Stress and negativity don't have to be part of a performer's life.
You have heard it a million times.
That exquisite moment when the clarinet comes forth with a seemingly effortless solo that fills the concert hall. Beethoven 6. Rachmaninoff 2nd Piano Concerto. Kodaly Galanta Dances. Tchaikovsky 6. Tosca. La Traviata. With a dark and lovely tone, the clarinet sound is one of the most poignant in the orchestra. Amazing players make it sound like the easiest thing in the world.
But we all know that there is a lot of behind the scenes work that goes into great clarinet playing. That performer spent countless hours of practice and years of work to get to that moment. There is absolutely no substitute for diligent practicing. The old adage of “how do I get to Carnegie Hall? Practice!” is true. Ingredients for musical success include meticulous preparation, mastery of the instrument, great instruction, and knowledge of historical style.
But that list doesn’t include stress and tension, right? Nowhere in any method book does it say, “now freak out and start hunching up your shoulders and taking really shallow breaths. Good. Now, I want you to really worry about things and let that stress get into your muscles and really mess with your body and mind. Great!” I have read a lot of books about the clarinet and none of them have mentioned such a technique.
Since preparing for moments like these is a long road, what can you do to enjoy the trip?
What if there is a way to go through our study of instruments without destroying ourselves in the process?
Every single performance is a way to affirm or deny your identity as a performer. You can focus on the negative and beat yourself up for days, weeks, or years on that one passage you missed. In fact, the ability to apply this self-critique seems to be one of the hallmarks of great performers. But their assiduousness also comes with a lot of affirming what went right in concerts.
Your relationship with yourself is as important as any other relationship in your life. No amount of external validation will make you happy unless you are accepting and kind to you. This doesn’t mean thinking that every squeak or mistake that you make is great. But in general you need to be building confidence, joy, self-acceptance, and happiness into every performance, lesson, and practice session. This will keep you mentally healthy as you go through your clarinet career and will come through in your playing.
Positive self-image will help you keep tension out of your body and mind as you prepare for and execute performances. By the time you are sitting on stage for the big moment, you know that you are prepared and everything is going to be fine. No matter what happens in that moment you are ready and also mentally healthy.
Teachers should also make sure that they balance criticism in lessons with appreciation for the individual. Pointing out areas for improvement should never be belittling or attack someone’s character. Great teachers like Leon Russianoff would find the best moment that a student did in a lesson teach towards that instead of just acknowledging what they did wrong.
Keep music in perspective. We aren’t performing surgery or working as air traffic controllers. Yes, we owe it to ourselves and to our collaborators and audience to make music at the highest level possible. But no one gets hurt if something doesn’t go quite right. So try to keep a great average but also to keep it all in perspective.
This mindset will not only help our performance but also work to keep rigidness out of the performer’s body. The clarinet definitely takes a lot of work. In an orchestra, we almost always have two or more with us on stage and our life is a series of cleaning, maintaining, and monitoring these instruments. We have reeds, ligatures, swabs, multiple instruments, a LOT of moving parts, and usually a billion notes to deal with in three and a half octaves. Stay focused and prepare yourself for every possibility through your daily routine. This doesn’t mean stress, which will actually inhibit your body’s ability to deal with situations rationally and efficiently.
When we are on stage, it is common for people to experience a fight or flight reaction. This can be sweaty palms, shallow breathing, and a racing heart. This is all a normal reaction to the situation of performing. Take a moment: you are not being chased by a tiger or falling off of a cliff. You are playing one of the most beautiful instruments in the orchestra. This is where you need to employ your relaxation tricks.
This can look very different between performers and it’s essential that you find out what works for you. Some people use visualization, seeing themselves executing a passage with great ease, while others can immerse themselves completely in the music to the point that their ego becomes irrelevant. Friends of mine use mantras to calm down on stage such as “you are ok,” “I’m ready for this,” etc. Breathing is your biggest ally and you can pretend that your lungs are giving you a much needed hug on stage.
Personally, familiarity is the best cure for nerves. When I am performing all the time, nerves are much less of an issue. During this pandemic, I have found myself in a much more heightened state when I have performed than before. I lost the familiarity that I need as a performer but will regain it again as I return to a normal routine. Find ways to get used to being on stage and to know what will work for you to stay tension-free. I will put more links for relaxation and stage fright at the end of this article.
Of course none of this works without the most important point in this discussion:
It really comes back to this. You knew that this had to be in here somewhere. Unprepared performances are less comfortable and tension-producing than the ones you are ready for. You can sometimes squeak through them (pun intended) with a decent experience. But if you want to get out of the cycle of stress then practice slowly, accurately and in a relaxed, happy manner. Don’t ever let a mistake happen twice in preparation. Always slow down and practice to perfection before speed.
Allow yourself the pleasure of really preparing for the big day. This isn’t even clarinet or music specific. The principles of readiness apply for a big speech or presentation and can be used by musicians and non-musicians alike. This can mean practicing the excerpts for an audition at the time that you will have to play them to see what your body rhythms are like at that time of day. Playing an excerpt at 9 AM in a hall for an audition committee is much different than playing that same piece in an orchestra at 9 PM. Find out what to do to optimize your performance in both situations. Because your body might be going through a fight or flight reaction in the big moment, know how to prepare so that the music is living safely in your autonomic self. This will then take over and execute when the other side of you is slightly panicked.
The Big Moment
After all of this, what is it like when it’s time for the big solo? Take a deep breath and go for it. You are prepared and excited for this moment. YOU get to be that clarinetist putting these great solos out in the hall. Think of how you want it to sound and then play into that idea. There is no greater feeling than connecting with your audience and collaborators in the beauty that is live music.