Diving Board Jitters: The Art of Starting

Even if you've never stood on the diving tower before a crowd of spectators, you might have experienced a situation in which just taking the first step was very scary. There can be a ton of inner noise that prevents you from taking action:

"Ok, now! Uh...NOW! Wait, let me just get...ready...okay, now! Never mind...hold on just a sec..."

I wrote about the discipline of stopping earlier this week, and today I want to discuss starting. It doesn't matter whether what you're trying to do is big (launching a new business, buying a house, going back to school) or small (asking a stranger a question, stating an opinion, sitting down to play a piece of music) - when you are under stress, the whole world becomes that moment in which you are paralyzed by diving board jitters.

The dive is the easy part. Photo by Greg Livaudais.

The last one - sitting down to play a piece of music - is one I know well and find fascinating. I remember once when I was eleven, waiting for the piano tuner to finish his job so that I could get back to the piano. As he was packing up his equipment, he invited me to play something for him. I sat down on the bench and froze - all of a sudden I realized that this was a performance. It got more and more awkward as the seconds ticked by in silence, with him waiting expectantly and me waiting for him to leave the room. I acknowledged (to myself) that I was being silly and tried again to start playing. But that kind of moment is like pouring fresh cement around your ankles - the more time that goes by, the more stuck you'll be.

Another issue that comes up when people begin playing music is a stutter-start. This would be the equivalent of losing and regaining your balance on the diving board. "Da-da oops. Da, oops, Da-da, oops, Da-da-da-da, daaaaa..." Sometimes this happens so fast that the player doesn't even realize it happened at all. This is the direct result of a brain that is moving too fast. There is so much interference from the mind that the body can't perform the task.

So, what to do about Diving Board Jitters? How do you quiet the mental noise? Here's what works for me:

  • Break it down. David Allen points out that you can't do a project. You can only do tasks related to that project. He recommends figuring out your next action - a tangible, actual thing you can do - taking that action, and continuing that process until the project is complete.
  • Slow down. Move slowly and think slowly, quieting the mind. Breathe. When you're under stress, your body plays tricks on you - you might feel sluggish when in reality, your heart is racing and your breathing is shallow. Keep slowing down until you feel relaxed and in control.
  • Contain yourself. It's just you and the task at hand. No spectators, no nosy relatives, no Facebook peanut gallery, no audience. What we call self-consciousness is really projecting what others think of us. Let it all go.
  • Reset your thoughts. "Here goes," a student will say, poised with guitar in hand. "This is probably going to suck." No! Why do that to yourself? I like to point out, "If I said that to you, you would fire me. Why do you say that to yourself?" Replace the negative thoughts with positive or neutral ones.
  • Allow contradictory feelings. When I was about to sign a huge lease recently, I tweeted that I was scared. My Twitter friend @ScubaDiva said kindly, "Think of it as exciting, not skeery!" Those two feelings are two sides of the same coin, and accepting and acknowledging both helped with my decision-making and self-care.
  • Welcome ritual and routine. Routine is setting aside an hour each morning to write your novel. Ritual is lighting the candle and pouring the cup of tea for each writing session. The baseball player has a warm-up routine with his coach, and a ritual of tapping the bat against the plate three times at the start of an at-bat. Routine lays out the path to success, and ritual helps you slip into the necessary mindset.
  • Create boundaries. Don't answer the phone when you're sitting on the piano bench. Don't check your email right before the big date. Don't say, "This will never work" as you purchase the new domain name. And don't yell, "Watch this!" from the top of the diving platform. Instead, spend that moment visualizing the successful completion of the task you are about to undertake.

There you are, relaxed and ready. Poised, confident. All eyes are on you, but your awareness is turned inward.

Now, let go, and fly!

Photo by Greg Livaudais.

Thanks to Greg Livaudais of Greg Livaudais Photography for the use of his gorgeous photos.

Attention Conservation

Attention is finite. To the degree that you can focus, you can conserve your attention in order to accomplish what matters.

In the image below, a flashlight is trained upon a page of sheet music. It's illuminating most of the page, dimly.

Now, we move the flashlight closer to the page:

As you would expect, the beam of light gets both brighter and smaller. The flashlight bulb puts out a consistent amount of light, so as it covers a smaller area it is more highly concentrated.

You can see where I'm going with this: your attention behaves the same way. The more focused you are, the less attention you waste, making you more effective. It's called concentration, get it?

This may seem like a no-brainer, but many players do not behave in a way that reflects an understanding of this concept. They start at the beginning of a piece of music and hack through it until it's over or until they run out of steam, whichever comes first. And then - horrors! - they might just go back to the top and try again.

A better approach: focus all of your precious attention on a tiny section and polish it until it shines. If you're doing it right, you'll be totally exhausted well before you learn the whole page. That's okay - there's always tomorrow.

Attention: A limited resource that you can make the most of by improving your ability to focus.

