Life starts when the game is over

Here’s a topic that a lot of people in music struggle with: confidence. It sounds weird for performers to struggle with confidence, right? But I think there are lots of reasons behind this.

Life starts when the game is over

One of them is the fact that we have spent so many years learning how to play our instruments, but as students of our craft, we have also always been in critical environments. There are plenty of people who are just there to critique us and to pick apart what we do. Our teachers, adjudicators, audition panels, our peers, yes, even our competition! All of these people are there to pick apart every aspect of what we do. Because of this, we often end up focusing on the three notes that we didn’t play perfectly, and we forget about the other 3,000 notes that we did play perfectly well. For some peculiar reason, because of this weird chase for perfection in our lives as musicians, we focus on the negative and we forget about everything else that we actually did right.

The ultimate goal?

When you’re in an environment where that happens time and time again, and that’s all you hear, that can be a big knock to your confidence. Of course you’re going to question everything and forget to celebrate your wins. In these environments we forget to say “good job”, “well done.” So a lot of musicians, professional and amateur, are very nervous about performing. They get themselves worked up. They don’t think they’re good enough. They don’t think their performance is as good as it should be. Therefore, musicians in general seek to build their own confidence through both other performers and their audiences. I want to explore what that means and what that looks like, because we tend to think of the performance of the concert itself as the ultimate goal.

The concert is the ultimate dream. There is nothing else beyond the performance. You rehearse, rehearse, and rehearse (and hopefully you practice as well before you get into rehearsals with the group!). Then you do your performance and think it’s all over. Well, I would actually go so far as to suggest that the performance is just the beginning. Once you actually have a performance, you’re communicating something. We’ve explored this in the past, the idea that music is the language of emotions, or as some call it, the language of the soul. So when musicians are performing and audiences are receiving and listening, and then they give their feedback, and you have two-way communication, there’s a lot more going on there than meets the eye. And in fact, that’s the beginning of something deeper, you might even say spiritual. There is something going on around us that doesn’t need to stop just because the performance is finished.

When you come off the stage

A performance is the sharing of specific pieces of music with the communication of specific emotions. But can you imagine having a deep conversation with somebody and never again revisiting that topic? Even if you don’t say the same things or explore the same story, it’s not like you’re never going to talk again. So I like what Terry Crews said about this. In one of his interviews, former professional football player Terry Crews said that “your life starts when the game is over.” He suggests that the game itself is not the ultimate goal, but that life begins to happen when you come off the field. I recommend that we approach concerts in the same way, too; when you walk off the stage, that’s when life begins. You can do this every week, every month, every year, however many times you perform or go to a concert and listen. Once you leave the concert hall, life is now different. Hopefully it’s changed in some way for you.

I learned a lesson about how confidence spreads as a very young performer. I was playing percussion in the back of an orchestra and we were in a very tight space; we literally couldn’t fit anyone else in this space. Our rehearsal was dragging on and we were getting bored. I used to follow the scores when I wasn’t playing, but most of the percussion section usually read a book or a newspaper. So I put my score down, and my friend and I looked at each other, as if to whisper, “let’s try an experiment.”
And we just lifted ourselves. We made a choice. We made a decision to put all of our energy and effort into playing the next passage that we had to play. And we did. It was fascinating, because as we stood up straight and decided to pay attention, we noticed that the horn players who were sitting right in front of the percussion section started sitting up as well.

A wave of energy

It was very interesting. It wasn’t that we were playing louder, we were just playing with more intention and confidence ourselves. We really wanted to play well in that rehearsal, so the horn players picked that up and started doing the same thing. And then, you know what happened? The woodwinds did the same. And in fact, you could see this demeanor reach even to the second violins. They were sitting up too, no longer slumping down. The postures improved and backs were straight. The same thing happened with the trumpets and trombones over on the left side of the stage. And then it moved over to the violas, and finally into the first violins. Throughout the orchestra as a whole, you could literally see a wave of energy over the space of seven to ten minutes, just increasing and moving forward from back to front. And by the end of the rehearsal, everyone had had a great time. We thought it was one of the best rehearsals that we’d ever had because of the contagious confidence that we decided to put forward.

So, how can we actually display and spread confidence ourselves? There are three things I’d like to explore over the next few weeks, if you’ll join me…