'Down wiv da kidz'
I realise that I'm probably a little late to the party with this one, but thought it was worth a share anyway...
First of all, a confession: I bore really easily, and over the last year I have actually found videoing my playing to be a really helpful practice tool. Not only can I listen back easily (and therefore pick holes in every single thing I do!), but I can also watch my hands and face as I play. We all 'teach' ourselves all the time, but this process allows me to observe my playing from a totally different perspective. Practising using video technology has helped me to spot issues I think I might otherwise have missed. I can also set myself goals, and at the end of the process I feel I've achieved something. This week I took the whole thing a stage further and downloaded the 'acapella' app - and basically it's tons of fun :)
Previously, recording multi-track video was a total nightmare (and involved using MovieMaker multiple times, and making my own click track.... ), I did a 4-part recording this way at Christmas-time last year and nearly drove myself mad! This app makes it all so much easier. It's dead easy to use, and you can set your own click track to suit & listen back as you add more layers. The free version will only give you a couple of minutes recording time (and be warned you need lots of spare memory if you're going to record for longer or with more layers!), but I paid for the full version, and am actually really impressed. Whoever designed this knew what musicians would need and how to make it intuitive to use. One nit I would pick though, is that there doesn't *seem* to be a way to balance up the parts/ screens before doing the final render. Some sort of separate mix-desk for the audio would be helpful. Perhaps there is one and I've just not found it yet!
Recording in this way is great for improving things like rhythm, intonation, and listening skills. You can even collaborate with other users of the app. This makes it a really fun and creative practice tool.
This weekend my better half whipped up an arrangement for me and the result is below (clarinet geeks, I'll post a link to where you can buy it shortly!). No this recording isn't perfect, but hey, it was lots of fun to make and I've been stunned by the number of shares & positive feedback! Watch 'til the end ;)
Unpacking Stage Fright
'Stage Fright', 'nerves', 'jitters'... Just a few words to describe a feeling most of us are familiar with. It's something we pretty much have to learn to manage in order to perform.
But what do these words actually mean? I'm not entirely sure.... They attempt to describe a feeling which may be very different for each person. Perhaps they don't do justice to what can be a very real struggle.
But nerves aren't all bad.... Being nervous means you CARE. Nerves can help us to 'up our game' and provide the additional focus and energy required to perform well. It's an evolutionary thing... The physiological changes which accompany a stressful situation can help our bodies to perform at their optimum level. Once upon a time that might have meant the difference between eating and not eating!
The problem comes when our nerves get the better of us, and start to make things worse.
Someone recently told me that I didn't appear at all nervous or anxious about my playing. Well done me then! My 'game face' must be strong - or it was that day!
I know I'm not alone in managing my nerves even if it's not something we musicians tend to talk about a lot. Over the years they have sometimes been easier to deal with and less bothersome, and at other times harder to manage, but they've been a constant companion. 'Nerves' can manifest in a variety of ways. They can be very short-lived or more insidious, less immediately obvious but with perhaps with more far-reaching consequences...
Most of us would relate to some of the well-known symptoms of nerves, things like:
There are probably as many different ways of coping with these things as there are people. I've observed musicians going 'into' themselves before a concert, mentally and physically taking themselves off somewhere else - I sometimes do this myself. Dealing with other people and making polite conversation can be all a bit much if you're feeling nervous. Some people actively seek out distraction though, and that's perfectly valid too as long as you're not annoying anybody! Deep breathing can help a lot, mindfulness exercises are wonderful. Some people swear by rescue remedy, EFT or homeopathy. Ultimately though the hope is that all your hard work, experience and FOCUS will carry you through and the nerves will melt away. But it can be a hard mental game.