Can you think of any applications of this concept beyond learning a piece of music?

Bold moves: clever, ridiculous, necessary

I just made a very bold move. I did it because I couldn't think of a good enough reason not to, and I was thrilled and freaked out by the possible outcomes of doing it. So whoosh! Off the cliff.

Pacifica, CA, October 2010I love the idea of laying everything on the line in business and marketing - my risk-o-meter is broken. But when it comes to making art, I am much more conservative.

The only reason I can think of is that the results are much easier to measure in business - really, the concept of a calculated risk doesn't make sense in art. Success and failure are easier to define.

I've been focused on business for so long that I've buried my musical goals pretty deep, or in some cases transferred them to my music-related business. But now I'm suddenly giving it some serious thought - what were my goals? Why did I not achieve them? And more relevant: What risks, too uncomfortable to consider, did those goals represent?

Among other things, I spent my twenties as an aspiring songwriter and performer. The great thing about being out of my twenties is that I can examine them as a thing separate from myself, like a movie (Casey's Twenties, a new film by Gus Van Sant) and see themes that I didn't recognize at the time. I see black-and-white thinking, distractability, a limited understanding of my strengths and weaknesses, a lack of solid planning, and a tendency to get stuck on things that require money or outside help.

Ironically, if I had treated my music career like a business, I might have achieved some success. I would have been able to view some of the things that actually happened as steps on the way to success if I'd only had the courage to define what that success would look like.

On the other hand, I also had trouble just sitting down and making music for fun. I don't need to make a damn statement. Nobody really knew about my music but me, so why didn't I just play? Perhaps I'd accidentally stumble upon something good. Or at least interesting.

Of course, it's not over. If I can figure out what I want out of my music career, I can make a plan, set goals, and be ready to leap when I find something that matters enough to scare the crap out of me. And just have a good time at the very least.

What do I want now? I don't really know yet. Michael and I went out on New Year's Eve and busked for a half-hour in Piedmont Park. That's rather bold, when you think about it.

Soggy mail

This morning I woke up before the alarm and went for a run before dawn. I checked my email and there were receipts from three families I didn't know, signing up for camp. I felt like a rock star, totally in control of my world.

Guess what? It didn't last. My phone was broken, preventing me from accessing voicemail. The AT&T rep. was great but kept calling when I was in an appointment. I started a project I couldn't finish. I was fifteen minutes late for a lesson because I lost track of time. A kid who was supposed to take a piano lesson refused to, and insisted on drums instead. There was a miscommunication about a teacher's schedule, requiring me to call several families and grovel. An afternoon camp wasn't running so smoothly, the teacher in charge having had little experience working with groups. Oops, I was supposed to make the plan earlier and instead spent the morning fixing my phone. Yikes!

As an entrepreneur, it's easy to get a God complex - you are the go-to person for everything if you don't delegate properly. As a teacher, you can end up in the same place if you aren't cultivating autonomy in your students from the get-go. And as a coach of leaders, you can dole out responsibility but find yourself micromanaging if you haven't shown your team the procedures they will carry out and the standards you expect.

So it's a triple-whammy for me, and today it was hard to reconcile my sense of responsibility with actually being able to keep it all together. The constant interruptions, the dozens of crises, the relentless need to watch the clock...it's all been a big challenge and I made lots of mistakes. I tried to keep the attitude of "it's all a learning experience" but after ten hours or so, I was pretty tired.

I did make it. My last lesson went from 6:30 - 7:00, and it was pleasant - a thirteen-year-old beginning guitar student. About ten minutes in, a woman walks by on the sidewalk, on the phone, dragging a roller suitcase. I watched a magazine and a letter fall out of her back onto the ground. I jumped up and banged on the window, pointing to the stuff that had fallen out. She just looked at me like I was crazy and continued walking and talking.

At this point I had a choice. I could run outside and save her mail, or I could focus on what I was doing - what I was being paid to do. Did this student deserve an interruption? No. My work with the student was my priority. The lesson continued.

Ten minutes later, a surprise rainstorm came up. I watched as the pieces of mail in the street got wet, and then got soaked. Again, I had an opportunity to save this woman's mail - maybe I could have dropped it in a mailbox and it would get to her again - and again, I let the opportunity pass me by in favor of doing my real work, serving this music student.

Tim Ferriss, in The Four-Hour Workweek, says "you must be willing to let small bad things happen" if you ever want to escape meaningless chores and interruptions and spend your time and energy doing what matters to you. This is really hard for me. The buck stops here, and when something goes wrong I feel the need to make it regardless of what I actually have control over, or whether it was even a big deal.

But at the end of the day (literally), it might be okay to just let the soggy mail sit there.

To leap across a chasm in several systematic steps

When I was a kid, we had to do the President's Challenge for physical fitness. I failed every time, because I could not do a pull-up. Every year, I would watch the little monkeys in my class who could do a bunch in a row, and then I would get up there and struggle mightily while the P.E. teacher would say something like, "I think you did...one-quarter..." and make a note on my sheet.

