Are you mean to yourself when you practice?


The other day, I was playing scales, and I realized mid-note just how cruel I was being to myself. It wasn’t only the conscious thoughts I had about the way I sounded, it was the utter lack of confidence that I could ever sound better. It made me remember an experiment I ran on myself almost two decades ago.


When I first graduated from conservatory, I won a couple jobs with regional orchestras in the San Francisco Bay Area. One of those jobs was as the Assistant Concertmaster with the Santa Rosa Symphony. It wasn’t too long before it was my turn to step up and sit in the hot seat of concertmaster.


The first time doing anything in a new job is always stressful, but in this case I was far younger (and far less experienced) than nearly everyone else in the orchestra. I had won the audition fair and square, but the potent combination of feeling so young plus imagining that everyone would be rolling their eyes at some youngster being in a position of authority really got into my head.


I went to see my beloved audition coach, partially to get musical advice, but mostly to help me conquer my own mind. She suggested I write statements that challenged my negative, catastrophic thinking on post-its and then put them around my apartment and on my music stand. I laughed, thinking it sounded really cheesy, but I didn’t have any better ideas, so I went ahead and gave it a try. I don’t remember what I wrote on them, but my guess is that I wrote phrases that were the opposite of what I was actually feeling. Every time I would see a phrase, I would repeat it to myself. I felt totally ridiculous and I did not believe it would work.


But in the end, this experiment did lead to real change, at least, by my own subjective experience. By the time rehearsals rolled around and I was sitting in the concertmaster chair, I was nervous, but I also felt grounded and solid. (Side note: It didn’t hurt that I also practiced and studied the scores - a lot - so that I would feel as prepared as possible.)


Thinking back on this experience, I decided to look into what one of my favorite bloggers says on the subject of negative thought patterns. Dr. Noa Kageyama, the writer and teacher behind the Bulletproof Musician, wrote an article examining scientific literature on the subject. The conclusion of the article is that negative self talk is not the worst thing, as long as it is immediately countered by a positive statement. This fits in with my experience sitting in the hot seat all those years ago - I felt nervous but whenever a negative thought would enter my mind, I would think, “I know that I am prepared.” It really tamed the negativity into something more manageable, as if it went from controlling my brain to sitting a couple feet away.


Fast forward to the present: I am going to run a similar experiment on myself for the next week or so, but rather than use sticky notes, I am going to try adding a positive statement to whatever my inner negative party pooper dishes out. For example, if I think, “Ugh, I sound so gross” I will add “but I know that if I practice slowly with a drone I will sound better.” At the bare minimum, I’m hoping my brain will at least be a happier place to inhabit!


If you give this technique a try, let me know: did it work for you?


(photo credit: Henrikke Due)



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