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Tips and Tricks to Up Your Mental Game

By Chisato Eda Marling (Vandoren Artist)

How do you prepare yourself for the mental focus required for an hour long recital or performance of that length?

I try to start running through the entire program at least once a day two or three weeks before the performance so that I build not only the endurance to play them through, but also the mental stamina to go through the program. Practice performing is very important. When I say that I “play through the program”, I mean that I play them through with (or hopefully without) mistakes with no stops. I also ask my students to do this and say, “Please play them through without stopping, unless the fire alarms go off!” This is quite important, as there is always something that we do not expect to happen during the performance. If you can play them through regardless of the mistakes made and any thoughts that come through because of those mistakes, this will help prepare you for a live performance experience. Once the play through is complete, then I go back and work on sections that require additional attention.

A day before the performance, I try not to play, at all, if I can help it. Choosing the reed is the only thing I would do. I try to mentally calm down and do completely different things to keep my mind off of the performance. Practicing the day before performances are not going to help physiologically.

What sort of conscious effort is required in the rehearsals prior to a performance to build the necessary focus?

I mentioned this above a bit, but practicing how to perform is very important. That means that once you start playing the program, you do not stop until the end of the program. You do not take breaks between the pieces or go to the bathroom, or check your phone. You literally create the performance atmosphere and go through the program. It is often common that mistakes happen RIGHT after the place you think are the most challenging because you would feel relieved at that point and not really focus on the music at the moment. Being able to remain mentally disciplined through the entire process will make you more prepared once you step on that stage.
To simulate the performance environment I do the following:

  1. Simulate the adrenaline rush by running in place for 30 seconds before beginning the run through. This increases your heart rate and causes you to get a little less air in your breaths than you would if you were relaxed.
  2. Simulate the performance atmosphere by behaving exactly as you would during the performance. No breaks other than changing pieces.
  3. If possible, have someone listen to you as you go through the practice performance without interrupting you. Have them hold their feedback until after you complete.
Could you please give us some general tips for staying focused?

I always tell myself that I could always go back and think about what I did AFTER the double bar! Not to sound fatalistic, but what is done is done. Even if we would like to go back, we can’t do that. Stay in the present and be with the music. When you are performing or practicing your performance, keep your mind on the moment. If you are thinking about a mistake you made or if you are thinking about a hard part that is coming up, you are not giving the music you are playing at that moment the attention it deserves. Your audience will hear this and it will cause you to create more mistakes, which can snowball quickly.

As Don Greene often states in his technique seminars, “You can have process cues before your begin“. This means to have an overall goal before you begin such as “Fill the hall with sound,” “Have relaxed hands”, or “bigger breath”. These goals must be simple focus points that you can go back to in the middle of the performance without distracting from the act of performing. It should be an overarching idea that you can go back to if you begin to lose your focus. Don Greene also states it’s good to have a focal point where your eyes rest. This technique is more effective for those who are performing memorized music. The concept is having a plan on where you will focus your eyes when performing. The location you select to rest your eyes on should not be distracting and provide you with a safe spot to keep your focus.

Have you developed any sort of pre-performance routine or ritual?

I take a good hot bath, and eat a banana one hour prior to my performance. Potassium in bananas are said to help anxiety. I try not to eat a lot before my performance. The banana helps give me just enough energy to go on. Also, I warm up my arms and hands with warmer/warm water as much as I can. My hands tend to get cold prior to the performance, which can lead to stiffness.

Is there anything you might do in between pieces on a recital or concert that is worth noting?

I try to close my eyes and calm myself for a moment with a big belly breath before I go on to the next piece, just so that I can start fresh to the next piece. It is not a meditation, but it is something similar that clears my mind. I make a point of not dwelling on how well I did or did not do on the previous piece so I can give all of my attention to the next one. This goes hand in hand with the performance practice mentioned earlier. All of those sessions playing the program from start to finish with no breaks will force you into this mind set.

Is there anything you’re currently working on that you’d like to share?

I just performed Dreams in the Dusk by David Biedenbender with Nazareth College Wind Symphony in April 2017. It was one of the most rewarding experiences that I had and I was very proud of what we achieved.