How to get in the "zone" when performing

How to get in the "zone" when performing

Hello
From my experience I play best, especially when in front of others, when I am playing unselfconsciously. I mean focusing on something else and letting my fingers and arms do what they have been practicing to do.

For example: I might be playing for some folks and playing well and then I become aware that I am playing nicely and that is when I screw up and blunder!

I have tried focusing my eyes on some object in the distance, and that works for a few moments only.

Does anyone have any good ideas of how to stay out of the "self-conscious" zone?

For myself I feel even on a good day I might play at only 80% of my capacity. On a bad day it might be 60%….and it is not a good sound!

What psychological postures can I take to help me play better?

Richard

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Re: How to get in the "zone" when performing

Guiness, or Smithwicks if needed.

Re: How to get in the "zone" when performing

That’s a good question!
I would like to observe that the further out on the limb you’re prepared to go the better chance you have of playing really well but of course the branch may break and then you’ll take a tumble. It’s all in the spirit of the craic. Maybe one or two wee puffs of pot. Watch out for the pints though, they can seriously inhibit the dexterity.
I’m speaking of my personal experience now and one man’s zone is another man’s zoo.

Re: How to get in the "zone" when performing

What an excellent question! Well id say your doing well just to get to the point of asking it!!
Practice more! Untill your so fecking good that you and everyone around you knows it. That will help with your relaxation and confidence Its as simple as that really, also try practicing while having a conversation. Dancing , walking , running , singing whatever additional difficulties you can add.
Go for a run till your sweating then practice , press ups then practice. All sorts of this kind of thing will get you used to playing with adrenalin in your system.
Adrenalin , cortizone , loads of stuff will start going through your body if you are stressed out there y making it all a lot harder . Stress test your stuff so it works reliably.
Try playing simpler tunes then stress test them as above….
a few ideas

Re: How to get in the "zone" when performing

I think everyone has to find their own way of calming down, so to speak. As a rule, you get in trouble when you start thinking about the technical aspects of playing - am I in tune? Is the bowing too harsh, or too forced? That kind of thing.

What I do is focus on some aspect of the music itself. Often I listen for the internal rhythms of the tunes I’m playing. For instance, I might do something rhythmically fresh or interesting with a certain phrase or two. Or I might just touch a second string as a drone, and apply that rhythmically for a measure or so. Things like that. That gets me back listening to the tune and also enjoying the things that I do, and enjoy, when I’m playing alone.

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Re: How to get in the "zone" when performing

A glass of whisky or whiskey and a banana(s) works wonders.

Re: How to get in the "zone" when performing

As someone who last year started performing on a new instrument after performing on other instruments for years, trying to find the "zone" was something I had to recently deal with all over again. Especially since the new instrument was the pipes, an instrument both bold looking and sounding to audiences here in the USA. My answer to the question was to perform on them as much as possible, as well as play at sessions. The more I play them in public the more comfortable I got.

At this point I’ve likely played them in front of people 30+ times, including in a handful of intimate venues where EVERYTHING was heard, and it’s just starting to be a comfortable experience. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been enjoying it, but it was quite stressful for a while.

A couple small actions that helped me personally were: a single drink before and closing my eyes while playing. Calming some of the nerves and not focusing on seeing the audience were both helpful. I’ve gotten to a point where neither are "needed", though never were ever a requirement, just helped dull the nervous edge.

Re: How to get in the "zone" when performing

It’s a tough thing, and it’s something that I think the great performers either conquered or possibly never experienced… I definitely get in my own head when performing, recording, or playing in front of musicians that I highly respect, and I feel the same way - if I could just play the way I’m capable of, it would be a different outcome…

There are a couple of ways that I try to tackle it (some of which have been suggested to me by great players when I have asked basically the same question…) Some of these might help, or might not. But all worth a try:

1. Practice like you play. Practice in front of people or in front of a mirror. Or at the very least, try to be as critical of your music when you’re practicing as you are when you’re performing. This helps you practice paying that much attention to yourself and the details of what you’re playing, and this can help you learn to not let it affect you as much.

2. Channel your "inner diva" when you’re on stage. You belong there. You’re the expert. Your "inner diva" can be somewhat disconnected from your self image. It’s your persona that is on stage, and if the diva makes a mistake, it doesn’t have to reflect directly on you.

