Nick’s teaching is deep. Depending on your background it may seem very odd, or it may be exactly what you’ve been desperate to hear someone put clearly into words.
His successful techniques are rooted in long-standing spiritual traditions yet there’s no dogma or belief system required to benefit from these ideas. Nick brings it all home to roost with practical ways to shift your mindset and successfully achieve the musical levels you desire.
For example we talk about:
- Why most musicians never feel fully settled or at home in their musical lives or identity as a musician, and how that relates to performance anxiety and impostor syndrome.
- The “elephant in the room” when it comes to modern performance psychology – and what the alternative is.
- Two unorthodox but effective ways to flip how you approach music practice – and, unlike some of what you may have heard on this show in the past, this is not about “enjoying practice more.”
The lessons in this episode can positively affect not just your musicality and musical potential, but your life and potential in general. That’s why we’re so excited to share this with you. Enjoy!
Watch the episode:
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Nick: Hi, I’m Nick Bottini, author of Just Play: The Simple Truth Behind Musical Excellence, and this is Musicality Now.
Christopher: Welcome to the show Nick, thank you for joining us today.
Nick: Hi Christopher. It’s great to be here.
Christopher: So, you had a line on your website that really jumped out at me, and I think summarizes what we’re going to be talking about today, which was, “I help people discover their full potential by understanding the mind.” And here on Musicality Now and at Musical U, in general, we are all about helping musicians achieve their full potential. You have some really fascinating insights and a different way of thinking about a lot of the performance and psychology concepts musicians are grappling with, so I’m excited to dive into this with you today. But I do want to start out with a bit about your own story and how you got started in music, and in particular, what did learning music look like for you?
Nick: I came from a family where music was encouraged, and I started playing the violin at the age of nine. Did quite nicely. It became my little party trick for my family and yeah, I really enjoyed playing violin and went through the grade system in the UK. I was lucky to be involved in a really thriving music department where classical music and jazz were part of the scene. Later along the line I also got involved in playing saxophone, which is a slightly weird combination of instruments, but a combination that I ended up playing nevertheless. It was a big part of my school life, I guess, and went on tours with various different groups at school and so it was a big part of my social development at school. Yeah, it was fun.
Christopher: And you mentioned jazz was part of the picture there, was it free, creative, expressive music making? Was it sheet music focused? Were you doing exam grades and learning repertoire? What kind of music learning were you doing?
Nick: The jazz stuff was improvisation of 12-Bar Blues and standards and sort of funky tunes and stuff, so I definitely learnt to improvise and copy the styles of other players as well.
Christopher: And you went on to study music at a fairly high level, in fact after that, focusing on violin?
Nick: Yes, yeah. I studied violin in the UK and in Germany as a violinist at the Franz Liszt Hochschule für Musik, in Weimar and at Leeds University, and in Manchester as well with some of the string teachers there.
Christopher: Gotcha, and I don’t know if you can think back this far and put yourself back in that mindset, but I’m always curious to know, for people who are on that career trajectory, how were you thinking about your own musicality, your own natural ability, your own potential in music? Were you feeling, you know, “Yes, this is for me, I’ve got what it takes, I’m going to take on the world,” were you, tell me. I won’t put words in your mouth.
Nick: It’s a really fascinating question and, you know, reflecting on it, it’s something that I realize now that has changed. It’s constantly been a very variable thing and I would say that that’s the case for every single musician, you know? When I first started playing the violin, I felt frightfully proud of the fact that I could produce this music and I was the only person in my family that could play the violin. But as I went through the different stages of musical study, I realized that actually, there were some other musicians who were more skilled than me, or there were certain things that other people could do that I couldn’t do. And so there’s so many different insecurities and as I became more, I guess, serious about playing violin, I also, because I was practicing for a number of hours a day, then had an overuse problem with my shoulder and that kind of became an inner battle that I felt I needed to fight.
Nick: So there’s a whole load of thinking about how I should be as a musician, how I should be feeling relaxed, I should be feeling comfortable. So a kind of emotional roller coaster I think is probably the truth of how it felt. Sometimes very good, sometimes very reflective and self deprecating, you know?
