Monday, November 17, 2014

Trying to Exorcise Old Ghosts

When it comes to playing solos with a band, I have had an amazing stretch of performance anxiety since, well... probably since high school. I have played in quintets, a Tijuana Brass-style group, church groups, brass choirs, and Big Bands. In the quintets, church groups, brass choirs and Alpert-style group I have no problems. I can play as the only person on the part. But put me into that trumpet solo in the band and my mouth dries up, I obsess and then make it less than good.

Well, Saturday night I had another opportunity to exorcise this old demon. I had the opening trumpet solo in one of the pieces in our community band concert. I never (repeat- NEVER) played it correctly in any rehearsal. I would flub something. I have been practicing it ad infinitum and working with my trumpet teacher on it. There was no doubt that I could play it. Except when the band was there. It is a huge mental block. My colleagues in the trumpet row were rooting for me. The director never made me feel small or incompetent. I was doing a good enough job on that myself.

I have been working on my own cognitive reframing of the situation including that information of 50 years of playing in all kinds of settings.I was the lead trumpet in that Tijuana Brass group in high school and the lead in our brass choir that played in churches around my home town. One week I realized that as the band was rehearsing and I was flubbing the piece- again- that I was feeling like a little kid- pulling into myself, mentally sucking my thumb. That got my attention. I don't feel like that often- I don't remember the last time I felt like that. So I started talking to myself about being an adult and working on my self-awareness. "Just play it," one of the other trumpet players said to me. "You know it cold!"

I work with people to do this all the time. When you find yourself having some emotional reaction that doesn't make sense, that means it is time for some cognitive reframing. Put simply, it is utilizing the human, rational part of the brain, the pre-frontal cortex, for what it is designed to do- deal with emotions to see if they are realistic or not. If not, then do some work on the underlying beliefs that are at work to undermine you. Dispute the thinking process and rewire the brain so it helps instead of getting in the way.

So, as the concert started I started the final work on those mid-brain, pre-conscious thoughts. I got into the third number and I realized that I was enjoying myself. The number we had just played was fun, challenging and exciting. I had enjoyed it. I was having fun. That is what playing in a community band is all about. We aren't here to put on a professionally perfect performance. We are here to share our joy of music with the audience. We were doing that. As we started the third number I remembered something an acquaintance said about his playing music: "It's a spiritual experience, man!"

I happen to think that third piece is a deeply spiritual composition. It touches some deep and profound emotions through the weaving of themes and instruments. So I decided to let the music unfold from my horn and allow the music from the band to move me as we worked together to move the audience. I allowed myself to play without thinking about it; to move with the music; to allow the soul to be touched. It worked- as it often does. I was no longer working at playing music- I was living with the music, spiritually.

You can also call this mindfulness. I was playing mindfully, in the moment, just being there and not analyzing or thinking. What a joy. It wasn't the first time that's happened for me when playing. But it was at an important moment for me.

Two more quick and fun numbers and we took a short intermission. We came back with the first piece of half two and then my solo that starts the second piece. That was the problem, hitting it cold, all by myself. I looked up at the director and he gave me a knowing nod. I was weak and tentative on the opening note and continued with an acceptable performance. I got a couple nods and subtle thumbs-up. But I wasn't done. At the end of the second page the song does a "DC," it goes back to the beginning. I had one more shot at the solo- one more chance to exorcise that old demon.

I did a quick millisecond talk to myself. I let my pre-frontal cortex have its logical say to the mid-brain.

"The hell with it. I'm going to step up, hit it, and give it all I've got. F-it." (Sometimes I think the mid-brain only understands profanity which is, I believe, part of its own emotional language.)

I sat up, leaned into it and let 'er rip.

I nailed it.

Not to put to fine a point on it, but I flipped off my amygdala- and it got the message.

That is not a technical neuro-scientific statement- it is an emotional one. It is an emotionally winning one.

I know the importance of the mid-brain and it's anxiety producing, emotional responses. It keeps all of us alive on a daily basis. But it is primitive and gets involved in all kinds of things. It is part of the flight, fight or freeze response. But it can learn to flow as well. It is teachable- re-wireable. It learned to be afraid of trumpet solos in a band setting somewhere in the mists of my time. Now it can learn to accept them as okay and probably no different from when I play in many other settings.

But no matter how you frame it, it worked.

And it feels damn good!

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