3. Focus on the beauty of the music coming out, and not on the fact that you’re playing it. Occasionally, I will get into a situation on stage where it’s like I’m listening (and enjoying) as if I was an audience member, and not as a performer.

4. Let go of the past. If you make a mistake, don’t fixate on it, or it can become a downward spiral. Do your best to make it seem as though you (or your diva) meant to do it, and stay focused on the music that is happening now.

5. Be prepared. This is the hard one for me, in that I feel like the best music that I play is when I just relax and let it flow. Variations just occur to me, and my expression of the music is fluid and eloquent. But I have learned that "just letting it flow" can be a bad idea when you’re on stage. It can also lead to a downward spiral. So if you have worked out ahead of time how you’re going to play a tune, what variations you want to use, etc., then you have a plan laid out in front of you, and when you make a mistake you can still stay focused ahead.

6. Relax. We get all sorts of subconscious tension that we might not even notice. But actively thinking about your state of relaxation can help in two ways. It can help you actually relax, and remove some of the physical tensions that might be affecting your playing. And it can also give you something to focus on that isn’t in the "self conscious zone"

7. And finally, allow yourself to be human. Everybody in the audience gives you that courtesy. If you make a mistake, nobody dies (and in most cases, an audience won’t even really notice). Come to terms with the fact that your playing is different when you’re performing, and learn to be OK with that.

One thing that I have found is that in performances, if I can get myself to the relaxed state and I start having fun, then a lot of the issues melt away. And that can become an upward spiral. If I’m relaxed and having fun, then I can start to let the music flow, and get to the point where my playing more closely resembles how I play in less stressful circumstances…

And one last note. I had this same conversation with a very well known player many years ago. I was talking about nerves and I asked the player the last time they actually felt nervous on stage. The answer was "every single time, even to this day". Funny, I was never able to tell that when watching that player perform.

Re: How to get in the "zone" when performing

I’m useless at this. The only thing that helps me at all is the thought that by the time I notice a mistake it has already gone. That makes it easier to see it as of no importance and keep going.

Re: How to get in the "zone" when performing

This may amuse you, but I swear I do this and it works. I started flute as a fan of Ian Anderson, flutist extraordinaire of Jethro Tull. Anderson is as precise with his physicality on stage as his playing. I envision myself as him when I play. The whole picture plays out in my mind’s eye. It takes me outside of myself so that my playing is stronger, more focused and completely unselfconscious. I just lose myself in the pretend. I only do this when I feel anxious or under pressure. It works!

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Re: How to get in the "zone" when performing

Good advice provided.

I would add, record your practice to provide honest feedback.
Perform often ( busking, old people homes, open mic’s… ) in low stress situations.

Then the stress of being on stage becomes less.

Good luck
Pat

Re: How to get in the "zone" when performing

The Reverend said it all. Practice. Practice until you can sing it, play it, feel it until it’s as familiar as Happy Birthday! Then practice it the way you want other people to hear what you play. Pretty soon you’ll incorporate the feeling you have into everything you play. When you can perform a tune like you "mean it", every time, everything else just falls away. An extra benefit is that playing and practicing everything you play gets better. Then relax, you earned it. So what if you make a misteak. Unlike Pluto ( who was totally innocent of any wrongdoing) the universe won’t kick you out of the solar system. The other side of that is that if you find you don’t feel a tune, just knock out the notes, take a serious look at why you’re playing them at all.

I say this as a long time introvert. At first I found that a "costume" , a hat, a shirt, in some cases an entire outfit, really allowed me to step outside of myself and put it out there. Before long I didn’t need it. Yeah it’s hard the first time but you soon learn that what you think is "over the top" is what an audience needs to make them even notice. Oh, and I’ve said this before, I’ll sometimes imagine myself standing in front of an audience and they’re looking me while Im "buck nekkid". If that doesn’t relax you nothing will!

Re: How to get in the "zone" when performing

Great question. I compare it to riding a bicycle at speed and suddenly asking myself what’s keeping me up. Best not to think about it.

