A little while ago, someone posted a request on Facebook for help with stage fright. I did not know her personally, but a friend of mine had commented on the post, so, by chance, it appeared on my time line.
I read through the suggestions: “picture the audience naked;” “say to yourself that you are better than they are;” “give yourself a high five before going on” and “look at the back wall.” All were intended to be supportive and some suggestions were sound.
Yet every single one of them came from a place of duality – of us against them. Is this really how we want to approach our audience? If playing before people makes us confrontational, defensive, superior, or any other mask of the fearful ego, what are we doing up there anyway? Is this why we became musicians?
The best way to avoid stage fright is to love the audience. It is as simple as that. Just love them.
Before I perform, I sit still and breathe in and out a few times. I then concentrate on drawing my breath down into my heart area until I can feel a sensation of warmth and expansion. Some would call this practice opening the heart chakra. For me, this is usually enough to put me into a calm, centred, joyful and love-filled state. For others, concentrating on a much-loved person or pet works in the same way. The trick is not to try to convince yourself mentally that you love the audience, but to fully experience the feeling of love and then go out on stage and share music from that place.
I know plenty of musicians who would rather be lowered head first into a pit of adders than improvise music. Even some gifted jazz and rock musicians, who would think nothing of creating endless variation on a pre-existing melody, would be petrified at the thought of improvising from scratch.
Which is odd, really. What leads an accomplished musician to be so terrified of putting together a sequence of notes? The answer, of course, is fear of doing it “wrong”.
So, to help anyone in this position, here’s a guide to improvisation that kills the fear of doing it wrong with one fell swoop. Because, in this approach to improvisation, there is no “wrong” to worry about.
1. Start Playing Anything. Anything at all. Music is Optional
You learn how to improvise by improvising. So, go on. Do it. There’s absolutely no need for it to be any good. It will get better, given time.
Now, I could end this post right here as, in a nutshell, you’ve just had the best advice I could give you. But, I hear you say, “I can’tjust improvise. That would be improvising and I can’t improvise.”
Ok. Here are some starting points. (Players of harmony instruments, such as piano, guitar, harp, accordion etc, stick to a melody line only):
• Sit somewhere where you can hear everyday noise. A kitchen with an open window would be ideal. When you hear something, play it. A dripping tap? Play it. A plane flying overhead? Play it. Your neighbour coughing? Play it. In this exercise, you are translating what you are hearing into music. This – in essence – is what improvising is.
• How are you feeling? Play it. This is especially useful for vocalists, but instrumentalists can play too. Maybe, you feel a grunt coming on, or a whoop, or a sigh or a scream. Allow them to come. They may want to take you over for a while and this is great, its good medicine. Eventually, after a few minutes, you will reach a point where underneath, there is music waiting to come. It may only be a single tone, but stay with this and it will lead you somewhere very close to improvisation.
• If you feel too exposed doing the above, take on a character. The sillier, the better. What would a one-armed panda play? What would your most/least favourite old school teacher play? What would you, aged 4, play? What you would you, 20 years into the future, play? Try to really feel that you are them/you, as you play.
2. No Judging
Just don’t. Seriously. If you did any of the above exercises, you will see that there is nothing to judge. The sounds you made came from your experience of the environment, emotions or imagination and were a true representation of your reality at that moment.
Feel silly? Annoyed? Vulnerable? That’s fine, but don’t judge that either.
3. Drone On
Most people in the west continue to believe that melody needs to be underpinned by harmony. You only need a casual listen to Indian classical music, to see that this is not the case. Indian musicians have no need for harmony – everything that needs to be expressed can be expressed through melody.
Choose any drone you like: Shruti box, harmonium, organ, tanpura, didgeridoo – anything that can provide a single sustained note. Pick a note and listen to it.
Few musicians listen enough. Especially score-based musicians. Just listen to the drone for a few minutes. Try focussing in on the drone and try listening to the drone as part of a soundscape that encompasses every sound that you can hear. Next, add your improvisation. Listen to the sound of the combination of the drone and your instrument; listen to the up and down motion of intervals between the two; listen to both instruments as a part of the soundscape; listen to anything that occurs to you. By listening to what is happening, you have no time to think about what is about to happen. You are just playing in the moment.
Place your awareness on listening to what you are doing, rather than what you will do or have done. Don’t plan or analyse. Just allow what happens to happen.
6. No Wrong Notes
What did you learn from the above exercise? There are no wrong notes. Whatever note you played formed a relationship with the drone that had congruence and meaning. Sure, it is possible to play a note you may not like, but that doesn’t make it wrong. And anyway, that would be judging again and you agreed not to do that.
