The destructive power of impatience

path to peak musical performance

A Path to Peak Performance

A path to peak performance requires a clear map of our goals. It also requires knowledge and understanding of the best methods to reach them.

The destructive power of impatience cannot be underestimated in the process of attaining goals. Yet it is common in our modern, hurried world.

We all face deadlines, tests, performances, job pressure, peer pressure, family responsibilities, or accidents, which push us to cut corners as we reach for goals. Everyone occasionally feels impatient with someone else, or has felt the impatience of someone else pushing us to do something faster than we are able. Fear also motivates many, sadly. Fear of loss of job, of failure, letting someone down, fear of an unknown future. Fear creates anxious pressure to perform, to survive at all costs.

With musicians, impatience is usually self-inflicted, and can become compulsive behavior.

Tending to be highly self-motivated and driven to perfection, most successful musicians commit incredible focus and time toward attaining peak performance. It is only natural to become frustrated or even angry at oneself along the way, or to become lost in some misguided effort to reach a goal using methods which do not work for you.

Additionally, by misusing the body, a player becomes progressively less aware of its danger signals. Over time a performer may grow accustomed to their misuse, barely noticing discomfort, which may then accumulate and cause damage for years.

The problem is magnified when a player attempts to succeed on their own. Each player has unique weaknesses in technique, concentration or breathing; and each requires unique solutions. A teacher may or may not be able to help, especially if he or she has not suffered similar weakness. The student is then left with the generic answer, "Figure it out on your own". Moreover, a young, recently graduated performer may lose their way after relying on teachers' guidance for years.

Ultimately, no musician is immune to misuse of their bodies. As they struggle through complex scores, barely avoiding the numerous mine fields of technical challenges, intonation and rhythm, a player can build a mighty array of subtle, or not so subtle, tensions held in their bodies. Beyond responsibility for their own parts, a performer in a larger ensemble such as an orchestra may be required to constantly adjust to the variable efforts of other players involved, including the whims and directions of the conductor!

“Get ‘er done!” is not a joke for a struggling performer. It's a survival strategy. As the saying goes, “The show must go on!”

However, a strategy of such forced compliance rarely succeeds in the long run, especially if the musician unwittingly brings those pressures home and/or embodies them constantly.

But problems may not be immediately apparent. Younger people are physically more resilient. Many musicians may go through much of their careers without facing urgent enough symptoms to merit serious consideration. For others, the resulting symptoms of misuse may come too late. For example, some clarinetists may become hunched and crippled later in life, a symptom of long-term misuse.

Surely, the majority of successful musicians use their bodies with adequate quality. After all, they succeed by doing something right! But many, including myself, stray from the most sustainable and efficient path, due to any combination of injury, surgery, illness, anxiety, depression or just chronic, unnoticed excess tension. Even young students, struggling to survive in highly competitive music schools, are not immune to excessive misuse and the resulting damages.

Back to impatience. Impatience is an insidious form of "end-gaining" ("end justifies means" behavior and thinking).

Impatience with ourselves encourages sloppy "short cuts", which, though they may not fail all the time, usually result in physical "payback" at some point. And if a person impatiently cuts corners for a lifetime, whether at age 25 or 75, they may require an equivalent span of time to rebuild (reinvent? rediscover?) a sensible and coordinated Use of the Self.

Using your Self in an efficient and sustainable (and patient) way is called "means-whereby".

Yet impatience may have merits, if motivation arises as an extension of good use, both physically and mentally, including staying focused on goals. However, this brand of healthy "impatience" is better described by another Alexander Technique word: Direction.

Direction is not separable from use of your Self (with a capital S, meaning the whole body/mind/alertness unit, not just direction of head and neck). Direction is the physically/mentally focused Use of the Self. It indicates alertness and poise of mind and body.

When long term goals, with their ancillary schedules and stresses, are grounded in physical poise and processed by continuous high quality awareness and alertness (Use), a player will clearly see the best paths to attaining their own unique goals, or, if necessary, to solving their own deeply embedded weaknesses.

Outside guidance certainly helps. But the adult player rarely has such luxury, or has missed the luck of the lot in finding the right teachers. What then?

Whether you are a recently graduated student, a young professional who has a job, or a seasoned performer needing a "tune up", the skills needed to achieve your goals begin with good Use of the Self.

This Use of the Self skill can be categorized in terms of its inseparable parts; including physical use, mental use and direction in use, all of which require a steady and directed skill of patience. As these skills are embodied and employed, the player will notice an ability to discern the most sustainable and efficient path to reach their own unique peak of performance.

Sustainability is a key quality toward reaching peak level playing, for it guides us toward poised resilience, along with comfortable effort and consciously improved consistency. Sustainability informs the pinnacle qualities we seek in every breath, in every phrase, in every gesture we use to express our Selves musically.

Sustaining high level playing also requires efficiency, another key to peak performance. Efficiency directs our practice toward clarity and focus, and by default, toward greater productivity.

These skills of sustainability and efficiency guide each musician to the best and most effective methods to achieve peak performance, including playing difficult passages effortlessly, controlling one's breath delicately, and phrasing with conviction.

And now we revisit the gremlin of impatience. Impatience ultimately leads to misuse, and also to blindness of that misuse. Impatient "end gaining" ignores the signals of the body in favor of results at all costs. Impatience chips away at the stability of your whole Self. It obfuscates your view of the best path to Your Peak. (a capitalized "Your" goes beyond mental and physical direction, and includes sorting through the stark reality of all your emotions, facing your fears, anxieties, depressions, fatigue, etc.)

Seeking the path to peak performance requires efficient and sustainable Use of Your Self. Impatience is its antithesis.

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