Re: How to get in the "zone" when performing

"I’ll sometimes imagine myself standing in front of an audience and they’re looking me while Im "buck nekkid". If that doesn’t relax you nothing will!"

That relaxes you? It’s most people’s worst nightmare.

Re: How to get in the "zone" when performing

I thought it was the other way round: you’re supposed to imagine all the billies ‘bollock* naked’!

*bollock: travelling preacher

Re: How to get in the "zone" when performing

I play much better when I smile. It looks cheesy but it works. You just relax straightaway. Because smiling is something we do as a result of feeling happy - something our body biologically associates with feeling happy - the physical action of smiling has the placebo-like effect of actually making us feel happy. That’s what I find anyway.

Trying to rid yourself of ego also helps. Rather than thinking ‘I’m scared of making a mistake’ or ‘how do i get in the zone?’, think ‘let’s present this cool tune to people because it’s a great tune’.

Always worth starting with the easy stuff too. I’ve noticed that even the amazing virtuoso professionals often do this. They start with something they could play in their sleep, a no-risk piece, so they can warm up, get in the zone.

Re: How to get in the "zone" when performing

Also, remember that rhythm is important and it is also FUN. Audience will enjoy yr performance much more if it has lift and bounce and rhythm than if it is note-perfect but cautious and without any energy. So smile and tap yr foot.

Re: How to get in the "zone" when performing

‘Smile’! Blimey! Most people’s playing face is miserable for some reason. Smiling on the inside I s’poze!

Re: How to get in the "zone" when performing

Personally, I’m not a great fan of "the zone" or "flow". You need to be able to play when your pants are nipping your private areas, when you have a stone in the shoe, when the lights are blazing in your face, when it’s too hot, too cold, you’re on the wrong instrument, someone else’s instrument, the backup reed that isn’t as good, you’re hungry, you’re tired, you’ve just had a blazing row with the guitarist, whatever.

> focusing on something else and letting my fingers and arms do what they have been practicing to do.

Practice focusing on something else. A metronome will do as well as anything (for this purpose). Or put the telly on, with subtitles, and watch it. Try playing and reading a book.

For the most part it’s just concentration, and getting in the habit of concentrating when you practice. Most of us blast through stuff in practice, don’t worry about mistakes, and that habit carries over into performance. Maintaining concentration for extended periods requires practice, and building up. It doesn’t just happen.

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Re: How to get in the "zone" when performing

My question is, how do you know that you are playing better if you’re less conscious of your playing?

I ask this because it seems to be the opposite for me. My playing declines when I get distracted. I don’t feel the rhythm of the music, or my fingers pressing the buttons. I’m not listening to myself intently, or listening to those around me. I’m too distracted and wound-up to relax and be conscious. For me, being in the zone is to cancel out all of the noise and distractions, and explicitly listen to myself, and those around me, being entirely conscious of the music, including my own playing.

Re: How to get in the "zone" when performing

"Channel your "inner diva" when you’re on stage. You belong there. You’re the expert. Your "inner diva" can be somewhat disconnected from your self image. It’s your persona that is on stage, and if the diva makes a mistake, it doesn’t have to reflect directly on you."

Nice, Reverend!

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Re: How to get in the "zone" when performing

Calum has a very good point. After years of training in handling crisis situations I’ve learned that we don’t do what we know to do, what we think we’ll do, we do what we practice. And so it is with the tune. If we don’t practice playing through mistakes (I’m surprised no-one caught my previous joke!) we’ll fall apart when we make one. Conversely if we don’t stop and correct mistakes as we practice the mistake becomes what we do. A conundrum that. Playing when we’re not comfortable can be learned, but only with practice.

And Jerone, (I’m just throwing this thought out here to chew on, no conflict intended) what is "playing better). Is it carefully moving through the notes, in time and perfect pitch, or might it be when we are happily engaged with each other, other players and our audience, freely, if imperfectly, expressing the tune? I don’t have a concrete answer to this, but I think at the moment that totally wrapping myself up in a tune is a kind of lonely place to be. Of course we have to maintain some awareness of what we’re playing and how we’re playing it, or we’d be a musical disaster. But as an audience, I don’t think I can engage with a tune if the player doesn’t engage with me. On your busking adventures are you isolated from or open to the audience? I think that’s one of the reasons performing bands have a "front man" and symphony orchestras have conductors, to engage the audience. For me I suspect that focused practice (even with distractions as Calum suggests) is as important, and necessary for, as fully engaging performance. What is "playing better" and " how do I get there" is a hard, personal question. Good luck my talented friend.