Christopher: Interesting. And it sounds like at this point you’re able to look back and be quite conscious of all of that mental stuff that was going on. Was that something you were aware of at the time? Were you kind of consciously trying to manage that mindset and that sense of self as you learned?
Nick: I think I was aware that something wasn’t quite right. I had a sense that there were some musicians who seemed very comfortable, and I noticed that I didn’t seem quite so comfortable, both physically and psychologically, I guess. So I was aware in as much as I maybe noticed that I wasn’t as comfortable as I maybe could be, but I didn’t know how to do anything about it, or didn’t understand what was causing that discomfort. And didn’t really want to talk about it, probably because it felt like it would have opened up a can of worms, you know, I felt I wasn’t good enough or what have you. I’m sure, like many musicians.
Christopher: Yeah, I know a lot of people in our audience, including myself can relate to that, and we’re here today to really open that can of worms because you’ve actually-
Nick: It’s what I do.
Christopher: Exactly. This is your area of expertise.
Christopher: I’d love if we could just broaden out for a moment, from your own story, to talking generally about these kinds of emotional and psychological issues that many musicians, many people in general, encounter and what the symptoms might be that the work you do in performance psychology can maybe assist with?
Nick: I think that it’s very common, or what I observe among musicians is that they may have a degree of skill, no matter how rudimentary that is or advanced it is, but they often don’t feel settled in some way in the way that they’re showing up, in the way that they’re expressing their own musicality. They feel that there’s more that they can give. They feel that there’s something getting in the way. And that manifests in all kind of different ways.
Nick: It might be something that they might call performance anxiety, or it might be that they feel uncomfortable calling themselves a musician at all, or calling themselves a professional musician. You know, so they’re happy being a hobbyist, but making that transition and saying, “Do you know what? I want to make a career of this.” Or saying that they compete on an even footing with someone that calls them self a professional musician. So kind of like what you might call impostor syndrome. Those are very common, I guess, issues if you want to call them that.
Christopher: Yeah, and that impostor syndrome is something that’s come up on the show a few times because I know how common it is, and how helpful it can be to know it’s a thing. You know, these are not thoughts you’re having because you are genuinely insufficient and inadequate. It’s a psychological phenomenon that all of us, to some extent, will experience. And in your book you talk about how this can come through, as you say, in performance anxiety and also even just fear of sounding bad during practice, right?
Nick: Yeah, absolutely. As musicians, I certainly was sort of trained into the idea that you must sound good, and even tolerating for a single moment sounding bad meant that you somehow don’t have the ears for it that you should have, you know? For a number of reasons that can be a really, I don’t know, a bad place to start say, improvising, because you need to be prepared to take risks. There needs to be a part of you that needs to be able just to let go and make some sound and not be too fearful about whether it sounds perfect or doesn’t sound perfect.
Christopher: In the past on this show, we’ve touched on this area and talked mostly about the kind of scientific research on performance psychology, and things like flow and deliberate practice, and some kind of neurolinguistic or cognitive behavioral therapy type approaches to managing your thoughts. We’ve had a couple of interviews also, or episodes, that focus on mindfulness and how that can also help you become aware of these thoughts. You actually take this all in a very specific and different direction, which is why I’m so eager to talk to you today, and before we talk about that, let’s just pick up on your story. You’ve mentioned you had a pain in your shoulder, and you talk in your book, Just Play, about how that actually led to a bit of an epiphany in terms of what the mind is capable of. Could you share that story?
Nick: Yeah. So I went to a prom concert one summer. This was the year that I had been studying in a German music college and had been probably playing for five, six hours a day, but had been in quite severe pain from my overuse problem that I was struggling with as a student. Over the summer I took a break from playing because I felt that my body needed to repair. I went to the prom concert to see Maxim Vengerov play Lalo: Symphonie Espagnole, big violin concerto, was very excited about seeing this world class violinist and I hadn’t been playing the violin for probably several weeks at that point, I’d been having a rest. But as the concert unfolded, I noticed myself experiencing the same kind of pain that I would have been experiencing had I been playing the violin.
