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SOTW columnist
Neal Sharpe
Neil Sharpe is with the Genetic Testing Research Group, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, and serves as a consultant in clinical protocols and health policy. Neil has extensive experience with the emotional and psychological aspects of performance and well being. He is the author and co-author of two professional texts and numerous peer reviewed papers. Neil and his sax have terrified the unsuspecting since the 1950's.

Anxiety, Emotions and Performing Well

by Neil Sharpe

Part 1- Focus

Something strange going on?

Practice is great, performance isn't?

Why? What changes? What's holding you back

Pressure? Nerves? Something else?

Let's get one thing straight right from the beginning. There is no failure. There is only a lack of knowledge, technique, and experience.

Musicians face stressful situations all the time. Although we know how pressure can affect us, we may not know how to deal with it. Or what we do know, doesn't always do the job.

Everyone practices physical skills. Few practice, or are taught, mental performance skills. Yet, they're the most critical. That's why only a small percentage of performers reach their full potential. That's what this article is all about. To give you the tools you need to realize your full potential.

When confronted with the stress of performing, our natural self-defense system-called the fight or flee syndrome-jumps into action. Developed early in our history to confront the life-threatening problems our distant ancestors faced, like the attack of wild animals or natural disasters, our stress defense system stimulates certain regions of the body to react quicker than normal. The heart beats faster, breathing accelerates, and blood pressure increases. Two hormones are released, cortisol to replenish energy and adrenaline to increase our reflexes, strength, and reaction time

But there's a tradeoff. The same chemicals that speed up our physical responses also suppress the calm, rational parts of the brain. The result? We tense up. Our emotions take over. We start talking to ourselves, worried that we'll miss a note, lose track of the solo, the audience doesn't like what we are doing, and so on, affecting our composure and concentration.

The more you tighten up physically and mentally in jazz music, and maybe in most music, the worse it gets.

- Stan Getz

When we perform, two modes can control our performance. The positive "Implicit" mode is acting without conscious thought, such as walking. The negative "Explicit" mode is acting with thought, such as a carrying a bowl of soup while trying not to spill any.

When we are performing well, this is the implicit mode. However, as soon as we start thinking about what we're doing, the explicit mode cuts in and our concentration begins to waver. The bottom line is the greater the external focus, the higher the level of performance.

How can we learn to control our thoughts and emotions and not let them control us? Worry is fine for motivating us, for making plans, to get us going. But once that's accomplished, what's the point? How many times do we have to run the same mental track, over the same memories, the same worries? For what purpose?

Musicians are using relaxation and mental rehearsal techniques to enhance their ability to perform consistently well.

This article provides a practical, time efficient program that you can use right from the start.

Write It Down

Before beginning any of the following techniques, take a pen and write down whatever is on your mind. You can do this in point form, by jotting down one or two words, or whatever way you like. Write down whatever you are thinking and feeling, your worries, things to do, places to go, thoughts about other people, and so on. Don't evaluate what you are writing. Whatever is passing through your mind, just write it down.

When you have finished your list, if you wish, promise yourself that you will return to it after you've finished practicing. But also remind yourself that here and now, nothing can be done with regard to what appears on your list, that the best way to deal with them is to take a break, to recharge your batteries. For the next few minutes, the list can wait. It's time to relax.

Learning How To Breathe

Let's take a simple test. Place your right hand on your chest and your left hand on your stomach. Take a deep breath. Which hand moved the most? If it's your right hand, that's a problem.

In stressful situations, we take faster, shallower breaths, decreasing the amount of oxygen. Our heart rate and blood pressure shift into overdrive to make up the difference. This triggers the fight-flee syndrome, muscles tighten, and our minds become more emotional and anxious.

Learning how to breathe from the abdomen and not the chest is one of the most effective things you can do to cope with stress. Slow, deep breathing helps to replenish the supply of oxygen and to slow down the onrush of emotions triggered by stress.

. Sheet Music Plus
  • Standing upright, first gently shake your right arm, then your left arm to relieve any tension. Do this several times. Repeat with each leg.
  • Sit quietly in a chair, eyes closed.
  • Take a slow deep breath, and say the number "one" while extending your stomach, breathing from the abdomen. Pause, then let your breath out slowly while mentally saying the number "two".
  • Take another slow deep breath, and mentally say the number "three". Again, pause briefly before letting your breath out slowly, this time saying the number "four".
  • With each breath, allow your body to relax deeper into the chair. Your arms and legs may feel heavy. Allow them to go limp, to settle heavily into the chair.
  • Continue up to the number "nine" while breathing in, and "ten" when breathing out.
  • Hold the last breath to a count of five, before you slowly let it out.
  • When finished, take another slow, deep breath, pause and then gradually let it flow out. Feel a wave of relaxation begin at the top of your head and slowly wash down throughout your entire body; a wave carrying away tension and stress.
  • To become more familiar with this technique, repeat the above cycle three more times or as many times as you find comfortable.
  • Try to do this exercise several times a day (with practice, it can be done quickly and effectively). This helps to prevent stress from piling up, making it easier to handle.

When you were breathing and counting, what happened to your thoughts and emotions? They were there before you started counting your breath. They returned as soon as you stopped counting your breath. But where were they, while you were counting your breaths?

With this simple exercise -called Counting To Ten- you begin to understand that you are not your thoughts and emotions. They flow from you, they flow through you, but they also flow beyond you. What were you worrying about a year ago today? What were you thinking about a year ago today? Thoughts and emotions are constantly changing, coming and going. You are the observer, the steady eye at the center of the storm. The distinction is important.

Finding the time and patience to focus on your breath may seem difficult at first. If you are really stressed out, you may not be able to slow down and focus right away. The mind may be tugging at your concentration with thoughts of things to do, places to go, and so on. This is normal. Counting breath puts us back on solid ground and helps us to steer through distractions. With practice, these brief moments gradually can be expanded to a few seconds, a few minutes, and then to extended periods of time where you are performing without distracting thoughts and emotions getting in the way.

When you are familiar with this exercise, add the following.

Clouds and Rivers

The purpose of this exercise is to learn how to slow down and manage our thoughts and emotions

  • Slowly take in a deep breath, then gently let it flow out. Repeat three or four times.
  • Close your eyes and imagine that you are standing outside, looking up at the sky, and watching clouds flow by as if they were flowing through your mind. At first, picturing this may seem difficult, but with practice, the picture will become clearer. A precise image isn't necessary; a general impression works fine.
  • See each thought flowing through your mind. Think of each thought as a cloud flowing in, then out. Label each cloud with a thought and watch the cloud come, then go, while you slowly, gently, breathe in, out. Repeat for each thought as it occurs.

The clouds come and go, your thoughts come and go. But you are always here, centered, in control, at home, at peace.

Next, let's deal with emotions.

  • Imagine that you are standing on a bridge looking down on a river.
  • Imagine leaves are floating on the river.
  • Label each leaf with an emotion you are feeling, and watch it gently flow away. Repeat for each emotion as it occurs.
With this foundation in place, it's time to enhance your concentration skills through the techniques described in Part Two. saxophone books
Created: November 16, 2003
Update: January 7, 2011

©2003-2011 Harri Rautiainen
and respective authors

Neil Sharpe is with the Genetic Testing Research Group, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, and serves as a consultant in clinical protocols and health policy. Neil has extensive experience with the emotional and psychological aspects of performance and well being. He is the author and co-author of two professional texts and numerous peer reviewed papers. Neil and his sax have terrified the unsuspecting since the 1950's.

A Related SOTW article: Psyching Out Improv Demons by Roger Freundlich

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