Re: How to get in the "zone" when performing

"… how do you know that you are playing better if you’re less conscious of your playing?

I ask this because it seems to be the opposite for me. My playing declines when I get distracted."

What I regard as ‘the zone’ is not being unconscious (or less conscious) of your playing but a state of heightened consciousness. It is the point where you are so in control of your instrument that it feels effortless, like the instrument is playing *you* as much as you are playing *it*. This means on a certain level, you are less conscious of *the fact that you are playing* but, at the same time, hyper-aware, as observer rather than agent, of every kinaesthetic and acoustic aspect of your playing.

Re: How to get in the "zone" when performing

Ross, I agree, and certainly no conflict was taken. For me, "playing better" means different things in different contexts. In short, it means playing the music as you intend to play it. Playing relaxed when you want to play relaxed. Playing driven when you want to play driven. Playing in a playful and silly way, if you want to play in a playful and silly way. In a session, it means playing in a way that my peers and friends can play along(if I’m leading), and in a way that I’m adding to the music(if I’m following). In the streets, it means playing in a way that can attract and engage an audience. At a dance it means playing in a way that the dancers can keep up, keep time, and feel lifted. These are all personal feelings and thoughts on what I feel works for me. What works for me may not work for someone else, and even worse, be counter-productive for them.

See, for me, I’m not at a skill-level where I can afford to lose a lot of attention. For me, focused means "quiet and relaxed", because that’s my goal. The banter, the wildness, the heat, those are all natural for me. But I feel it’s out of control, and untempered. So my "zone" is being in control, and I feel the way I can get there is by relaxing and winding-down.

On busking: With piano it was easy, because I could afford to be distracted. I could improvise indefinitely while holding a full conversation. I could also change the music on the spot for requests and such. I can’t do that with the concertina, so I’ve had to learn how to do that. Still learning how to. Fortunately, it’s been getting easier, but I still have to stop playing if someone is asking a line of questions.

Re: How to get in the "zone" when performing

For me, it’s not that paying attention to my music is what messes me up (notice that I list focusing on the music as being a way to cope with being too self conscious…) It’s all the other parts of performing that can become the distraction.

These other distractions include thoughts like:

"Oh god, I’m on stage, and everybody is staring at me"
"I hope I don’t look as nervous as I feel"
"I knew I was going to flub that one part, maybe it will go better this time around… damn…"
"Oh, that was a cool variation I just did, I hope I can remember it. Wait… Have I played the A part once or twice already?"
"I just realized that I’m staring at the floor, and my mouth is hanging open"

One of the ways that I try to minimize that kind of self consciousness is to focus on the music - the rhythm, the lift, etc.

So, Jerone, in that way you’re not being less conscious of the music - you’re just being less conscious of all the other stuff that can get in the way of the music, and I think that’s mostly about what this thread is about.

Re: How to get in the "zone" when performing

I completely relate to some of the comments made:

Reverend said: "Oh, that was a cool variation I just did, I hope I can remember it. Wait… Have I played the A part once or twice already?" That happens to me more than I like to admit, and it’s not just for variations. Maybe a certain phrase was so well locked in with my bandmates, I’m stoked then realize we’ve moved on.

Ross said: "If we don’t practice playing through mistakes (I’m surprised no-one caught my previous joke!) we’ll fall apart when we make one. Conversely if we don’t stop and correct mistakes as we practice the mistake becomes what we do." I find this to be a huge point to keep in mind. It was extremely relevant when I was learning a new instrument, as I would frequently stop when practicing to work on new technique. That made it harder to push through mistakes. Now I practice through mistakes, go back and work on specific phrases, then practice through completely again. The best of both worlds.

Re: How to get in the "zone" when performing

A wonderful response Jerone. You are as thoughtful as you are talented. To be clear, I too can go one one one when I’m playing bass and a familiar tune. With everything else I "engage" at a performance level but can’t make conversation. Hat’s off to you!

