Stress & Shakuhachi (Part 1)

Stress is a natural emotion. But when it becomes overwhelming, it can be annoying. To my experience, if you don’t do anything about it, it doesn’t go better with the years. It can even get worse, if you find yourself in the same situation again and again. I know very sad stories about professional musicians who couldn’t overcome the stress of playing under pressure and got trapped into a vicious circle going downwards. It is not a matter of level or experience (the “you’ll get used to it“… is rarely true).

The shakuhachi can have a beneficial role in this situation – not that it will remove your stress magically, that would be too easy! – but because it works on long breaths and the breath is directly connected to our emotions. Take a look at what happens to your breath when you are nervous, surprised, scared, laughing, crying,…
My magical mantra to release stress in non-shakuhachi situations is “TSU-REEEEE………”

But with your shakuhachi, you can also experience stress: stress of performance (playing before people, before your teacher), stress of the sound not coming out when you want it and how you want it. It can lead to frustrating experiences, blocking you in sharing your music and enjoying doing it. Leaving it to chance (“maybe next time it will go better“) is not a serious option. Better have a closer look into it.

Of course, this vast topic cannot be covered in one or even several posts. And I’m not a psychologist or coach. If stress is a serious issue for you, you might need professional help or, at least, a professional training for musicians. Like this one here. It is designed for professionals, but it can also help students feeling more confident during music lessons and student concerts. In any case, this a great blog to read and follow.

Because if you want things to change, you have to start with changing things in yourself first. Starting with changing of perspective: how about shifting from: “there is nothing I can do about it” to “how can I work on it?

Throughout my career, I have found some tips and insights that might help you setting things in motion:

Preparation

In any case, the first thing you need is being well prepared. Let’s assume you have studied your piece properly to play it to your teacher or for your concert. In case of a lesson, it doesn’t mean that you don’t have any difficulties to play the piece and don’t make any mistake -otherwise you don’t need a lesson- , but that you did your best to honestly practice and feel ready for your lesson (and maybe arrive with a list of questions about the piece at your teacher’s place – most of my students do). And as you start to blow your first notes, you have the feeling that you can’t play the piece properly anymore like “at home”. What’s happening?

Don’t panic!

Check a few things:

  • Is your flute cold or warm? How are your lips? And your fingers? Did you take time to warm-up?
  • How do you talk to yourself when something goes wrong? Are you encouraging yourself (“hold on, you can do it!“) or beating yourself up???
  • How is your concentration? Are you fully immersed in the piece or trying to guess how the people listening to you are liking it?
  • How is your energy level?
  • Are you in practice mode or performance mode?

If you recognise some situations above, it might be helpful to be aware of them and work on them BEFORE your lesson/performance.

  • Warm-up your flute properly. A cold flute doesn’t play as good.
  • Check if your lips are dry. If so, use a nourishing lip balm.
  • Turn your concentration from OUTSIDE to INSIDE. Connect to yourself and to your breath.
  • Don’t arrive at the last minute. If you travel to go to your lesson, you need to be fully arrived first: not only mentally, but also physically. One of my students travels close to 3 hours to get to his lessons with me. Once, the train was delayed and he arrived a bit hurried. He wanted to blow immediately. No sound. “Your sound hasn’t arrived yet, I said, it is still in the train“. “Take your time to settle.” He eventually accepted to give himself space, and after a short while, it went well.
  • Start every practice or preparation before a concert with your warm-up routine. Also at your teacher’s place, start with blowing a few sounds YOU choose to settle, feel at ease and like “at home”.
  • Release pressure on yourself. Step out of your own way. And throughout your lesson or performance, keep in mind to release excess tension and relax (which is something you can train at home by the way).

Don’t fight anxiety

Feeling nervous before playing is normal. It means that it is important to you and you want to do your best. So WELCOME anxiety as a part of your concentration before playing. Not the nicest part, I agree, but it is, and should remain, temporarily. For me, it happens only before I play (and I can be very nervous then!!). As soon as I am on stage, I’m perfectly fine, it’s gone.

When it turns into PANIC, that you loose control on what you are doing, then it becomes a problem. So don’t panic if you feel nervous, keep concentrating on your music (and encourage yourself).

Perception

“At home I play better”

The perception of what we do and how we play is very tricky. Also the memory of it. When a student says: “at home it works better“, then I ask him/her: “WHEN exactly does is work better? The first time you play it or after practicing for a while? Or after playing it a few times?” Most of the time, he/she doesn’t know, or agrees that it is after practicing or playing a few times. Not at the very first time of the day, like in a lesson. So don’t compare with “at home” if it is not in the same conditions.

Or do TRAIN it.

When I practice for a concert, I train that my first sounds or phrases are immediately “perfect”, not after practicing for half an hour. I train it with taking my flute at different moments of the day, blowing warm air in it, sometimes even not playing a sound, and playing directly the beginning of my piece. I start this practice weeks or months in advance!

Ask for positive feedback

We tend to have a negative idea about what we are doing and a wrong perception of it. To have a better idea about how you sound, I recommend to record yourself from time to time. It is a way to keep track of your progresses (journaling is also very useful) and listening back can help you improve your weak points… and be happily surprised by what went well (don’t forget to congratulate yourself, it means acknowledging your progress).

If you are happy with the way you play at home, but panic when it comes to play before someone else, even your teacher, do train this part too. Play for somebody you trust (partner, friend). Take your time to settle before playing, to concentrate, to quiet your breath and your mind. Pay attention to how you feel, where you feel tensions, and release them (take a deep breath in!). It can feel awkward in the beginning, but if you play regularly for someone you trust, you will improve your confidence, and be able to enlarge your circle. Then, in a more challenging situation, rely on visualising your “regular audience” and keep it in mind.

Avoid “Black and White” thinking

If you think that “if it is not perfect, then it is not good at all”, you are making it difficult for yourself for playing shakuhachi! Even if you make more mistakes that at home, if you did practice well, it will be noticeable by your teacher and enjoyable by your audience. Most of the time, my students don’t need to tell me if they’ve had time to practice or not, I will hear it anyway. With anxiety, we tend to have a negative perception of how we are actually playing. Don’t believe your thoughts! Encourage yourself and hold on! More about this topic here.

Don’t cling to your mistakes

Mistakes can be caused by difficulties to concentrate because of anxiety (take an extra deep breath in), holding on what just happened and loosing focus, wrong breathing, etc. But how important or noticeable are these mistakes for the others? Read this article here, you might be surprised.

TO SUM UP: your perception is deceptive: notice it, but don’t RELY too much on it.

TO BE CONTINUED… (otherwise it becomes toooooo long)

In the next post:

  • Practice mode vs Performance mode
  • Some more tips (visualisation, control, chakras, letting go of expectations,…)

STAY TUNED!

I would love to hear about your experience, so don’t hesitate to share your comments in the section below.

SEE YOU NEXT TIME!

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