Sunday, March 20, 2011

Learning How Not To Choke

Anyone who reads my blog with any regularity knows that when I travel, I usually have some remarks about or as a result of the books that I read while flying. Today is no different as I just completed a two-leg trip to Kansas City for the Annual National Conference of the American String Teachers Association. My reading material for today was a great little book entitled, "Choke" by Sian Beilock. It is a really interesting read that discusses "what the secrets of the brain reveal about getting it right when you have to." In the book, she discusses performance and the act of "choking" on the athletic field, the classroom, testing environment, the concert hall, and other everyday situations. But, obviously, I was hoping to pick up some ideas surrounding musical performance specifically both for me and for my students. In reality, I found exactly what I was hoping for and found some great tips and information that should be very timely and applicable for my students, not only in the musical area, but in the classroom as well.

I have definitely noticed that I can't always predict when my nerves will get the best of me in a performance. But, I have seen a trend in recent years of being more nervous for performances that are local and in situations where I REALLY want to do well or inspire the folks that are in the audience. If I don't know the audience, I am much less likely to get nervous and "choke." Just last weekend, I was playing at a funeral for the father of a musician for whom I have tremendous professional and personal respect. In one of the pieces I was playing, which incidentally wasn't that difficult, I managed to "gack" a note in a tricky little shift not so much because it was difficult, but because I was telling myself NOT to mess it up. I had, in fact, choked. I messed up something that I have done perfectly a thousand times in the midst of a pressure filled situation. I messed up when it mattered most. I choked. Haven't we all choked at one point or another? We have all fumbled over words when asking someone out for the first time, missed the easy ground ball, squeaked on the clarinet solo in band, bombed a test, or some other variation the theme. It is a universal problem. But, some folks are more likely to choke than others. What causes the choke? How can we avoid or overcome the choke?

The book is based on a great deal of research and is very well-written. I found several sections of the book to be applicable to my life as a musician and public speaker and will certainly use many of the techniques that Beilock recommends for avoiding the "choke."

Having said that, the section that I found most interesting was on the topic of worrying. Beilock explains that when we allow worrisome thoughts to flood our brain, they take up so much of our working memory (our ability to work with information- regardless of what that information is, or, our general-capacity horsepower) resources, that our performance in any task can suffer tremendously. I guess that is not really a big surprise. But, check this out: even when the pressure filled situation subsides, it takes a while for our working memory resources to get back to normal.

Worries can really crush us. I know that I often will wake up in the middle of the night with an onslaught of worries. Thoughts of tasks that are undone at work, concerns about my children, projects that I am working, upcoming trips and presentations, and a variety of other things can cause me a tremendous amount of worry. I have always wondered how I could combat this.

Beilock gives a number of suggestions to combat worrying and I won't list them all here. For that you will need to buy the book. However, the one suggestion that she gives really resonated with me: write about your worries. She explains that taking the time to write about your worries gives your brain the opportunity to confront the worrisome situations and the act of written disclosure serves to lessen worrisome thoughts. I find this fascinating and intend to apply this to my own life and situation. I have often gotten up in the middle of the night to make lists or to write down the tasks that I am worrying about, but I have never written about the worries themselves.

For musicians, athletes, and academics, there is a great deal of highly applicable information in this book. I recommend it highly. For me students, this is a really thought-provoking book. I believe that it has relevance to your lives as musicians and as scholars. I hope that you will take some time to consider some of the suggestions on choke avoidance.

For now, perform with confidence and I hope that you don't choke!!



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