Facilitating Creative Freedom in Performance

At the PIanoWhen I was an active and successful concert pianist playing recitals in Britain and across Europe, one of my main focuses was practice. I was most often playing repertoire chosen by others, as I was a collaborative pianist working with singers and instrumentalists. One moment I would be working on a Brahms cello sonata, the next a Messiaen song or an operatic ensemble by Verdi. I loved the variety of repertoire and performers — but I often would feel anxious as the performance date grew nearer. With so much repertoire to prepare, practice time was frequently limited, and on the evening of the performance I would find myself backstage thinking:
“If only I had one more week to practice…I’m just not as good as I should be…. Call yourself a professional….I wonder if I’ll make some big mistakes… I wonder what (fill in the blank) will think…”.
Of course these thoughts would lead to symptoms of anxiety- trembling limbs, nausea, dry throat, frequent trips to the bathroom….
On other occasions I would worry about the inadequacies of the piano or the temperature of the hall, the foibles of the audience, or the personality of a fellow performer. There were always many elements beyond my control on any particular occasion.

Recently I’ve been looking at those times from a different perspective — I now suffer very rarely from any kind of performance anxiety, and really enjoy the opportunity of sharing music with others. I have come to realize that performance is determined by what I term “inner criteria” much more than “outer criteria”.
To give you a clearer idea of what I mean, I’ll start by defining outer criteria. These might include the size, acoustics, temperature — even state of repair of the hall or theater (I once performed in a theater infested with voracious mosquitoes!). Also the size, character and mood of the audience, the abilities of colleagues or conductor, the state of the piano, organ or any other instrumental or electronic equipment provided, and the nature of the repertoire could all be considered “outer criteria”.
I believe, like many others, I used to spend most of my pre-performance energy on dealing with, adapting to or attempting to control these elements. Reassuring a panicky singer with a sore throat, warming my hands in hot water in a usually vain attempt to keep my hands warm on stage in an icy country church, worrying that my ultra-demanding teacher was in the audience, being nervous of a ferocious conductor, dreading performing a virtuosic contemporary piece that was under-rehearsed — these gave me plenty of opportunities to attempt to control my environment, which invariably failed.

So what made the difference? The crucial difference was deciding to focus on what I term “inner criteria”. This didn’t happen over night, but took place gradually over the years, significantly aided by greater self-knowledge and personal development work. I began to realize that it was pretty pointless to try to control my outer environment, and that it was far more effective to focus on my inner world.
The lynchpin of these inner criteria is self-acceptance. Being able to reassure myself that who I am and how I play is just fine has made a world of difference. To some performers, or indeed any kind of artist, a statement like that is anathema. Usually our training has led us to become hypercritical of ourselves and others. Initially, I also found such a statement hard to accept, but gradually began to understand its truth. It has to go beyond the word level and to be integrated into the consciousness to really make a difference.

The key for me has been the willingness to do personal growth work (for example Insight Seminars and the Masters’ in Psychology Program at the University of Santa Monica). Dealing with my inner demons in a supportive environment and being encouraged to recognize my strengths, abilities and innate goodness has been invaluable. We were taught many effective keys which I now use with my own clients.
For example, one of the key principles that leads to self-acceptance is the willingness to forgive oneself and others for the judgments one has made of oneself and others. Notice that I didn’t say the actions — just the judgments. It is these judgments that cause us to contract, to hold onto bitterness, self-condemnation, doubt, fear and feelings of inadequacy. In my experience it is truly possible, with sufficient willingness and perseverance, to become increasingly free, open and loving towards oneself and others — and this in turn creates other benefits directly relevant to performance.

The first of these is increased confidence in one’s ability to express something worthwhile. The more I move towards self respect, self acceptance, what Carl Rogers calls “unconditional positive regard” and others simply call love, the more peaceful I become.
This peacefulness enhances my ability to relax, physically, mentally, emotionally — and therefore I play better, I enjoy the music more and am in a more resourceful state.
This resourceful state then allows me to deal more effectively with “outer criteria” such as those mentioned above. For example, I am more easily able to accept my environment and those around me, just as they are, without feeling the need to change them. It is easier to reassure the panicky singer if I am coming from a place of accepting us both as we are. If I am able to accept that even if her voice cracks on stage or my frozen fingers cause me to stumble, that this does not mean that either of us is any less valuable as a human being — then, these beliefs then lead me to maintain a resourceful state.
Similarly, if I consciously take the time to forgive any judgments I may have made of the teacher in the audience or the conductor on the podium, or any judgments that I believe they have of me, I will be considerably more peaceful and relaxed on stage — and will therefore in all likelihood play better. And if I can make peace with the fact that I didn’t have enough rehearsal time on the contemporary piece and still believe that my music-making is meaningful, I have a much better chance of doing the piece justice.

Putting these principles into action allows me to access an inner confidence in my ability to express something worthwhile, something individual. I worry less about being original and focus more on playing from the heart — and I have discovered that the audience really perceives a tangible and positive difference in my performance, even though they may find it challenging to articulate what it is.
In terms of originality, I was struck recently by what Stephen Nachmanovitch says on the subject in his wonderful book “Free Play”:

“… If we self-consciously try to be original, we can wander in the opposite direction, going for a distinctive voice or look that sets us apart from everybody else. Young artists easily fall into the trap of confusing originality with newness. Originality does not mean being unlike the past or unlike the present; it means being the origin, acting out of your center. Out of your spontaneous heart you may do something reminiscent of the very old and it will be original because it will be yours.”

Focusing on “inner criteria” has become habitual for me now. It doesn’t mean that I am never distracted by “outer criteria’ — but I know where to place my focus, and now consistently experience greater levels of joy, fulfillment, communication, expression and peace when I perform… and I play better too! •

This article was originally published on Creativity Portal.