Using sticky notes to focus my performance thinking

I might put in weeks or months preparing for a high-pressure performance. The groundwork is done—I have made the technical and interpretive decisions, drilled the difficult spots, and otherwise planned and prepared every aspect of my playing.

But all of that can fall apart pretty quickly if my head isn’t in the right place. Nerves, stress, and distractions can make one small error snowball into an unfocused, sloppy performance.

One of my favorite tricks to help avoid this is to plan my thinking. As I do the final preparations for my performance, I often pick out two or three things I would like to focus on as I begin each piece or movement. These might be important technical details (“make sure embouchure is stable before playing the first note”), more general advice (“keep breath support strong through the ends of phrases”), or interpretive thoughts (“light and playful”).

I write these two or three things (no more) on a sticky note, and place it at the beginning of the piece or movement. If the reminders seem especially crucial, I might put the sticky note over the first few measures of music, so I can’t start playing until I have physically moved it out of the way.

This small preparation helps ensure that as I begin to play, I’m thinking about the things that are most important to the success of the performance, rather than reacting to distractions.

Student auditions

I hear auditions on a pretty frequent basis: my college students audition for placement in university ensembles, prospective students audition for admissions and scholarships, high school musicians audition for the honor band the university hosts. It is pretty routine for me, but clearly sometimes extremely stressful for them.

I thought it might be helpful to some auditioning students to have some idea what is going on in my mind while I am listening to auditions. I expect my thoughts are reasonably typical of someone who hears these kinds of auditions regularly. Bear in mind of course that I’m not talking about extreme high-pressure situations like auditions for full-time positions in major orchestras, or even for admissions to a big brand-name university/conservatory; I’m generally hearing students within a range of ability and preparation levels.

Photo, VermontJm
Photo, VermontJm

Firstly, I am more or less a regular guy and not looking for nit-picky reasons to deny you your goal. Some students seem to be overly stressed about tiny matters of protocol: will he be mad if I knock on the door? Will he be mad if I DON’T knock on the door? Just be your best, most professional self, and exercise a little common sense.

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The magical properties of air

Often, when I discuss with my students issues in their playing technique, I follow up by asking them, “How can you solve this problem?” They learn quickly that “breath support” (or a rough synonym like “more air”) is generally a safe answer.

And with good reason. Breath support is absolutely key to tone production—it is crucial to reliable response, consistent tone quality, and stable intonation. If I can get a student to improve their breath support, I can generally count on each of those things improving immediately and noticeably.

But I think there are other things that are improved, perhaps indirectly, with air:

  • Finger and tongue movement. I am lumping these together because I have a theory that air helps them in the same couple of ways. The first is that focusing on breathing—a movement so natural that we literally do it for our whole lives and barely think about it—diverts attention away from the finger and tongue movements that woodwind players get so stressed and tense about. This lets the autopilot (or Gallwey’s “Self 2”) take over and execute in a relaxed, natural way. The second way air helps here is that good breath support requires good breathing, and good breathing gets more oxygen to the finger and tongue muscles.
  • Expression. Expressive playing often involves things like dynamic contrasts, vibrato, and nuances of tone color (to name only a few). Each of those things functions better when well-supported: dynamic range expands, and vibrato is smoother and more controlled (again a result of better-oxygenated muscles?). Tone color, I think, actually gets less flexible, in the sense that it becomes more consistent note-to-note despite quirks of the instrument; this means that tone color changes may be applied in a more deliberate way.
  • Confidence and relaxation. Deep breaths are a common and effective insecticide for pre-recital butterflies. The breathing should remain centered and Zen even after the music starts.

Pictured: air. Photo, Matt Peoples
Pictured: air. Photo, Matt Peoples

Recital preparation

A few of my students have had recitals or other solo performances recently. Besides musical preparation, this is the advice I give:

Visualize. If possible, spend time in the performance space before performance day. If not, imagine up a good representation of what the space is likely to look and “feel” like. Mentally walk through the entire performance, from your arrival at the venue to your departure. Include every detail you can, no matter how mundane. In your mind’s eye, see yourself entering the stage, taking a tuning note, making a reed adjustment, waiting for the audience to fall silent. Audiate the whole performance the way you want it to sound. Hear the last note reverberating in the hall, then see yourself taking a bow and leaving the stage.

I find this valuable because everything feels familiar on the night of the performance. Even if I get some of the details wrong or leave something out, I can deal with those things as minor glitches in an otherwise controlled experience, rather than seeing them as part of a flood of unanticipated events. It also gives me a chance to think through any logistical issues; I take notes and make a to-do list while I do this exercise.

Warm up intelligently. I like to keep practicing to a minimum on performance day when possible. It’s not likely that I will make significant improvements in my preparation at that point, and I want my mind clear and body rested. If I have an evening recital, I typically do a leisurely warmup in the morning and make semi-final reed decisions. I focus the warmup on tone production and tension-free technique.

I practice the performance repertoire as little as possible on recital day. If there are difficult technical passages that I am worried about, I make a point of not trying to play them up to tempo, but instead run through them in a very slow and controlled way, focusing on tone and expression. That keeps my final practicing positive and constructive, rather than causing me stress about potential failures.

Have a good, normal day. I don’t want to depend on recital day rituals or superstitions, but I do want to be in a good mood. I don’t eat a special breakfast, but I eat something that is a favorite among my typical breakfasts. I don’t wear new clothes, but I wear something that I feel good in. I don’t take the day off work, but I do carve out a non-working lunch hour. Small, ordinary pleasures are the order of the day.

I find that if I make too big a deal of performance day, I overthink and attach unwarranted weight to the event. Keeping things good but normal makes performing less stressful.

I would be curious to hear your advice for performance preparation (besides the hours of practice). Please share in the comments section if you feel inclined.

Doubling-specific skills vs. instrument-specific skills

I don’t think a woodwind player really learns the skill of “doubling” so much as he or she learns the skill of flute playing, plus the skill of saxophone playing, and so forth. 99% of being a good doubler is being a good flutist and a good saxophonist and whatever.

There are only a few aspects of woodwind doubling that are unique to multi-instrumentalists. These are:

  • The physical act of switching instruments. This becomes an issue in Broadway-type situations when instrument changes sometimes need to happen very quickly. It’s worth practicing these little bits of choreography until they can be done as quickly, quietly, and safely as possible. Tips: own good, sturdy stands, and keep your instruments laid out in a consistent way.
  • The mental effort of switching instruments. Years of developing a fine clarinet embouchure can go right out the window when making a quick change from tenor saxophone. The problem isn’t with your lips, it’s with your focus. As you switch instruments, shift gears mentally, too. Tips: warm up thoroughly on each instrument before the rehearsal or gig, and take a brief (sometimes very brief) moment of meditation as you physically change instruments, so that you are 100% in clarinetist mode by the time the reed hits your lip.
  • The guts to play an instrument that isn’t your best one. Even if your secondary instruments are quite strong, it can be unnerving to perform on one instrument when you know you can do better on a different one. Courage! You’ll be that much more experienced when the next gig rolls around. Tips: be aware of your body—is your nervousness affecting your posture? Breath support? Hand relaxation? If so, simply recognizing the physical symptoms can be enough to relieve them. Focus on musical things that you may be able to bring to the table despite technical deficiencies, like blend or phrasing.

Practice hard!