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Stress, Trick No. 1

Updated: Dec 30, 2018

These days we hear about it all the time. But I think the subject of stress in a musician's life specifically is worth bringing up. Both professionals and amateurs know that a working environment of an artist is difficult in terms of emotional health. Pianists struggle with many challenges: stage fear, pressure, criticism, competition, perfectionism... The list is long and at times it can seem overwhelming. I've personally experienced a big share of various hardships in this area. But thanks to this I was urged to figure out how to deal with these difficulties and overcome them. Luckily, it turns out that it isn't a matter of any complicated techniques or sophisticated skills. A few surprisingly simple things do the whole trick!

We tend to treat stress as our enemy. In our minds stress equals strong, negative emotions that are very disturbing and hard to control. They put us in a state which undermines our actions and limits us - generally eats at our best selves. But this is not entirely true.

The word 'stress' in common use covers plenty of various emotions. We tend to bring all of them together under one umbrella. Originally, though, the term 'stress' refers to a release of adrenaline and other stimulating hormones in our body in a challenging situation in order to improve our performance, give our muscles more strenght, sharpen our senses and increase our concentration. There's nothing destructive in it. So what spoils the whole result?

A few years ago, I was preparing myself to a big piano competition. It consisted of five performances on stage, two of them with the orchestra. I kept wondering how not to get carried away by tiredness and stress at some point. I remember that during preparatory concerts I started to analyze myself carefully in terms of what I was thinking about on stage, what I was feeling and what the result on the piano was. Physically, I noticed a faster heart beat, stomach ache, sometimes shaking calf muscles or hands and usually tiredness after a bad sleep the night before. Mentally, it was a chase of thoughts, high alertness connected with noticing things in my playing that I never noticed before plus commenting on what just happened and what was going to happen (!). It's all very annoying and disturbing. I'm sure you know what I'm talking about. It feels as if we no longer had full control over our body and brain. Comfort is gone, things that were natural in a practice room all of a sudden seem difficult and somehow put out of the right rails. But there is a couple of ways to deal with that. Let me share with you a few thoughts on this topic.

1. Fear

I'm not discovering America right now, but sometimes we don't fully realize things, even if we think we know about them. So let me write it here: this is not stress that is our enemy in life and on stage- it is fear.

With fear comes a chain of other destructive emotions, such as self doubt, insecurity, cruel self criticism and finally, lack of trust and a need to control every detail. Now, I have my own discovery in this area which might sound a bit weird to some of you but I guarantee it's tested and proven right.

If I asked you what exactly you are afraid of before and during a public performance, what would you say? Most probably you'd describe some picture of a terrible failure, forgetting the notes entirely, or turning so uncomfortable with your body that you lose all your technique, or get stiff fingers and make all difficult passages fall apart, or stop with no clue how to go on, or maybe the worst- get lost in the middle of a concerto and make the whole orchestra go quiet. Yes, it's all very frightenning. And you know what? I've done all of this, haha. Absolutely honestly- the list comes entirely from my personal experience. But it is thanks to these failures that I made my discovery.

Such events affected me in a dual way. Sometimes, the experience was somewhat deliberating- I've already gone through the worst and I've survived so what's there to fear? At other times, though, a failure was getting stuck in my mind like a small trauma. The memory kept haunting me before next concerts and was making me feel weak and insecure. What did it depend on? Finally, I got it. It turned out that it wasn't the actual events on stage that I feared. I was afraid of my own reaction to a failure. Like a small child, this most inner, most sensitive, most neglected and most important part of me was scared to death of a scolding I was going to give it. My self-confidence about concerts was increasing not after a series of particularly successful performances just after the ones I managed to be satisfied with; regardless of the objective outcome. The more I critisized myself, the more terrified I was. The more I praised myself, the more I wanted to play.

The fascinating thing is that the inner part of us learns and remembers everything. If bombarded with a certain message for years, it gets stubborn and it's difficult to turn it around. But it's possible. It demands equal stubbornness on your part but if you manage to be persistent enough you can make it happen. I've invented a simple ritual which I try to practice after completing any challenge. When I'm done, I have a talk with myself, sometimes even just one - two minute long, in which, at first, I honestly say 'It's ok, you'll try to do it better the next time' to everything what didn't work out the way I wanted. Than, an even more important part, I make myself find at least three things to compliment on. These can be the smallest details but it has to be true and said with a conviction. It sounds lame, I know, I reacted the same way to such tales for years. But than I tried it and discovered that it really works.

A strange thing happens then, a sort of a sensation as if something was smiling inside you. I've also found that experiencing a success feels completly different in such circumstances. It gains a full meaning and allows us to truly enjoy it. A failure, on the other hand, loses much of its bitterness and, what's absolutely priceless, no longer has its destructive power. After a while, you notice that you feel more confident before any challenge and that you don't care that much about the result. You find it easier to simply enjoy the process, have fun playing music and not to worry if it's perfect or not. Trust me, try to train it on simpliest daily challenges. The whole exercise itself is a good fun and it's very pleasant, plus if you do it persistently a few times a day, week after week, you sure will feel the difference.

And once you do, why not write about it in a comment section? ;)

/I'll go on with this topic in the next few posts./

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