Nick: So I went from walking into the concert hall, not really thinking about my body, not even thinking that I had a body, but walking in, and then as the concerto unfolded my mind was, I don’t know, running around with all sorts of thoughts, imagining what it would be like to be playing the violin right there, thinking about my own playing ability and all that kind of thing. Halfway through the concerto I found myself sort of knotted up and quite painful, you know? Which I found very, very annoying at the time. It was like, “Am I really so messed up that I don’t even need to play the violin to be in this kind of pain?”
Nick: But then I realized actually the implications for that because what it showed me was that if I can walk into a concert hall with one experience of my body and then a series of thoughts later, I have a completely different experience of my body, it must mean that my whole experience of my physicality is an experience. It’s thought. It’s thought up. It’s a creation that takes place within, you know? It’s a very realistic experience, and it’s very vivid and it’s important to be able to have, but what I noticed, I guess, was that there was a gap between the details of how I was experiencing my body and the fact that I was experiencing it. In other words, that there was a space, there was a place that wasn’t really touched by my pain. The ability to experience the physical wasn’t touched by the details of what I was experiencing so there was freedom that I hadn’t realized I had access to physically because I realized I was more than just a body.
Nick: That might sound terribly hippy and maybe a little bit woo-woo but it felt very, very liberating because I’d always thought that if I was in pain, it meant that something was broken or, if I didn’t feel like I was okay, that meant that I wasn’t okay. And it seemed like that moment was particularly impactful because it didn’t make sense anymore.
Christopher: That’s fascinating and it reminds me a little bit of the idea from Buddhist mindfulness meditation that, “You are not your thoughts. You are the thinker of your thoughts.” And it sounds like a pithy little idea and I think, probably when I first encountered that I just dismissed it. But when you really sit with it, or you read material that kind of talks you through the implications of that and encourages you to practice experiencing that, you realize that as you say, there’s a gap.
Christopher: You know, you’ve been lost in this world where you identify, “I am all of my thoughts. I am, like that’s all there is.” Just stepping back and being like, “Okay, well if I’m observing my thoughts then I must be something separate from them.”
Christopher: It sounds like you had that same kind of experience with the physical world where it was, “I’m not my body. I’m not the fact that I’m in pain. I’m able to step back and observe that as something that’s happening, and even create that pain in this case.”
Nick: Well, that’s the thing, you know, in those times when someone describes that they have like a flow experience, or they’re in the zone, you know, people say that they lose themselves or that their sense of self sort of dissolves and I guess it’s another way of saying the same sort of thing. That the idea that we’re a body, the idea that we are that physicality is a thought, is a perception.
Nick: I know it’s a very fundamental thought but if we realize that that perception of this physical character is so variable, moment to moment to moment, and that it’s being created within, there’s a whole lot of freedom there. There’s no need to kind of protect it anymore because it’s not a fixed thing, it’s a very dynamic transient thing. But the awareness of it is timeless, is very stable.
Christopher: I want to circle back to that idea of flow in due course because that’s kind of one of the hot topics among musicians who are asking themselves, “How can I enjoy practice more, and get more out of it?” And you have an interesting perspective on that.
Christopher: But this epiphany led to some exploration and ultimately kind of challenging the trajectory performance psychology has been on when it comes to the scientific research and the popular understanding of, “How do we become the best we can be?” You talk in your book about paradigm shifts and there being a kind of elephant in the room when it comes to the understanding of psychology, could you share that perspective?
Nick: Yeah. I might get into trouble now.
Christopher: Go for it.
Nick: If we’re brutally honest, and I mean, the scientific community and the musical community, if we’re brutally honest with ourselves there’s too much that psychology doesn’t know about how the mind works. If we’re really honest there are conflicting theories about what’s going on, you know? There’s originally back when psychology was a fairly new field, you know, psyche-ology was the study of the soul, or the spirit. Then gradually as we feel that we’ve got more scientific, then it’s become more and more about sort of neuroscience and biology.
Nick: But yet, there’s no clear, as it stands at the moment, among those people that think that the mind is a biological thing, there’s no proof to take us from the biological functions to how those biological functions create a lived, felt, sort of spiritual experience or the experience of what it’s actually like to be this living entity that we know that we are. So there’s this gap that it’s referred to as the hard problem of consciousness.
