Stages in Musical Performance

May 1, 2000

This winter I spent several weekends by myself at our beach house on St. George Island in the Gulf of Mexico. As my mind reflected on Hemingway's love of ocean and shore, I wished I could write like him. I did find my weekend hermitages to be wonderful opportunities to get work done, however, such as writing "The President's Comments" and other articles. As I was walking along the beach the day before the Super Bowl (while many of you were perhaps digging out of a big snowstorm), I said to myself: "I have nothing more to say; my mind is blank." "I have not yet written about religion or politics," I thought—and although I have some interesting stories and ideas about both of those topics—I'm not interested in writing about them. The blank feeling soon gave way to thinking, and eventually lead to a couple of ideas—perhaps the panacea of salt air and a winter sunset at work.

First I asked myself, "What is unique about CMS members? What is it besides college and university teaching that binds us together"? Beyond the usual things that I have mentioned in my previous "Comments," such as communicating, disseminating our knowledge, sharing our enthusiasm for music, and perhaps a few others, I pondered on whether or not it might be performance. I wonder if all of us don't get some particular enjoyment and/or benefit from performing music? I thought about some of our past presidents and current and past board and committee members, many of whom are fine performers. Even the composers and administrators perform, I thought. So I decided to devote this issue's comments to several ideas I have about performance—concepts (stages) that have been important to me because I have been a performer all my life.

Stage Fright and Biofeedback

The concept of stage fright is often a topic of interest, especially as I talk to young college and university students who perform. I don't ever recall having stage fright myself, and it may be because I am able to focus on my performance and defocus on everything around me, such as the audience, the place, and the situation. I learned about the concept of defocusing on nonessential things while focusing on a particular action as a participant in a summer workshop in biofeedback in 1977 (that was probably the dark ages of brain wave research). My reasons for getting involved in the workshop given by the Psychology Department at The Florida State University were two: (1) I was hoping to cure a neck problem that I thought was psychological (and in 1998 I learned that the cause of my problem was my many years of playing flute) and (2) I was hoping to find a portable alpha brain wave monitor that I could take into the field so I could measure the trance states of Warao shaman singers in Venezuela. While those hopes were not fulfilled, I did learn how to control my own alpha wave production through the concept of focusing on a particular phenomenon while defocusing on others. I learned about the physical (electro-physiological activity of the brain) and scientific (electro-encephalographic [EEG] measuring onto an oscillograph) aspects that have direct relationship to learning about musical performance and stage fright.

Since that summer, three books entitled The Inner Game of Music by Barry Green (1986), The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey (2nd ed. 1997), and The Inner Game of Work by Gallwey (1999), have been published that deal with what can be called the Zen approach to those activities. Indeed, Zen Buddhist meditation and musical performance without stage fright have much in common—both apply the concept of focusing on a particular phenomenon while defocusing on others. This concept, which I have given such a cumbersome name, is nothing more than extreme concentration. It is also meditation. As a performer, it is logical to do the former; it is also logical to strive for the latter. Meditation while performing usually occurs when playing by memory, either with eyes closed or by staring into space. I think it can also occur when reading music, especially when the notation functions as a memory aid.

My favorite story relating to my 1977 biofeedback study is about the day when I was wired up with electrodes attached to my forehead and I played a traditional honkyoku (original music) piece on my shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute). The psychology teachers had never seen so much alpha brain wave activity registering on the oscilloscope. It was not the Buddhist-derived music that caused this, however (as everybody thought); the same results occurred when I played Debussy's Syrinx on my Western flute. I had played both pieces by memory with my eyes closed, and I was simply focusing on a particular phenomenon (the music) while defocusing on others (the audience, the electrodes, and so forth). The next section relates to some of those other phenomenathings that may detract from one's ability to focus on the music.

Bimusical Participartory Reflection

This is a term I coined to describe the concept of self reflection (through writing) about one's own performances of the music of foreign culture. Mantle Hood coined the term "bimusical" to explain the process of knowing the music of a foreign culture as well as you know your own music. It is akin to being bilingual.

Ethnomusicologists often write their feelings about events, people, and themselves in fieldnotes, diaries, or journals. In my particular case, as a non-Japanese person playing the shakuhachi in concerts or rehearsals for people of Japanese heritage living in South America, I found much to be self-reflective about.

One instance comes to mind that relates to the topic of stage fright. The musical event was my performance during the annual "Peru Kôhaku Uta Gassen" (Peruvian Japanese Song Competition between Red [women] and White [men] Teams) in Lima, which took place in the evening of June 30, 1996, in the Teatro Peruano Japonés. There were about two thousand people in the audience. This is what I wrote that evening, as I reflected on my performance:

The microphone placement looked adequate, but different than I am used to—straight on, rather than to the side (it could pick up too many overtones, I thought). I began to play "Shika no Tône" [The Distant Cry of the Deer]. I was free to back away from the microphone for the high notes and the "muraiki" (explosive) effects, but I had constant thoughts about the sound and even thoughts that maybe the soundman behind the board was getting frustrated because I would back away at fortissimo points in the music and move closer for pianissimo passages. These thoughts were not allowing me to get into the performance, and honkyoku requires a Zen-like detachment from everything except the process (a transcendental attitude). Certainly the blinding spotlight was not making it possible for me to see the several thousand people in the theater, and furthermore, I had my eyes closed. But, that blankety-blank microphone! "Play! Forget the microphone!" I thought. About one-third into "Shika no T^ne," the emptiness came and I was absorbed in the music. "Re-Ro" (the last two notes) and the piece was finished. I bowed, held up the shakuhachi, and bowed again, seeing no one.

What I find interesting, as I reread these fieldnotes, are the many things I was thinking about during my performance, rather than concentrating on the music. While I would not call this stage fright, it was definitely "stage concern." Whatever you want to call it, its presence as a prolonged attitude would most likely affect the performance.

We, as performers, share similar experiences, and we probably all have ideas about stage fright and how to overcome it. Through The College Music Society, its publications, workshops, annual meetings, and other areas of outreach, we have many stages upon which to share our ideas. Let's not be frightened to do so. If you have insights about similar phenomena as a performer (or anything else as a musician), share them with CMS members by submitting an essay to the Newsletter. This is your forum, and we can learn from one another.

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