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Solo Festival Season just ended here in my area in NY this past week. Thousands of students prepared and performed classical and jazz pieces for judges all across the NY metro area. Each one of these students not only had to be prepared physically, but mentally as well.

Children, like adults, approach performance differently. Some look forward to it, some dread it, some can take it or leave it. What's really interesting is that you would think that the person dreading the situation would fare the worst, but that is not always the case.

There's one other factor that can determine success in performance that many people may not acknowledge out loud. The worth, or value of the result can have a huge effect on the preparation and the actual performance. What do I mean?

If a student desperately wants to get into All-State or the college of their dreams, the value of their result of their performance will be huge.  If another student is told they must participate in NYSSMA (New York State School Music Association's Solo Festival) even though they do not want to, the worth or value of that performance result is not high at all.  By attaching a significance to the result, there's not only an increase in the level of motivation but also the level of pressure one puts upon themselves. If done right and with proper guidance, this can lead to superior performances. If the event is approached with worry and misplaced fear, the results can be devastating.

My own personal experiences with preparing for NYSSMA were interesting. I was a top student in school, as well as in music. As is common with top students, I put a tremendous amount of pressure on myself to succeed. I would be thinking about and preparing NYSSMA solos a year in advance (in fact as soon as I was done with that year's solo performance). I had to make All County, I had to make All-State. I put a tremendous value on the result of my performances because nothing was more important than getting into those elite groups. It was all or nothing for me. If I didn't make it into those groups, I was devastated, my year was ruined. My preparation and my performances were approached with a huge amount of worry and fear.

But was all that self-imposed pressure healthy? Some can argue yes, while some would say no. Self-motivation is key for any successful performance, whether it's music, dance, sports or academics. If you are not intrinsically motivated, it will be difficult to achieve success on a regular basis because you will not feel the same level of happiness over the accomplishments you have made because the level or worth or value was not as high for you.

But when you add the fear of failure into how the event is approached, the performance is not about making music anymore. It's solely about achieving a status where the end result is sometimes out of your control. You can get 100 in an All-State audition and still not make it. Then the important questions are: “Did you enjoy the process of learning that difficult piece of music? Did you learn and grow from all that hard work?”

Luckily for me, I did very well in almost all of my performances. I prepared very well, and had good guidance. But my perceived value of the end result of these performances made me place unrealistic demands on every practice session. When you are playing a brass instrument, this can be dangerous because brass embouchres (facial muscle settings) take longer to develop than woodwinds. It's very easy to play a brass instrument with inefficient technique for quite a while until the point is reached where the embouchre can stop functioning properly. There's many famous stories of trumpet players who have had to take time off from performing to fix these types of problems. (i.e. Dave Douglas, John McNeil, Freddie Hubbard)  In time, my inefficient embouchre gave out, and my performances suffered. The next steps were the most crucial as I had to learn to deal with what I perceived as failure.

Is failure such a bad thing?

As a music teacher, it can be really painful to observe students who have experienced disappointing results. You always want your students to do well. It is at this point of experiencing failure where the student will learn the most about themselves.

In my situation, I sought out the best teachers to help me fix my problem. It took a very long time, but with a tremendous amount of persistence, everything worked out in the end. I had to come to terms with learning the best ways to prepare mentally and emotionally for performance, and realize that all that unnecessary worry and all those unrealistic demands were the root cause of my embouchre problems.

Looking back, I learned a lot about myself, and about how to deal with failure for myself and students. I learned that failure is necessary for making progress. That is a really hard concept for a young person to understand, but think about this analogy: it took thousands of attempts and failures before Thomas Edison invented the light bulb. Imagine if he stopped trying after only a few attempts?

“You don't drown by falling in the water; you drown by staying there.”   Edwin Louis Cole

How much should we care?

It's important to distinguish the right amount of caring about the end result. There's Caring, and then there's Caring Too Much or Caring Too Little.  Too much caring emphasizes results only, and can lead to devastation when failure happens because the mechanisms to deal with failure may not be present. Too little caring can mean 2 things. The person may not be self-motivated, and it's important to recognize whether this is a self-defense mechanism against fear of failure. It can also mean that they just don't understand how to prepare for events in such a way that they can use desire and persistence to achieve a goal.  The right amount of caring involves appreciating the growth in each step of the process, recognizing that the score is not a reflection on the performer's overall ability, and understanding that “success” is relative to each person. The right amount of caring recognizes that enjoying every step of the way, and expressing that enjoyment is more important than the actual goal. In due time, the continued feelings of enjoyment will lead to achieving success, as long as the person is persistent and is motivated to keep achieving.

How can we train our students to mentally prepare for performing?

Is it really THAT important to have a ton of students get into All-State? I understand that in these times great results lead to not just building our music programs, but keeping them. But we have to think, at what cost to the students?

Believe it or not, sports psychology can help us guide our students to more consistent performances, as well as enjoyment of the whole musical process. People like Don Greene (See link below for access to one of his greatest books on performance success) and Noa Kageyama have created great sites and programs for achieving success.

Both musicians and athletes are under tremendous pressure to perform. We can learn a lot from sports coaches to help our students perform better and learn and grow musically. Check out this great quote from Phil Jackson about basketball:

“…I know that being fixated on winning (or more likely, not losing) is counterproductive, especially when it causes you to lose control of your emotions. What’s more, obsessing about winning is a loser’s game: The most we can hope for is to create the best possible conditions for success, then let go of the outcome.”

“What matters most is playing the game the right way and having the courage to grow, as human beings as well as basketball players. When you do that, the ring takes care of itself.”
~Phil Jackson

Here's some ideas on what you can do or say to students:

  • Continually remind students that the score is not an indication of them as a person or even as a musician. Some days are better than others, and that is okay!.
  • All anyone can ever do is work towards consistency in technique and expressiveness in performance.
  • When the performance is over, ask the question, “Did you enjoy the whole process?”
  • Point out that the journey is the most important, not the end result.

In the education environment today where scores are more valued than the growth and process, we have to take a step back and remind ourselves what is most important. As teachers and parents, we are leaders and need to impart the principles of learning for the right reasons and demonstrating a healthy level of caring about results. Many students who put too much value on the score or the end result don't even think about enjoying the journey of learning the new pieces. Some don't even consider whether they enjoyed all the hard work and all the mini-achievements along the way. Celebrate the little accomplishments with them so they learn to appreciate the growth.

Action Steps:

  1.  Are your students putting too much value on scores, instead of the journey? Let me know in the comments below.
  2. Have you ever found yourself valuing the end result more than the process? Please share….
  3. You can also listen to my radio show broadcast on this topic here.
  4. If you liked this article, please Share it on your social networks.
  5. If you want to give your students an edge in performing at Solo Festivals, you can pre-order my program, NYSSMA De-Mystified; Everything You Need to Know to Nail That Audition!



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