But then there are the more persistent 'nerves', which many of us will also have to manage at some point:
To a degree these are also 'normal' signs of nervousness, and I'm sure many people can relate to them. But what do you do if you find that they are affecting your ability to do your job or are starting to make your life a misery? What if a feeling of nervousness or nervous thinking isn't just limited to the short window of time around a performance? This is no joke. Out of control thoughts and feelings like this do destroy lives and careers. Being unable to perform without (self-)medicating with beta-blockers or alcohol is far from unusual in the music industry but the reality is that for some people it's the only way to pay the bills. Perhaps the saddest part of this scenario is how little we talk about it - it's the 'elephant in the room'. One reason why people might not want to talk about it is that admitting to getting nervous is like admitting that you might make a mistake, and we can't have that! ;)
Whether we talk about it or not, the reality is that it just isn't healthy to spend too much time in an anxious state like this, it can become habitual. It starts to feel normal, even though it isn't. Perhaps we even become addicted to the drama created when we spend our lives a constant cycle of high anxiety/ adrenalin/ relief! But it's important to remember that while short-lived periods of anxiety don't do us any harm (humans are designed to cope with some stress), living life in what is essentially a permanently anxious state of mind isn't healthy.
But think for a minute: if your amazing mind can conjure up all this anxiety and stress out of nowhere then just imagine what might happen if you were able to harness its 'creative power' for good!
I don't remember there being much focus (if any) about nerves or managing nerves when I was at music college and I think this was a shame. Professional musicians spend countless hours practising, constantly analysing their playing in minute detail for ways to improve it. Many musicians are 'perfectionists', but it doesn't take a genius to work out that the flip side of all this perfectionism can be anxiety....
There's no shame in a top sportsperson consulting a sports psychologist, Andy Murray recently talked about this very thing. In fact, mental strength is recognised as being a very important part of what makes a champion. However we can't expect our musical-mind-game to be strong if the rest of our life is a mess, so it's important not to look at any one thing in complete isolation. Getting enough sleep, eating well, not drinking too much, getting exercise, getting out into the fresh air & having time out & balance in the rest of your life counts for a lot too. These things keep us grounded and anchored generally.
It's easy to see how a strong mental game could help your career though: imagine walking into an audition with a strong mindset - regardless of how beautifully your competition can play you're at an advantage if they're a bundle of nerves and you are beautifully focused, confident and composed!
I remember my teacher suggesting I read a book called 'The Inner Game of Music' (or the original book which inspired it 'The Inner Game of Tennis') when I was a student. This was good advice and I still recommend these books to others. Essentially the books describe a type of 'mindfulness' which enables us to shut down the negative self-talk which can accompany a performance. Staying 'in the moment' is powerful but it requires practice.
I found out about the power of hypnosis when I used it for the births of my last two children. Our brains really can be trained to work for us, as well as against us! I've also used hypnosis as a way of dealing with performance-related nerves and I've found that it can work extremely well.
If your nerves are really affecting your life, then please do get proper help. There are interventions which can make life easier. It might cost money and take a while to sort out, but just imagine for a moment that your instrument had a broken spring or wasn't working correctly. You'd get it fixed, right? Your mind is every bit as important.
And if all else fails, I also recommend this ;)
What techniques help you with your performance anxiety? Do you have any suggestions for others? Please let me know. I'd love to share them in a future post.
However - when you really believe in something and you know it will do good for the community, that does make it easier to 'sell it'. I'll admit that having experience as a performer probably was helpful in making this presentation, but it's one thing playing music and quite another talking about it... I was quaking in my boots! Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?
I began by talking (with a little help from my ukulele) about the real good that accessing music & playing music can do for people. Not just for some people but for all people... Then I went on to explain what exactly Ultonia Arts would spend the funding on if we were successful in obtaining it. The most incredible thing about this experience for me (apart from the fact that I actually went through with it!), was that our company was chosen to receive the funding by popular vote.
This means that people really DO believe in what we're trying to do and really wanted to support us. A number of people also came up to me afterwards to tell me that they'd voted for me/ us, and that they really felt music was so important to life. It was inspiring to witness how many of those in attendance valued the Arts in exactly the same way that we do.
So huge thanks to Social Enterprise NI, Armagh Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council, and especially Derek Browne at the Social Enterprise Hub. Can't wait to share more about our plans as we move forward.
Have you got what it takes?
The aim of most young instrumentalists planning a career in music is – as it has been for generations – to get a place a music college/ conservatoire. It’s a great idea. Music college is fantastic. It’s immersive, and young musicians have the opportunity to study with really great teachers and devote themselves to hours and hours of practice in order to hone their techniques and learn about their chosen field. Beyond this there are opportunities to perform and compete in lots of different settings, if you’re an orchestral musician you’ll learn about the audition process, and if you’re lucky perhaps you’ll get your first professional work somewhere down the line. It’s an incredibly energetic and exciting place to be.