I wished to avoid this humiliating display in the future, but I had no idea how. Every so often, I would go out to my swingset int the backyard and hang until my shoulders felt like they were going to pull out of their sockets, but I never could do a single pull-up.

I think of this when I have a student who requests to learn a piece well beyond their ability level. I think an exciting, challenging piece can be a great motivator, but there is a point where a piece can be so difficult it is truly inaccessible for the time being. The student will try and try, like I did with my hopeless backyard strength training, and get no return.

What's the alternative? Systematically breaking it down (yes, sorry, sometimes you have to be a geek if you want to do a thing well). Unfortunately, when I was a kid we did not have the Internet, but if we had, I would have been able to research pull-ups to learn how to do them, including ways to make them easier. I could learn about the muscles used in pull-ups, and create a plan for building strength in those muscles. I might also acknowledge that overall upper body weakness is an issue for me, and create a complete plan for strength training with the help of a personal trainer.

Maybe, after six months of focused, targeted, and carefully sequenced training I would do a pull-up on the first try. From there, I would finally build up the number of reps I could do in a row.

By contrast, I could take those same six months and spend a few minutes every day trying to do a pull-up to no avail. I strongly doubt I would be able to do a pull-up after six months of that, for two reasons: One, I wouldn't even get to the point where the correct muscles were supporting my body weight; and two, I would probably get bored and frustrated and quit three days into it.

So, back to the musical example. Usually, students have great intuition about which pieces are right for them to learn. But occasionally, not. "I want to learn 'Cliffs of Dover' because it's my favorite song on Guitar Hero." Okay, fine. Go ahead and download the bazillion-page tab and set about learning it. Learn a tiny lick every day. If you don't go mad in frustration within the first ten minutes, after six months you might be able to play the whole thing (if I painstakingly show you how to play every note that you can't figure out on your own).

On the other hand, you could spend those same six months learning fifty easier songs that use similar skills and a similar vocabulary. You can build fluency, speed, and technique while improving your musical ear and your reading skills.

After six months have passed, you may well be able to pick up most of "Cliffs of Dover" by yourself in just a week or two. You might not even need the tab for very much of it, because your fingers will "hear" different parts of the song and automatically go where they belong as a result of playing so much. Because in the process, you learned fifty other songs. You learned how to play the guitar, not just "Cliffs of Dover."

They say you must leap across a chasm in a single, dramatic, all-in move. Or you could go to school, become a civil engineer, and design a bridge that will enable you to easily walk across. The first way only works if it works, and most of the time it doesn't. The second way is built to work every time. Not as daring, but you'll get there in the end.

Where are you attempting with no visible progress? Is there an intermediate benchmark you could be striving for, or a more systematic way to achieve your goal?

How to not keep playing the same thing over and over again

You know how when you say a word many times in a row ("Donut. Donut donut donut donut donut...") it starts to sound weird? It gets divorced from its meaning and becomes pure sound. This same thing happens when you mindlessly play the same musical figure ad nauseum. Here's how to get just the right number of repetitions of a musical passage.


Small segments, slowly

First of all, you should be working on sections so small that you can play them correctly on the first try. If you mess up, you are either taking too big a section, or going too fast, or both.

Don't be a hero! Don't think that going slowly or breaking things down makes you a weaker musician:

  • The slower you practice, the faster you will learn.
  • The tighter your focus, the shorter your practice.


The Comfort Score

Do you have a small-enough chunk to work with? Good. Now play it, paying attention to how it feels, not just how it sounds. Now, give yourself a Comfort Score from one to ten.

This score is not "how many mistakes did I make?" If you made mistakes, you might be going to fast or playing too big a section. If you chose your section well (it could be just one note), you didn't make any errors. Instead, ask yourself, "How comfortable was while I played that?"

Ten is "I can play this effortlessly with my eyes closed." One is, "I think I just passed out in the middle from concentrating too hard."

If your score was any lower than eight, play it again. Keep evaluating yourself, and keep repeating the passage, until you score eight or nine. Do not aim for ten, because you will go mad.



By the time you score an eight or nine, you have played the musical passage a few times correctly, evaluating yourself every step of the way. Your playing feels relaxed and masterful. When you reach this point, stop. Resist the temptation to play the phrase again.

Your choices at this point:

  • Go on to a different section or piece
  • Practice a section adjacent to the one you just played, overlapping
  • Expand the section you just worked on
  • Go have some ice cream


There's always tomorrow

When you come back to this piece at your next practice session, it will probably take you fewer repetitions to get to a Comfort Score of eight or nine. Good! Eventually, you'll be able to score a nine on your first try. This doesn't require hundreds of repetitions. Intense focus and thoughtful self-evaluation will shorten your practice time to only what is needed.