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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.
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