Performance with a Blank Mind

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I had an email at the start of the year from a reader discussing an aspect of the experience of performing that struck me as one that many other performers would empathise with. As well as being something I wanted to reflect on as well. It came in response to my post of November 29 about Rehearsing Performance.

When rehearsing, we are often asked at the end of a run-through of a song whether we remembered to implement one or two techniques on which there is a current focus. If I have remembered I'll say yes, if I haven't consciously thought about them I'll count myself as having forgotten.

On stage, particularly in competition, all techniques are ideally implemented at once and there is no space in my brain to do this consciously. I know the answer is that by now they should be embedded and automatic, but instead, despite not feeling unduly nervous, I always come off stage concluding that my mind went entirely blank and I therefore probably did nothing I was supposed to. I feel very down on myself and don't enjoy the occasion at all. I'm not quite sure what the answer is.

I have said this before but it bears repeating: I love the nuance and self-awareness people bring to their experiences of making music. I often feel when people ask me questions they have done so much of the analytical work for me.

So, here we have a reflection on two types of experience running through a song, the first in rehearsal, the second in performance. The first features targeted attention to work-in-progress, giving the Manager a clear and specific role to play in the process. The second involves enacting the complete package of behaviours entailed in a musical performance as a holistic entity, which, as my correspondent points out, are far too complex and interlinked to monitor individually in real time. So the idea is to trust the preparation and put the Communicator out front to do their job.

What I found interesting about the description of these experiences, though, was that both of them framed a lack of conscious memory of completing technical tasks as failure. When anybody says they feel down on themselves, I yearn, especially when it involves singing. (And, though you can’t see this from what I’ve quoted, singing in what I know to be a very accomplished ensemble.)

Now, in the first circumstance, this is arguably a valid conclusion to draw. If the point of the exercise is to develop control over techniques so that you can deploy them at will, if you can’t remember doing them, you have no way of knowing if you have succeeded or not. I would point out, however, that whilst the director clearly wishes the singers to develop effective self-monitoring skills, they will also be watching and listening closely to assess progress. And if you’re not getting corrective reminders either within the flow of the music or in instructions from the director, that means that you are probably achieving the desired techniques reliably enough not to require specific interventions.

So, in this first instance, I’d suggest that instead of counting the absence of conscious memory of having enacted a technique as having ‘forgotten’ to do it, you should count it as ‘don’t know’ or ‘no information’. You may actually be doing fine with the techniques, it’s the systems of self-monitoring that are working intermittently. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, after all.

In performance, however, having no conscious memory of deliberately following rehearsed instructions is a great condition to be in. One of the starting-points for Barry Green’s Inner Game of Music is that the ideal performances are the ones when you completely lose yourself to the music, whereas the ones dominated by a running inner commentary are the uncomfortable ones. But by definition, it is the ones with the commentary that you can remember. It is a well-documented experience in performers of all levels that they retain only a very hazy memory of their best performances.

The psychology of flow explains what’s going on here. When you are engaged in a complex, skilled activity that commands your entire attention, you can lose all sense of self, since you have no attentional resources available to observe yourself with. And in this state, you perform at the best you are currently capable of, because you are completely dedicated to the task.

This does not say whether you have fulfilled all the detailed technical instructions covered in rehearsal, of course. You are still in a state of ‘no information’. But the only way to gather this information in real time would be to steal some attention from the act of performance to keep a running log. Which would by definition make you perform not quite as well as you would in a state of flow.

And the thing is, once you get to performance, it’s too late to be consciously controlling aspects of technique. If there’s something you can’t do yet, you just have to put it on the to-do list for your onward development and get on with the performance in the meantime. And technique isn’t an end in itself, it is merely the means to making a more beautiful and meaningful audience experience.

So, those performances where you come off stage with no clear recollection of detail, need to be reframed as successes. Yes, there may be things that you decide, on reviewing a recording, that you want to improve for next time. But for now, you went and created a musical experience. At whatever level you are operating, that is your job as a performer, and you are allowed to feel good about yourself for doing so.

In many ways, this is about trust. Trusting your own preparation, trusting the audience, trusting the music. Also, come to think of it, trusting your director. If you were genuinely failing to achieve what they had worked on with you, they’d be working with you on it already. And learn to cherish those experiences where everything drops away but the music in the Now, because, whilst they can’t be recaptured or repeated, they can be created anew.

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