Thursday, June 11, 2015

Musical Mind: The Choke

What happens to us when we get in front of people? Why do we sometimes get so much braver and other times totally choke?

I've been thinking about this a lot with the marimba competition coming up next week.  Let me say what we're all thinking: competitions are weird.  The entire reason three people in the audience are there is to judge you. Boom. They're not trying to be mean; they're not trying to imply that what you have to say isn't valid, but there's something that happens in your brain when you know you are being weighed against others. 

I'm a firm believer that the intention of the music can carry a performer through. What I mean by that is if the performer is focused on nothing but telling the story or sharing the sound of the piece, nothing can go wrong. 
Ok, so not literally nothing, but if the intention is to share truth, then "nothing" could be wrong, as every note is played, and every word is sung, with a correct and true intention.  Confession: I know I don't always play like that.  When I worry about "sounding" a particular way or playing "perfect" (see: marimba competition) I always seem to dislike the result. Perhaps more importantly, I really dislike how I get there. When I'm in that judgmental space I can't access the brave part of myself - I can only access the part that is aware of the need to play well. 

Ain't nobody want to listen to that...least of all, me.

Some would say that managing performance anxiety is the trick, but I don't agree. 
I'm much more interested in learning about what happens in my brain when I talk to myself from a place of worrisome perfection versus a place of caring truth about whatever I'm about to play. 

When my brain gets into that worrisome space I know what's going to happen -- ladies and gentlemen -- I'm gonna CHOKE.  Like the Yankees against the Red Sox, I'm going to forget how to play the game. I'll forget the notes. I'll forget the key. I'll not even recognize the keyboard in front of me. 
And I know I'm not alone.

But we have the power to change it.

Enter an article I read in the magazine Mindful: taking time for what matters.  The June 2015 issue features a piece called "Brain Freeze," and it's all about choking during pressure-packed performances, including why we do it and how we can avoid it. Yes, please.  And thank you, universe, for the perfect timing.

Sharan Begley, the article's author, refers to neurobiological and psychological research when she writes that "...we choke under two main conditions: when worries distract us so much we fail to access our talents, or when stress causes us to overthink, sidelining areas of the brain underlying implicit skill and expertise."

Because SCIENCE
Essentially, when we know how to do something really well, like play our instruments, there should be less activity in the prefrontal cortex of the brain.  When the neuron connections in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) are working properly, it helps us with all of our higher-order cognitive abilities, from evaluating emotional reactions to altering physical behaviors in relationship to an immediately changing environment.  But perhaps we need to alter our physical behavior, you say.  Don't I want the PFC to be working for me, you say.  Well, yes and no.  When we perform as soloists the instrument doesn't create an immediately changing environment.  Usually, it is completely still or under our physical control.  In today's (standard) concert etiquette, people shouldn't be talking on phones or unwrapping food-truck-falafels, but instead be sitting quietly, making for an overall rather controlled environment.  We aren't trying to survive in a battle or navigate a delicate emotional situation.  We're playing some Bach. Or some Stockhausen.  We've played it for countless hours in practice, and don't need a hyperactive PFC.

Here's where the worrisome mindset causes problems.  Worry is, of course, a form of stress.  Stress is basically a neurochemical, and the PFC is super sensitive to those bad boys.  As Begley writes, stress leads to overthinking.
When we're first learning, this could be helpful.  See the internal monologue below.
Alright, hold the mallets. Outside over the inside and you're supposed to hold them together with your ring finger....meh that's weird I otherwise never use that finger for anything...and then I hit the note, but they all look the same....ok, group of 2 and the one in the middle is a D, so that means this one to the left is a...C! Yes! I played it!

Fast-forward 15-20 years later, when we are practiced performers in solo competitions, and perhaps the overactive-immediate-physical-behavior-changing PFC is a bit less useful.
Ok, Laurel. Play Merlin. You've done this seriously 234 times already, this is number 235. Crap, you started too loud....well that's ok if you can make sure that the phrase still balances crap you missed the octave E's...well you played a good decrescendo so now start the pattern and as long as you can remember where the accents are CRAP there aren't accents on the first page WAIT, YES THERE ARE and now you're at the tritones at the bottom and it starts with the right....wait...shoot there are 3 tritone patterns in this piece so which....crap do you remember?? well just play something but not something too wrong because they have scores and they're gonna know if you screw it up so now they know and now you'll get eliminated so it's a good thing you have ANOTHER SIX PAGES to play...and the piece only gets harder from here on out so this bodes well for you, doesn't it...
Sound familiar? Mmhmm.

Once we know what we're doing as players, overthinking is damaging. We second-guess our instincts - musical and emotional - and wind up with performances that are lack-luster and make us reevaluate what we are doing with our lives.  Our brain takes worry and perfectionism as a sign to become hyper-aware of everything we are doing at every moment, which impairs our ability to play, so we choke.  Worrisome perfection = Choke.


There is Comfort in the Consistency
Learning about the brain's processes takes some of the mystery out of performing.  When mentors or more seasoned performers tell us to "just play" it is sometimes really stressful because we can't "just play" when we are keenly aware that these 20 minutes of playing could win us a full scholarship, or a competition, or a great (or terrible) review in The New York Times.  What's interesting, though, is that we can rely on our brain's consistency.  In some ways, it's very simple. Overthink = choke. I find it comforting, like what goes up = must come down. Or, if x, then y. 

There is always a moment when we become aware of our stress and overthinking.  When that moment happens - stop. Just stop. And try to remember what you were saying to yourself, if anything.  The reality is that something triggers our stress into overdrive and the PFC into "overthink."  Theoretically, figuring out that trigger could help stop the choke before it happens. Like a... a... Heimlich Maneuver for the musical mind.  See what I did there???

For example, if you get nervous when you think about the fact you'll be playing for scholarship, you could either a)try not to think about it; b)intentionally think about it in practice so you get used to it; c)employ some other performance anxiety method; or d)accept the fact that you'll probably choke. 
Option A will never work. Tried it. Doesn't work.
Option B is promising.
Option C could work indirectly.
Option D isn't really an option. Obviously. 
Right now I'm trying Option B, intentionally freaking myself out in practice, so that the "real thing" is something that, in a way, I've experienced many times before.  What I imagine will also happen in the long-term is that I'll get to know my trigger, and learn how to avoid it.

If that sounds difficult, you could try what the article suggests: squeeze a ball with your left hand. This action activates the right hemisphere of the brain, which controls skills that rely on muscle memory. If you're like me and will be competing and don't really want to carry around a ball, maybe mallets will work, as the physical action is incredibly similar.  

Whatever the method for de-triggering the PFC, there's a steadying effect in knowing that it isn't "us," but our brains, that go into overdrive.  It's not that we can't play - it's that we are doing something else that keeps us from doing it.  To learn what it is, and overcome it, will take practice of a different kind.


Arnsten, Amy F.T. "Stress signalling pathways that impair prefrontal cortex structure and function." Nature Reviews Neuroscience 10 (June 2009): 410-422
accessed through PMC http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2907136/

Begley, Sharan.  "Brain Freeze." Mindful, June 2015

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