Its only possible to play a wrong note when you are improvising over a harmonic structure. Once you have chordal patterns, then you have notes that are part of the chords and not part of the chords. Then, there is always one part of your brain looking out for the chord changes. At this point, you stop being free.
7. Modus Operandi
Once you are happy freely improvising over a drone, you may want to start to re-introduce a framework. Chose a mode or scale to improvise in. The key here is to understand that the music is in charge, not the scale – if you find yourself playing a note that does not feature in your particular scale and it feels right, that’s because it is. Go with it. Now you are learning to follow.
This is true improvisation. Think of a musical score, where the tune already fully exists in potential – all you have to do is play it. True improvisation is the same. The tune exists, all you have to do is play it. From here, you start to realise that the role of the musician is simply to translate “unstruck” music into audible music.
So then, if you are truly following the music that already exists, how could you ever play a wrong note?
You’ve been working hard at learning your instrument. You are frustrated. No matter how hard you try, you just cannot play that new piece you’re working on. You could give up.
I can help you with this, but first it is only fair that I reveal my own approach to teaching an instrument. If I had my way, no beginner would be let within a mile of a tune they know for about two years. Instead, they would spend the time on technical exercises. I never get my way because my students tell me that playing exercises is oh so boring and that they want to play tunes because then they feel that they’re actually playing something. So, as a result, I watch them trying like crazy to play tunes, feeling for them because I can see exactly what is happening.
Here’s a scenario: my new student has been learning the harp for three months. We’ve gone through the basic technique and she knows what her technical tasks are at this stage of her development. She also knows that she needs to absorb these until they can be executed unconsciously. She plays a five note exercise. Its short enough and easy enough for her to be aware of her fingers, shoulders, wrists, back and the manner of her pluck and replacement and she succeeds in being aware of at least some of these. She turns the page onto Lavender’s Blue¹. “At last”, she thinks, “a tune I know!” I watch as everything falls to pieces. Her technique goes flying out of the window; she gets to a tricky bit and stabs at the strings with any old finger, completely forgetting the fingering we’d just worked out; there is a general sense of panic and enough tension in her body to give both of us a headache.
What’s happening? Simply put, she is trying to play the tune and not the harp. For my student, the tune is the most important thing to achieve and she will sacrifice almost everything we’ve worked on in the vain attempt to do so. F M Alexander, creator of the Alexander Technique, would refer to my student as an endgainer: one who is concerned only with attaining their end (the tune), without giving due consideration to the means whereby that end could be gained (correct technique).
Does this sound familiar? Well, you have two choices. The first is to go back to exercises for two years or so, until your technique becomes such a part of you that it will be there for you, no matter what you are playing. (No one yet has chosen this option.)
The second choice is to change your approach to learning a tune.
We do things wrongly because we want things wrongly. Therefore, we can’t change our doing if we don’t change our wanting. Pedro de Alcantara
Since your desire to play the tune is what is causing your inability to play the tune, your first task is to stop wanting to play the tune. You need to be absolutely ok with the possibility that when you get to the end of your breath, bow or tether, you may or may not have played the tune. It must be of no importance to you, either way. You’re here to play your instrument, not the tune. By stopping wanting to play the tune, you will no longer be triggering the panic and tension that leads to poor technique that leads to you not being able to play the tune. This, in Alexander Technique terms, is called inhibition. Here, inhibition is not meant in the sense of shyness, or self-consciousness, but in its other sense of preventing or holding back: essentially, it is meant in the psychological sense of “a restraint on the direct expression of an instinct”. In effect, inhibition is non-doing.
If your concern is not with doing (playing the tune), but in inhibiting yourself from doing, you prevent yourself from endgaining: you inhibit the misuse that leads to you not being able to play the tune. At the point that you inhibit yourself from misuse, a universe of possibilities opens up. You can pay attention to anything at all: good things to pay attention to are the feel of the instrument against your skin; how you are breathing; the placement of your fingers; the sound you make; your technique.
Of course, it would be beautiful at this stage to say guess what, as soon as you stop trying to play the tune, you will be able to play it. This may be the case later on when you have absorbed your technique, but it is not like that now. You are simply not there yet. You are still learning. You will not be able to play the tune perfectly yet (and that’s totally fine with you, isn’t it?) But if you keep on preventing yourself from misuse and instead, concentrate on focussing on those things you need to absorb, those things that will help you to play your instrument, not the tune, then, one day the tune – any tune – will flow from your fingers like water.
De Alcatara, Pedro, Indirect Procedures: A Musician’s Guide to the Alexander Technique, 2nd Ed, 2013