The “Problem Solver” Approach to Music Execution

Regular readers here know that performance anxiety is a topic which I have addressed on several occasions in the past five years, both because I am an occasional sufferer and more importantly because I regularly encounter students who deal with this not only during public performance but even during their weekly lessons with me. Although I’m not sure I’ve said this in so many words in previous posts, one thing I absolutely do not do when students (or I) encounter this issue is admonish them to “not be nervous.” Such a suggestion would be a nonstarter—if one is prone to nervousness that emotion is there and is likely to be there at least for the foreseeable future, and a more successful course of action is to accept it and figure out how to achieve great things musically in spite of it.

Happily, there are a number of steps that one can take which in the short term will minimize the effects of nervousness, and in the long term will help to minimize or even eliminate its presence. Increasing the efficiency with which one undertakes the physical act of playing the instrument, making mental notes of the feeling of playing relaxed when it occurs, performing more frequently, prioritizing service to the audience over exaltation of the self, choosing repertoire wisely, and (obviously) practicing diligently are all helpful steps, and are discussed in more detail here. In a certain sense, these methodologies and others related to them serve to create a certain emotional detachment in the performer, where the act of performing is not so tied to one’s emotional state that anxiety or other negative emotions can derail a performance when they are present.

Instead of investing tremendous emotional energy (whether positive or negative) into a performance, I have found it sometimes found it helpful to think of my role on stage as that of a “problem solver.” In this case the “problem” is that I have to deliver an effective and satisfying performance of the piece of music at hand, and my task is to “solve” this problem by devising and employing means that enable me to achieve this end. This includes technical execution, of course, as well as responding to variables that occur in the midst of performance such as extremes of temperature, poor piano tuning, audience distractions, etc., but it also includes emotive elements. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, the expressive content of a piece can and should be planned in advance, and so programmed into the performance that this content can be conveyed regardless of the emotional state of the performer. After all, as one person remarked on Facebook in response to that article, our job as performers is to give the listener an emotional experience when listening to our music, not necessarily to have the same experience ourselves (though if we do, great!). When I approach performing as a problem solver, I often find that I am much too engaged in this task to have time for performance anxiety.

As with many things in music, this suggestion can be taken to an unnecessarily and unhelpful extreme. The famous tubist and brass pedagogue Arnold Jacobs (1915-1998) said that we all needed to have an “investigator’s hat” and a “performer’s hat,” the former to diagnose and solve problems in the practice room, and the latter to enable effective performance. He warned against wearing the investigator’s hat while performing, lest one become so wrapped up in thinking about how to play that he becomes unable to engage in the simple act of delivering a beautiful performance. This warning is well-taken, and I don’t mean to suggest that the problem solver should be one who obsesses over the minutiae of physical execution during performance, thus experiencing “paralysis by analysis.” Rather, the problem solver should focus primarily on his mental concept of how the piece should sound, and make adjustments as needed in very basic areas of execution (breath, intonation, physical relaxation, etc.) in his quest to realizing that concept. There must be a right way someplace between overanalysis and a “mindless yet hopeful” approach, and at the moment this is the best description I have for it.


About Micah Everett

Micah Everett is Associate Professor of Music (Trombone/Low Brass) at the University of Mississippi, Principal Trombonist of the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, Bass Trombonist of the Great River Trombone Quartet, Assistant Editor (Audio/Video Reviews) for the International Trombone Association Journal, and an S.E. Shires trombone artist. He is the author of THE LOW BRASS PLAYER'S GUIDE TO DOUBLING, published by Mountain Peak Music, and released his first solo recording, STEPPING STONES FOR BASS TROMBONE, VOL. 1, on the Potenza Music label in 2015. In addition to his professional work, he maintains an avid interest in the study of the Bible and of Reformed theology. He holds doctoral and master's degrees in music from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, a bachelor's degree in music education from Delta State University, and a certificate in systematic theology from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. The ideas and opinions expressed here are not necessarily shared by the employers and organizations with which the author is associated.
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