Gut Instinct: The Greatest Tool in Music Making
Today I'm going to tell you a very personal story, but one that I think will shed light on two issues that are very universal in music making: gut instinct and performance anxiety. We will explore my story, and how I found these two things to be inter-connected.
I have a confession to make...
I can count the number of tests I studied for in high school on one hand. I was the kind of high school student who drove teachers completely crazy. I was smart, but a terrible procrastinator who hardly studied. I still graduated with a good GPA and did extremely well in college and graduate school.
*As a note, I actually studied in undergrad and grad school because I paid to attend those institutions...
Why did I choose not to study in high school? I did it because I was really in tune with my gut instinct.
It probably sounds really trite, and if my grades were worse I think my parents would have killed me, but it's the truth. I had really good instincts, and therefore was able to usually discern enough right answers on a test to get a decent grade.
So what does this have to do with music making?
Well, it has a lot to do with music making.
After I graduated from college I lost a lot of trust in my instincts. It really showed in my performances and technique. It became apparent that I was thinking about the music I was making far too much. These issues became pervasive and I formed performance anxiety for the first time in my mid-twenties.
For some people, performance anxiety is something they always live with. It's something they have the day of their first 5 year old piano recital and it doesn't stop for their entire lives. This was not the case with me. I was a child and young adult who had never struggled with performance anxiety. I was never afraid to put myself out there. I had very little fear. However, as a newly minted professional musician I was struggling with something that I had never understood or experienced before.
Because of my brazen personality, I completely denied that I was struggling. I told no one and put on the best game face I had. I still performed. I still did auditions. I still got through grad school. I still did all the things. But in the fall of 2015 it had crippled my ability to express in song so much that I realized I needed to do something. On the outside I appeared to be a successful, working musician, but on the inside I was tied up in knots.
It's a hard thing to describe, but I'm sure most people can relate to the general feeling. This is the point where art becomes a paycheck. You want it to be honest, but you know in your soul that it's not honest because you are constantly freaking out about whether or not it is "right". You are stuck behind a wall that you can't identify. It's internally frustrating, and people are depending on you to be vulnerable and produce something moving.
Two years ago I began the journey of unraveling the layers of junk I had built up to protect myself over many years. I am well on the other side of this mountain, with the one piece of advice I give to every student: "Trust"
A voice teacher I studied with told me a story about a masterclass she attended with the famous french soprano Régine Crespin. (Here's a gift for your Saturday afternoon. A great recording of her singing an aria from Les Troyens.)
Crespin turned to her in the masterclass and said, "My darling. You must trust."
What did she mean by that statement? I take it to mean trusting your gut instincts. Remember, your body knows how to play an instrument and how to sing. It's been taught to you for years. I always tell my students, "You come out of the womb screaming. Singing isn't far behind."
This also means giving yourself the space to trust yourself. Giving yourself the gift of a compassionate self-judge. If you are not getting a passage, take your nose out of the music for a few seconds. Just play it or sing it. Mess it up. Then go back and make whatever changes need to be made.
Remember, at the end of the day the goal of music is to move the audience and connect them to something greater. If you trust the force within, it will guide you to that connection.
Have a great week!