Image source: Maloneyartgallery.org
If you know my story, you know I had crippling stage fright for years. This was only true when I played the piano. One of the greatest things I’ve done is learn to overcome this fright.
While I can now play well in front of people, I still struggle sometimes to play my best for an audience. The problem was always that I became hyper sensitive to the idea that someone was listening to me. I would imagine their criticisms in my head as I played and it would paralyze me.
That fear remains strongest when I play jazz. Because it’s harder to “prepare” to play a solo, there’s less ways to manage the anxiety, less ways to prepare, or to predict what will happen. As a result, I am still hearing imaginary criticisms in my head as I play in that situation.
I used to believe that if I could eliminate my obsessive self-criticism, if I could shut off the critical voice in my head, if I could see past my own idea of what I was doing, then I would be free. A new music would come out of me that would be far better than anything else I’d ever played.
Last Thursday I was playing at my favorite jam session. I was really, really tired and didn’t want to open up, look at the other players, and make myself vulnerable again. Instead, I just decided to be a closed, selfish player and play to make myself happy.
If you are expecting some kind of happy ending where my playing was better than before, I can’t quite give you that. I don’t think that all the work I did learning to quiet the voices and focus on the music was a waste of time. I also don’t think being selfish or “letting it go” is the best way to play jazz all the time.
What I did discover was that, by paying attention to my worst characteristics instead of fighting them, I did not automatically shut down as a player or produce music that was worse. My selfish and self-critical thoughts weren’t killing my music. It was just that, when I let them have their head, then the music became about those thoughts.
My playing had an edge to it that evening. I had a story to tell that, perhaps, nobody but me understood, but which everybody felt. To play my struggle instead of just struggle gave me an impetus, an energy, something to play about and off of.
The moral for me is that, rather than seek an ideal state in which to play, I should play in the state that I’m in. It is far more productive to pay attention to who I am than to seek to be someone else. Then, instead of fighting myself, I can express myself.