productive groove.
Life is all about how we choose to respond to curveballs. Practicing is all about how we choose to respond to our expectations. If we let our emotions control us, choices get made for us. Conscious, mindful decision making can keep us in the game.