This was the path I went down twenty (cough) years ago, and I don’t regret it for a single moment. I would absolutely encourage others to do the same….
…but here’s the thing… When you graduate, you are very unlikely to walk into a salaried job doing the thing you went there to do in the first place (playing or singing). In fact, in all likelihood it will never happen... You need to be damn good as standard, your face needs to fit (yes, it really does!), and to a certain degree those planets need to be in alignment too. Of course it’s also possible to enjoy a worthwhile & rewarding freelance performing career, but it’s competitive, and even regular freelancers will usually need another other source of income.
I’m not trying to depress you – actually far from it – so bear with me while I talk about myself for a bit..
I graduated at the top of my year at both undergraduate and postgraduate level at music college. I didn’t go on to get an orchestral job (to be honest I only did a handful of auditions), but I was lucky and freelanced for many years with orchestral clarinet sections who were for the most part very loyal and supportive. I supplemented work as a freelance clarinettist with some teaching which I juggled (and I do mean juggled!) around the travelling and playing. So far so good. Eventually I met my husband through work, and ‘settled down’. And that’s when the trouble started ;)
I remember telling one orchestral manager that I’d probably be free to work again three months after my first baby was born. She was a mother herself and advised me to wait and see how I got on…. It turned out I massively underestimated the effect that having a child would have on my life, and consequently on my career. At three months post-partum I barely knew my own name and in the end I was only able to get back to playing when she was around 14 months old. I can recall desperately trying to express milk for her in a portaloo at an outdoor gig followed by a speedy drive home! The glamour....
We didn’t plan it, but my husband & I ended up going down the ‘attachment parenting’ route with first one, then two, then three kids. Becoming a parent did affect my career opportunities (I don’t think that’s exclusive to music btw - it happens far more often than people admit, especially if you’re freelance), but other things changed too. My tolerance for the casual sexism I sometimes encountered also went into major decline. Things that had once seemed incredibly important suddenly didn’t seem so important anymore. I basically ended up taking a ‘career break’ – with no idea if I would end up having a career to go back to.
With my hands full and reluctant to waken small children once they finally went to sleep I found I needed new (quieter) outlets for my creativity – and I began writing and experimenting with henna art. Discovering that I was more than a musician was a major revelation! I began to realise that henna, the written word and music have a lot in common – they are all crafted by the artist out of core patterns (words, scales/ arpeggios, shapes). However this time I was teaching myself – I was improvising - something I found incredibly difficult to do on the clarinet. I began to realise that perhaps I was more than an instrumentalist, and I began to think of myself as a creative person.
As time went on (and the kids got older) I found myself desperate to get back to ‘myself‘, and myself meant music and playing the clarinet. But time away from the orchestral world and a new perspective on life meant I now viewed myself more as a creative being with something meaningful of my own to offer, my own ‘voice’, and my own ideas... Being able to play what's on the page, the way your colleagues do, and the way a conductor wants you to is so so important, but it's not the only thing... A simple shift of mindset was all that was required to allow me to see a whole host of new possibilities. Instead of being inside the box I had grown up in, I found myself outside of it.
Better late than never.
My career now isn’t the way I thought it would be when I first graduated, but ***NEWSFLASH*** life happens! And it will happen to you too in one way or another :) I now get even more joy from playing the clarinet and my career is more varied than I ever imagined it would be! No two days are ever the same. I work with people from age 4 to grandparents. I am much more open-minded in my approach to music-making. I lead workshops and am inspired by closer relationships with artists from other art forms. Music college equipped me with many of the skills I needed as a clarinettist but it by no means gave me all the skills I needed to be a music professional. And these days, that’s what it takes.
Now back to you – young musician with a world of possibilities at your feet/highly-skilled orchestral musician facing change….What do I want to communicate to you as you continue your musical journey?
I want you to know that music is your vehicle, but you are good at it because you’re a creative, because you’re an artist. You don’t need to confine yourself to any box... Plan, practice, prepare, but know that flexibility and adaptability is your best friend in the modern musical world. Your passion and creativity will enhance your work in ANY field. Believe it.
Here are a few practical suggestions from me: