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.

Those who can't do...

Two things kind of stink about teaching music: The first is that when a student fails, it's all my fault, but when a student succeeds, it's because of talent. Bummer.

The second thing that stinks about teaching music is the topic of this post: Spending time helping other people develop their musicianship means I'm not spending my time developing my own. What is the relationship between these two activities?

There are six-year-olds playing way harder stuff on their YouTube channels.


It takes time and focus to get good at something

Gladwell, in Outliers, talks about how research suggests that a person needs ten thousand hours of practice at a skill in order to get good at it. I can tell you that I've easily put 10,000 hours and then some into teaching music lessons. I've probably amassed another 10,000 hours or so on music in general, but since I spent that time listening, singing, songwriting, recording, and playing a few different instruments, I do not have any serious musical chops. Yeah, I can play, but I'm no Jimi Hendrix (or Keith Jarrett, or Bob Dylan, or Paul McCartney, or George Martin for that matter).

The past few years have been particularly painful in this regard, because I'm spending most of my time being the administrator of a school. But to use that as an excuse for not going anywhere as a musician would just be rationalization, so I'm working on a couple goals: playing more music and refining and sharing my teaching methods.


Doing two things is not focus, in case you were wondering

Ugh! Why can't I just have one goal instead of two? That is how you become successful, right? Well, I really do feel like I have to have both in my life. My teaching is at its best when I'm actively pursuing my musicianship (playing in a band, writing songs, performing, etc.) and my playing...well, without the teaching, my playing would really suffer because I'd have to sell my guitar to pay my mortgage. Teaching has always been the foundation of how I make my living; however accidentally I may have landed in this profession, it seems to be what I'm good at.

So if I've been spending a disproportionate amount of time teaching and not playing, at least I've really learned how to do it well. Meanwhile, those of my peers who spent the past decade in grad school and then practicing six hours a day? They are excellent players, and they are not automatically good teachers as a result. In fact, some of the best instrumentalists I've known are also the worst teachers I've known. This is not a coincidence, the same way that it is not a coincidence that I cannot play Fantaisie-Impromptu: There is only so much time in the day. Corollary: We focus on what we're already pretty good at.


Those who can't teach, do

So that old saw, "Those who can't do, teach," has some validity. But! I take issue with its implication that a) teaching is easy; or that b) I have to be able to play like Glenn Gould in order to be qualified to guide a student through their first several years of study on the piano.

I had lunch with Katie Baughman today, and we talked about how our colleague, Jennifer Christie, is such a gifted piano teacher precisely because piano is not her first instrument! This unique perspective gives Jennifer an insight into the mind of the beginner (and people stay beginners for a long time, so this is very important). Also, Jennifer has made the choice to invest in learning how to teach well, since she can't rely on dazzling her prospective students with virtuosic abililties on the piano.

It's funny: every so often, a parent wants the teacher to audition. I absolutely believe that regardless of the specific repertoire a teacher has mastered, he or she should have excellent technique and artistry. But in listening to your teacher play, you might miss the point, which is that being able to play Fantaisie-Impromptu does not mean you have the tools to teach someone else how to do it. Really, they are separate professions.


George Martin was a rock star, too

The performer gets the glory - his work is breathtaking, memorable, inspiring. And great teaching exhibits the same level of elegance, grace, and ease that great playing does. It's less flashy, but just as vital. That student who gets props for his talent? I'll let him take the credit. But I'll also take the warm fuzzy feeling.

What do you think? Is teaching the ugly stepsister of music? Do I sound defensive?

Let pressure make you better

Students often get bummed out about their performances, either onstage or just playing for me in their lessons. "But I played it so much better at hooooooome!" I know they did. And the difference between an amateur and a professional is that an amateur's playing suffers slightly with the pressure of performing for another human being, while a professional's playing actually improves.

Your own internal pressure gauge probably has fewer lines on it. Photo by eschipul.I like to quantify things that aren't usually measured in order to make certain ideas less mysterious, so bear with me here. Suppose you play a piece extremely well at home - you get an A. Then, when you perform in front of someone else, you become self-conscious. You are imagining yourself from the other person's perspective, which creates a feedback loop wherein you become self-conscious of your self-consciousness ("What if I mess up? What will she think of me then? Whoops, I just messed up - now what does she think?").

As a result of this discomfort, your "grade" drops down to a B. And if you are playing faster than usual, or you're playing on an unfamiliar instrument, or your bench/bow/footrest isn't adjusted perfectly, or you have physical symptoms of nervousness that interfere with your playing, you might drop down to B-minus or C.

One solution to this problem is to practice your piece until it is an A-plus. That is, work until your Comfort Score is a solid nine out of ten. Then track how long it takes you to reach that score from one practice session to another. Five repetitions? Three repetitions? Can you get a Comfort Score of nine on your first try? Once you can do this, your performance will be less likely to suffer in the presence of an audience.

Statistically speaking, it's possible I was messing up big time right as this photo was being taken.Being more comfortable with your music will not solve the problem entirely. You'll still have to figure out how to deal with the adrenaline flowing through your system. Skilled performers, instead of self-conscious, become self-aware. They use the adrenaline to attain a heightened state of perception, like in that long moment when an outfielder has already anticipated exactly where a pop-up is going and stands waiting patiently for the ball to drop into his glove.

Experienced performers feel the intensity of the audience's presence, but do not second-guess themselves - instead of hoping that they look good, sound good, and don't mess up, they focus on serving the audience well, which makes these musicians authentic and compelling. Doing this sometimes actually leads to weird mess-ups in itself, but not the kind that ruin a performance. Instead, these quirks contribute to the intimacy and immediacy of the moment. 

So how do you get to the point where you can do that? Playing at the A-plus, high Comfort Score level definitely helps - mastery allows you to let go of what your hands are doing. Then, you have to let go of what your thoughts are doing. This, too, takes practice.

Experience will contribute significantly to your ability to exhibit grace under pressure. The more you play in front of people, the more effectively you learn to transform anxiety into electricity. Be compassionate with yourself, and expect that in the beginning you won't play as well under stressful conditions. As a result, gradually, you will.

The lazy concert

Eclectic Music now has its own performance space and consequently, so do I. We've had several events there since we moved in six weeks ago: an open house, a CD/DVD release party, a children's concert, five recitals, and two rehearsals of the new Intown Women's Glee Club.

The space, called The Eclectic Music Room, was conceived as a community music space - an alternative to 11 PM Wednesday night shows in smoky, 21+ clubs. I'm delighted to see the space used in that way - in a couple of weeks we'll be featuring two Grady High School students (and Eclectic Music students) Lily Zintak and Weston Taylor for an evening of original music.

An unexpected benefit of this lofty loft, however, is that is perfect for a lazy musician like me - someone who enjoys performing from time to time but dislikes booking gigs and hauling gear. The mountain comes to Mohammed, as it were, and I can do a show in what is essentially my own living room. Call it a "lazy concert."

I hadn't made this aspect of the venue public, but this week, one of the members of the Intown Women's Glee Club asked me to play at her birthday party, and it turned out she wanted to have the party at the Eclectic Music Room.

It will be the first event of its kind, but I'm sure it won't be the last. In this case, the coolest part is that she wants me to get all her guests singing - she doesn't want spectators or audience members, she wants participants. I love this type of collaborative performance. For those of us who grew up in musical families, it is de riguer, but it is somewhat novel to create this vibe with a larger group in a slightly more formal context.

It is a bit of a tightrope walk for a performer to work this way. My musical partner Michael and I will not be able to go in with our own set list (which means we don't even have to make one - another way this will be a "lazy concert"). In order to develop a rapport with the group, we'll be taking requests, which often means playing songs by ear (often songs we've never played before!).

Of course, it helps that we had a dry run at a family Thanksgiving dinner a couple of nights ago, playing Beatles songs and holiday favorites for a handful of folks. Some sang along, some played various percussion, and some just listened. It's relaxed, but you still have to be "on" - when you're accompanying singers, you have to follow them exactly (which I did), and everyone will notice if you flub up the intro to "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" (which I did).

I'm eager to see whether, tonight, The Eclectic Music Room will help us blur the line between the performer and the audience the way we did at Thanksgiving. It is my desire, both as a musical artist and as an educator, that everyone should have this kind of authentic, mutually creative experience. I believe, as we head away from the major-label-driven music industry model, that we will see a lot more lazy concerts.

Baby Driver

I played very little piano today, focusing more on guitar. It was a relaxed family day, so it would have been weird if I sat in the living room playing piano for hours. Instead, I played a bit with my brother-in-law, Jesse - we did “And Your Bird Can Sing” with me on rhythm and him on lead, a few Paul Simon tunes, and “Gone For Good” by the Shins. Jesse is a terrific singer and guitarist, so we can do some good harmonies and figure out stuff on the fly.

We listened to “Baby Driver” and “Keep the Customer Satisfied,” two fun shuffles off of Bridge Over Troubled Water, thinking about playing them. We discovered that they are both tuned down a half-step to Eb. I used to wonder how you could tell something like that quickly without exhausting all other options first, but I’m getting better at doing it. I think a lot of that has to do with confidence - I assume that if it’s too hard for me to play, I’m probably not playing it correctly. If my voicings have a bunch of awkward stretches or it’s hard to get a good sound from a certain chord, I’m probably playing it in the wrong place or I’ve made a bad assumption. It’s like doing a crossword puzzle: you might make guesses at the ones you don’t know or leave them blank, and as you work your way around you can make corrections or even have something click that didn’t before, just because you’re seeing it in a new way. I love working out songs by ear.

I dug out some old guitar books of my dad’s and played through them. The were busy, crappy arrangements of public domain stuff like “Greensleeves.” Given that my whole philosophy of learning music revolves around songs, I believe that the quality of one’s learning materials is the most important thing in music instruction - more important than the quality of the instrument, or even the skills of the teacher. So this by-the-numbers Mel Bay stuff was not very useful or satisfying to me - it’s really hard to make those pieces sound good, even if (especially if!) you play them exactly the way they are written.

And then…later on in the evening, driving with Jesse, my sister Ashley the birthday girl, and Jonah (my adorable sixteen-month-old nephew), I found a much more important use for my musical skills than hacking through some hacky guitar methods: I sang the baby to sleep. I was sitting next to him in the back seat as the sun was setting, leaning close and going from vigorous play songs like “Bingo” and “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” to lullabies hummed gently in his ear. As I watched his eyelids droop, I felt a grace that served to put all of my musical strivings in their proper context. It is all for this kind of joy and love that I play.

Pre-recital pep-talk

At Eclectic Music, an important theme is balance - between pop and classical, work and play, structure and creativity. Another thing that music educators must balance is the relationship between process and product. As musicians, we must get lost in the process of learning a certain skill or piece of music - thoughts like “What is this for?” and “Man, it’s taking me so long to learn this!” interfere with our focus. On the other hand, music is meant to be shared, not just experienced alone with one’s instrument - at some point we must gather ourselves to present what we have learned to an audience.

One way to reconcile these seemingly opposing aims is to consider a performance itself as a process: the most important aspect of a recital, especially for young musicians, is the experience of doing it, not “how well” we do. Mistakes are inevitable and should be embraced as part of the process of performing - they are not demerits that bar you from attaining to some realm of perfection where professional musicians appear to live.

For students experiencing some pre-recital jitters, here’s something to consider: professional musicians do not appear make mistakes because they’ve learned to cover them up through years of practice - that is, years of making mistakes in public! We all make mistakes, but the most experienced players get good at hiding them and not showing on their faces that they “messed up.” As a performer, just keep going, keeping your body language relaxed. You can start over if you really get lost.

Sometimes a professional really does do it “perfectly.” However, it’s rare that a performer would do a high-profile appearance (like on national TV) unless she is playing something well within her comfort zone - something she could do in her sleep. For most of our students, performing itself is far out of their comfort zone. They all work so hard leading up to a recital, and it becomes a showcase for how far they’ve come. It’s unrealistic to expect that one can manifest a professional polish on what are essentially brand-new skills. Even if the skills are well-established, performing is its own skill that adds new challenges to the mix - but also new rewards.

Performing is an essential part of a student’s music education, giving meaning and context to the long hours (or half-hours!) of study and practice. We are so proud of all of our performers.


I had one of my best gigs ever last night. I had a really good time, and I think it showed.

I spent the early part of the day doing some practicing – as opposed to playing. It was not a joyful act. I thought I had changed, but there I was on gig day falling back into the same old patterns. I felt pressured to do better than I had in the past, to succeed, to push myself, to perform new songs, to impress; I ended up feeling inadequate and bored.

I decided to take a break and go play in the yard. I noticed a few mulberry trees a little over a foot high around the south side of the house, growing fast and distinguishing themselves from the rest of the weeds. I decided to transplant them along the back fence, where someday they might help to cover up the view of the apartment building behind my house and provide a little more privacy.

As I worked, my mind continued to sing the songs I had been working on. Sometimes the singing in my mind spilled out of my mouth. I had a pleasant time in the ninety-five-degree heat – that’s what singing is for.

I went back inside and puttered around the house. I thought about why I signed up to play at Limerick Junction on a Sunday evening, for free, in the first place. I guess because as a musician, it’s my job to play music for people – whether I want to or not, sometimes. In the past, I’ve always been glad I did it – I meet new people, I get out of my comfort zone, I stay in the game, I try out new songs.

I came back to an idea that’s worked for me in the past: instead of thinking I had to come up with some amazing, epic set, I should just sing a bunch of songs. Songs I happen to feel like singing tonight. Songs I like, some of which I wrote. No pressure, no epic statement: simply transmitting the joy of making music.

So that’s what I did. I went upstairs to the guitar and played this time – refreshing my memory on a few things and tweaking others. And then I got ready to go, and went, and just got up there and did it.

And while I was onstage, I remembered another reason I perform: because the audience makes me able to do things I didn’t know I could do, or didn’t know I would do. I surprise myself. It’s an exciting collaboration.

Feeling at the top of my game, I decided last night that I would wake up early this morning to play. I did it, and I think I’m going to do it again tomorrow. I memorized a Schumann piece, reviewed some Scarlatti, and learned the intro to “Martha My Dear.”

There’s a freshness and ease to my musicanship lately which is showing up in my playing, practicing, performing, and teaching: I am inhabiting the world of songs. It doesn’t matter what instrument it’s on or what era it’s from or whether I wrote it or not – whatever song I am working on, I want to get wrapped up in it. It may seem an insignificant concept, but it took me eight years to get to this point. And this is where I’m going to live from now on.