Re: How to get in the "zone" when performing

Rev, l’m going to parse out your post a bit. What you are talking about is stage fright, and I believe the op is talking about over-thinking the music so that confidence in playing it slips away. What I achieve in the technique I posted earlier is the ability to play what my ear expects to hear rather than think about how I must go about playing it. It’s a combination of being prepared and letting it happen as if you were a member of the audience rather than the player. I do it by playing a movie of a concert in my head, which takes me outside myself, but there are other ways to get there. The objective is to play music like you ride a bicycle. You know what to do, so find a method that allows you to just let it be. My description of what I do is less of a suggestion than it is an example.

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Re: How to get in the "zone" when performing

Thank you Ross for your kind words. The OP asked some good questions and brought up something I’ve had to give a lot of thought to recently, and has been a reoccurring concern of mine over the years. It’s been talked about in the forums too over the years, and some of the points I mentioned were things I learned from other posters.

Re: How to get in the "zone" when performing

What Calum said. Don’t expect that everything will work 100% each time. It won’t. Will suggested (once again!) running before your performance (or was it practice session, or session?). You need to be able to play under the worst circumstances. Which part of your repertoire comes to mind if someone wakes you up in the middle of the night? Which tunes can you play without a warmup?

A paradox is that I perform worse if I’m in charge of the situation and repertoire, say the hypothetical solo gig (as if that would ever happen, haha!) - the focus is on what _I’m_ doing. And I feel more at ease in a session, although I have NO idea of which tunes will be suggested.

(Now, the paradox of the paradox is of course that I perform best in a session with friends AND there’s a common ground, as in shared mentality and repertoire. But still there’s no pressure. The the outsider, such sessions may sound like well-rehearsed gigs, altough nobody present has any idea of what comes next - just a few measures in advance.)

Re: How to get in the "zone" when performing

The idea is to create or recreate some stress and therefor adrenalin in your body, which will happen automatically when your in a stressfull situation, but not before a performance or gig! Befor you practice…… So that you learn to play and how your body feels playing Under stress.
ie under the influence of various naturally produced drugs.
In a Very stressfull situation , the body prepares itself to fight Run or be eaten etc! Seriously! The blood flow to the extremities is reduced so if your arm is being munched on by your local predator, you dont bleed out! Painkillers Flood the body even if your not actually being eaten!! Etc etc etc , you will void the body of extreraneous weight, liquid and solid… hence the proverbial throwing up before a stressfull gig. Butterfly stomach etc.
These things empower you! But if you dont recognise that fact , then they can freak you out.

So work with the bodies natural reactions. Get used to performing , playing , in situations when its not so easy … if you only practice in the same peacefull calm environment, then that is not neccassarily going to translate to a big gig when your audience is important, and maybe critical!
Being in the flow is a well researched field , in sports , and any art form that requires it, like music.
So check out the website that shall not be named 🙂 for books on the subject and practice as you wish to perform.

Re: How to get in the "zone" when performing

If you know your stuff, go on zen autopilot, turn off your mind, relax and float down stream, listen and get in the groove, disconnect and embrace the nyah, play every tune simply and quietly but freshly and without faff. Laugh out collectively at soppy mistakes and musical car wrecks. It’s a Session not personal PERFORMANCE.

Re: How to get in the "zone" when performing

I’m a bit surprised that no-one, including me, has mentioned busking as a way of learning to play through distraction, learning to engage, perform, as opposed to knocking out the notes. To be sure, as a street performer you need to bring your A game, your best material, but it’s a great way to learn how to push yourself and build a presence.

Re: How to get in the "zone" when performing

Practice, practice, practice.

Re: How to get in the "zone" when performing

Did anybody mention keeping the beat? Audiences will hear a kafuffle in the rhythm much more than they will a sour note or two. Call what you did improvising and keep the tune’s groove (can i use that term in ITM?). Don’t play faster than you "ken". Listening music doesn’t have to be played as fast as dance music so you’re less likely to ****up; if you are playing to dancers, they will probably not notice the kafuffle, or tonic imperfections anyway. Even more than in a non dancing situation, a solid rhythm is the important thing.
I hope this makes sense and adds to the discussion.