Mind games. Musicians and mental health.

In my last blog “What’s the point?” I discussed the dilemmas and motivational issues I was negotiating with, regarding maintaining a regular and meaningful practise regime throughout this Covid-19 pandemic.

Over the last few days, I’ve seen other musicians posting on social media that they were putting the instrument back in the case and waiting for things to show signs of returning to normality, before they started thinking about getting “back on the horse” and doing some serious practise once again.

For me that isn’t an option, for a number of reasons. Firstly, my sanity – I need something worthwhile to do! Secondly, I actually enjoy playing, albeit that playing at home is not the same as being alongside other musicians in that team environment. Finally, I need to maintain my core skills and technique. I’m not one of those “natural” players who can let it go for a few weeks and then pick it up as if it was yesterday.

So imagine my frustration, nay panic. Yes, PANIC, when things aren’t going at all well. I’m not talking about clipping a top C a couple of times, or not being able to play that tricky passage in the Allen Vizzutti Etude in that God-awful key that involves the third valve more times in one bar than you’ve played all year! I’m not on about an “off day”, where the chops are a bit bruised and battered from an over-enthusiastic session the previous day on the D/Eb Trumpet and carelessly omitting a proper warm-down afterwards.

No, this is when day after day for the last week or so, I feel my “chops” aren’t responsive at all, the tone is thin and airy, the range is non-existent and pieces that you enjoy playing sound like a proverbial zoo on fire! Yes, I warmed up properly each day. Yes, I played lots of long notes quietly. Yes, I accept it can’t sound perfect every day, but no I can’t accept that it can be consistently this dreadful for so many days on the bounce.

This serious confidence “wobble” all coincides with the recent push within the brass band movement by Tabby Kerwin regarding mental health awareness and at the same time, a friend – a string player – mentioning on social media, that he was dealing with nerves whilst performing.

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The Three P’s – Tabby Kerwin

Ask any musician and they will tell you that the demands of any performance are 50% physical i.e. the core skills and mechanics of performing the music and 50% mental, namely dealing with the stress, nerves, anxiety which then however causes physical problems affecting the mechanics, such as breath control, tremors or shakes, sweating etc. Some will disagree on the percentages, but all will agree that the mind has a very strong bearing on the successful (or unsuccessful) outcome of any performance.

To keep things simple, I’ll generalise and call the affliction “nerves”. Whilst nerves (in moderate doses) are a perfectly natural condition prior to and during a performance, in excess these can ruin perfectly good musicians and can reduce the most competent performer to a gibbering wreck in a very short space of time, if not dealt with immediately and correctly. It only takes one “off” performance or a few unguarded comments from another person to sow the seed of doubt in an individual, before those gremlins start their evil voices of self-doubt in your head and you enter a downward spiral of catastrophic proportions.

So for me, when the gremlins do rear their ugly heads every now and again, I revert to Howard Snell’s fabulous book “The Trumpet”, which has a Chapter dedicated to “Anxiety Control”. He prefaces the section as follows “For many players, the control of anxiety seems virtually impossible. As they see it anxiety represents an impenetrable barrier to achieving full realisation of their talent. In most cases the use of straightforward routines will comfortably control anxiety.” He goes on to advocate a number of methods and techniques which can tackle nerves/anxiety head on and shows that with a controlled approach, you can overcome this and you will prevail. The quote below certainly caught my attention!

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The Trumpet – Howard Snell

“When anxiety is an habitual problem for a player, it is futile to say that more effort, discipline and hard work are needed. While these attitudes are essential to building quality playing, anxiety needs to be dissolved rather than confronted. Habitual anxiety points to imbalances within the player’s overall approach. Realism, mental balance, patience, persistence and awareness are the key attitudes.” Howard Snell

Mental health issues are far more at the forefront of peoples’ minds nowadays, including musicians. There are many ways to address any problems that we might have, including Alexander Technique, yoga, hypnosis, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) and a whole raft of publications, however talking to other musicians sometimes is just as effective and helps highlight that it’s not just “me” struggling to overcome issues. My friend the string player drew a number of friends and colleagues into the conversation and it was surprising to see how many people were admitting to having their own personal battle with anxiety, in ts many guises.

For me, this period of chaos is a blip. A brief hiatus where things aren’t going well. At least I very much hope so! Thankfully, I don’t suffer from stage anxiety (touches wood!) and my current issues are home-based, however it wouldn’t take long for it to morph into a bigger problem. It’s happened before and perhaps a couple of days off and a few binge-sessions of CSI New York or The Yorkshire Vet will give me some rest and space to clear my head and bounce back, as if nothing was wrong? That usually works. As Mr.Snell says “Realism, mental balance, patience, persistence and awareness are the key attitudes.”

If you have an “issue”, remember #itsgoodtotalk – get things off your chest, you’ll be amazed how much support and resources are available out there to help you with this!

Here are just a few links that may be of some help to you:

Tabby Kerwin: Mode for Publishing

Charlotte Tomlinson Performance Coach 

Howard Snell The Trumpet

Excerpts from “The Trumpet” (It’s Practice and Performance, A Guide for Students) by Howard Snell (published Rakeway Music) kindly authorised by the Author.

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The Trumpet. My greatest pleasure …. and my greatest enemy!

Thanks for reading the Music for You blog. I hope you’ve enjoyed it and if so, please feel free to share. Stay safe and stay healthy!

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