Practicing with Love, not Fear

Ever since joining Facebook, it has become my Christmas tradition to post a version of Bach’s “Flosst mein Heiland”(Echo aria) from his Christmas Oratorio. Here’s this year’s version:

Of course I love the beautiful melody and the interplay between solo soprano and oboe. But I also love this aria’s message of affirmation–finding the courage to face fear, even the fear of death, with exultation. Bach really captures the essence of Christmas in this musical exchange. In case you don’t understand German, the gist of the translation is that Bach asks Jesus if he wants to be greeted with fear or joy. The answer, joy, is met with a resounding “Ja!” echoed by soprano and oboe.

This sentiment of affirmation is also found in my favorite 20th century artist’s greatest work. Rainer Maria Rilke begins his Tenth Duino Elegy with the words:

One day, when this terrifying vision’s vanished,
let me sing ecstatic praise to angels saying yes!
Let my heart’s clear-struck keys ring and not one
fail because of a doubting, slack, or breaking string.

Musicians need to nurture the joyful “yes” that resounds in so many of Bach and Rilke’s works. And yet it seems so common to approach performance in a negative way instead, with performance anxiety, or fear. No one wants to have performance anxiety, but we stoke the fires of fear in the practice room with negative self-talk: “I’ll never play this as well as x,” or “what’s wrong with my fingers?,” or other self-defeating criticisms. The body’s natural response to any fear is described as the “startle reflex.” The body stiffens, the jaw tenses, shoulders rise, and the head pulls back creating tension all through the neck and upper back. Many musicians will feel some degree of this stiffness coming into their performance when they get anxious. This unnecessary tension will affect embouchure mobility, free breathing, and finger movements, and thus may result in poor intonation, strained tone quality, or lack of endurance.

Fortunately musicians now have many resources available for counteracting performance fear, and I especially admire the superb work of Don Greene, Bill Moore, and Noa Kageyama. Do you greet your practice sessions with fear, or joy? It’s important to recognize that one of the biggest ways to redirect your energies in performance is with a general shift in attitude during practice. Practicing with love, not fear.

On a personal level, this past year I’ve witnessed a whole community embracing love rather than fear. After the largest mass shooting in modern American history, the people of Las Vegas have shown strength and resilience during our recovery. We have opened our hearts to each other, rather than cowering in fear. We are “Vegas Strong.”

Here are some ideas for nurturing love rather than fear in your music making. Away from the practice room, have the courage to face the critical voices in your head. Approach these voices with compassion and humor: who are they? why are they there? As you get to know them, their command over you will lessen. And in the practice room, nurture the physical freedom that comes from self-acceptance, rather than submitting to the startle reflex that results from fear. Strengthen your love for the music. Get excited about sharing your love of the music with an audience. Enjoy the physical sensation of vibration, and relish the unique way that your sound fills the acoustical space. Become connected kinesthetically to your body, so you truly know how your body feels when the music sounds right. Every articulation can be a trigger to find greater physical freedom. Through all these means and more, you will take responsibility for nurturing a joyful “yes” in your practice and in your performance.

As a great gospel singer once said, “What comes from the heart reaches the heart.” So this Christmas season, my wish for you is simple: may your love for performing echo in your heart, and throughout the world.