Trust your training

I know a successful venture capitalist who reads every newspaper article thinking, how could I make money from this idea? I find myself looking at the world through the lens of, what can this teach me about music? Watching Olympic men’s gymnastics this week reminded me of an important performance principle. One gymnast is coached by his stepfather, who performs a little ritual with him before every routine. He sends him out with the admonition, “Trust your training.”

This is crucial to any performance. First, it assumes you have adequate training. No amount of positive thinking will overcome inadequate preparation. You have to do the work. For athletes, it’s physical conditioning, drills, and practicing routines. For musicians, it’s learning musical principles, drills, and practicing repertoire. All the elements are required for a successful performance.

This is great news! It takes some randomness out of success, and gives us a measure of control over results. There are always factors outside our control (illness, distractions, an out-of-tune piano), but many of our problems we bring on ourselves. Whenever I have a mistake in performance, I analyze what happened, and I often realize I didn’t practice sufficient repetitions on that part of the music, or develop a skill solidly enough. That’s valuable information, so I can do something about it for next time. Sometimes the solution is more practice, or more coaching, or an admission the piece is too difficult and needs to be put on the back burner for awhile.

Many of us have had the experience of rehearsing a piece and not doing enough work on the most difficult part. This is a particular problem when doing complete run-throughs of pieces instead of breaking them down into sections. If you do 20 run-throughs of a piece and never get the hard part right, you’ve had zero rehearsals of that part. Even worse, you’ve taught your brain and hands how to play it full of mistakes. Our brains don’t know the difference; they do what we’ve trained them to do. This nearly always comes back to bite us. Either that part breaks down in performance, or we’re so surprised to pull it off, we flub the next section. If by some miracle we manage to nail the piece the first time we perform it, we’re not motivated to work on the difficult section, and it falls apart another time.

So now we return to the issue of trust. During practice, it’s valuable to listen with a highly critical ear and work to improve small details. I’ve heard of musicians who practice the placement, inflection, and articulation of every single note, both the attack and the release. This kind of micro-analysis is valuable work that leads to a polished presentation. In performance, however, let go of the critical ear and let the music flow. Trust what you have trained, and listen for larger musical ideas instead of minor details.

If your brain is thinking about all your potential problems, at best the audience will see it on your face, and at worst the worry will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. There’s a little joke: don’t think about zebras. Now that I’ve mentioned them, how can you not think about zebras? If you must think about a potential problem, think about it in the positive (“remember to do xyz,” not “don’t forget to do xyz,” or “play x note softly,” not “don’t play x note too loud”). Also have a plan B. If you often forget to do a setup during rehearsals, spend time practicing recovery by getting the right bells into your hands on the fly.

If you want to keep track of details for future improvement, record the performance on audio and/or video, or ask someone knowledgeable to make notes. In a setting where you have breaks between pieces, like a church service, jot down reminders to yourself about small problems, immediately after a piece. (Large problems tend to be hard to forget, but you may want to note what caused them.)

How to occupy your brain during performance, if not with worrisome details? Sing the piece in your head, including lyrics, if the piece has them. Sing the sound you want the bells to make, or (in a tricky passage) sing the pitches (note names) to yourself. If a mistake does happen, let it go and focus on what you’re doing right this minute. Stay in the moment, reminding yourself to focus. You can’t do anything now about the past, nor can you do anything now about the future. You have only the present to work with.

In solo ringing, there is one wrinkle to this need to focus on the present. To keep your past mistake from affecting your future performance, take advantage of any opportunity to check the table for setup errors caused by the mistake. For example, you might use a whole note or a piano interlude to scan the table and identify any misplaced bells. Think about whether it matters: if you’re not ringing that bell again in the piece, and it isn’t in your way, leave it there and forget about it. If it does matter, think about when and how you’re going to fix the problem. You might move it when you notice it (if you have time), pick it up from wherever it is the next time you need it, or move it at the next opportunity. The sooner the better, because otherwise you’re likely to expend so much brainpower worrying about it that you make other mistakes.

The difference between confidence and arrogance is this: The arrogant person underestimates the difficulty of a task and overestimates his own abilities. The confident person understands the difficulty of a task and has properly prepared to meet the challenge. S/he is justified in feeling confident.

Train, then trust your training.

Copyright © 2012 Nancy Kirkner,