I did not plan initially for this post to become a “two-parter,” but as I have continued to reflect on this topic and to work with students on certain issues, I have decided that an additional perspective is needed. Stated briefly, that perspective is this: part of right diagnosis is determining whether a playing difficulty is caused by physical problems with execution, by problems with concept, or by struggles with the “mind game.” In my personal experience and in working with students, I have discovered that in our society we often assume that playing difficulties must be physical in nature. This is fine when one’s struggle really is with playing technique and execution, but if the problem is mental or conceptual focusing solely on physical causes will only lead to fruitless and unnecessary work. Right treatment requires right diagnosis.
So, what does right diagnosis involve? It certainly involves identifying any deficiencies in physical technique or execution that may be present in order to resolve them. This was the primary thrust of the previous post, particularly how these deficiencies are often related to timing and coordination rather than to strength and flexibility. Removing inefficiencies in one’s technique can aid in effectively dealing with mental/emotional difficulties in performance, as well, since nervousness and anxiety have a way of exaggerating any technical deficits that may be present.
Right diagnosis also involves solving conceptual problems that one may have. This was sort of referred to last time, but only obliquely. I discussed it at greater length in a post some years ago entitled “How it Goes.” In that post, I noted that brass players in particular can fail to realize success when they proceed without a clear mental concept of the sounds they are seeking to produce. While every musician must have such a concept in order to achieve maximum success, this is particularly vital for brass players because on our instruments correct fingerings do not guarantee correct notes. There are multiple available notes for each fingering, so if the player does not “hear” (internally) the desired sounds before playing, no amount of refining technique will guarantee the correct result. The concept must be established first.
Finally, right diagnosis involves determining whether one is encountering difficulties not with technique nor with concept, but with the “mind game.” This was and, honestly, is still an area of particular concern for me, made worse for a number of years because I failed—or refused—to acknowledge the problem. In hindsight, denying and suppressing these problems only worsened them. Practically every musician has had difficulty with performance anxiety at some point. The telltale symptoms are well-known: elevated heart rate, shortness of breath, nausea, excessive sweating, dry mouth, shaking, etc. All of these can be partially mitigated by making sure one’s playing technique is as efficient as possible, but only partially. In extreme cases the symptoms can be more severe, including aches and pains, severe gastrointestinal symptoms, or even panic attacks. Sometimes one even falls into a cycle of becoming anxious about the possibility of becoming anxious, which is a difficult experience, for sure. Working through these more extreme cases can require a multipronged approach that might include medication, counseling or therapy, meditation or reflection, and reading (many musicians appreciate and recommend The Inner Game of Tennis, and I recommended some other reading in a post last year); even smartphone apps like Curable can help in certain circumstances.
The human mind is complex and incompletely understood, and resolving difficulties with the mental and emotional aspects of performance can be especially challenging. But the most important step is the simplest: acknowledging that the problem is there. Many musicians—and people in general—are simply not open to the idea that their physical difficulties might be at least partly due to mental or emotional challenges. They don’t want to admit to being one of “those people.” I certainly didn’t. And yet, if one’s performance problems have a mental or emotional component, the problems will be resolved only when that component is acknowledged and addressed, no matter how much one practices. In fact, simply acknowledging the problem is a major step toward its resolution. Right treatment requires right diagnosis. Good luck!