Nick: There’s also kind of a crisis within psychology as well, the replication crisis, which means that when famous psychological research parameters are reapplied, the same results can’t be generated again. I can’t remember what the statistics are like, but the chances of being able to get the same results are quite low in psychology compared to some of the other sciences.
Nick: So if we’re brutally honest, although there’s some fabulously intelligent people and wonderful explorations and theorizing going on, there’s not consensus about how the mind works at all. It’s still relatively early days in that. I guess that’s what I would call the elephant in the room, is that although there’s seemingly established pillars when people talk about the triggers that get people into a certain state of mind. Like, there’s lots of work that’s gone into studying the flow state, as if the flow state is a particular place to get to. But it’s difficult for the field to definitely say that certain actions cause a state of mind. We just don’t know that.
Nick: There’s correlation and there’s causation and from what I can tell in the psychological studies that I’ve read, the scientists themselves don’t directly say that there is a causative link, but yet it gets kind of reported in the media, or it gets reported by musicians or teachers as if there is a causative link. So that if you do this practice, you will get into the flow state. Or you will have this certain experience and that’s not what anybody’s actually observed. If you trace it back to the actual research, it’s not established, which is a bit of pickle because many of us are talking as if we know for a fact of how to get into a certain state of mind. Or even that it’s better to be in a certain state of mind to perform in than another one, and again, there’s not evidence for that either.
Christopher: That’s so fascinating isn’t it? I know that for me, reading your book, it really hammered home that point because I think I, like a lot of people in society, and I’m sure a lot of listeners and viewers of this show, we haven’t really studied psychology as a science. We’re not really psychologists and so we get these kind of news media ideas or prominent bloggers or authors even, writing about these ideas. And we can kind of see, “Okay, that’s cool,” and in our head we’re like, “This is science, therefore I should trust it. And these are the big ideas in the science of psychology at the moment, therefore they must be right.”
Christopher: But as you talk about in your book, like the fact that we classify it as a science doesn’t mean it’s really established and we really understand the laws, and we really have a firm basis for our hypotheses and tests. I think you make a very compelling case that, as much good as there may be in the field of psychology, and as it applies to musicians, we should definitely take it with a bit of a pinch of salt because we’re at a stage of the evolution of that understanding that means we’re still really figuring out some of the very basics, right?
Nick: Absolutely. I mean, one of the things that I point to in the book is that other sciences have well established laws that are non-negotiables that everybody builds the whole field on and that’s not the case for psychology, you know, in the same way that physics has the laws of gravity. Or the work that Einstein did, you know, there are formulas that apply all of the time but yet mainstream psychology at least doesn’t have a set of laws or principles that underpin or explain what gives rise to our feelings or what gives rise to our experience.
Nick: So that gap that I was talking about that was called the hard problem of consciousness, explaining how it gets from biology to experience, it’s only a problem because they’re starting from the wrong place. This is the way that it looks to me is that they’re starting in the wrong place. They’re starting with biology and trying to get to consciousness and trying to get to the experience rather than starting with the experience itself and that’s the flip. That’s the distinction I guess that is the basis for the work I do with musicians and the basis for the transformation of a field that has helped me as a musician too.
Christopher: And so, let’s dive into that. What is the right way to think about all this and to get to some kind of practical implications for our musical lives if it’s not this field of performance psychology and the scientific literature, and trying to be very biological and neurological about our understanding of how to manage ourselves, how to approach the world? What’s the alternative?
Nick: Let me first say that I suppose I’m not wanting to completely negate the whole of performance psychology because there is some outstanding work and there is some really great questions being asked, so I don’t want to tar the whole field, but I do invite people to be curious about the foundations that it’s built on because the foundations are shaky.
Nick: I think the key thing is that if, as a musician, if we overlook the fact that we are constantly having an experience, and by experience I mean a felt experience. You know, what we’re hearing, what we’re feeling, what we’re seeing, what we’re imagining, what we’re thinking about. If we don’t notice the fact that we are constantly thinking, constantly having experience, constantly creating our own experience, then we, even subtly, we get it into our minds that there are, there’s this external world that can make me feel a certain way.
Nick: And this is so fundamental that most people don’t even stop to consider that this could be a thing. But I’m talking about something, you know, if it’s performance anxiety, even that phrase has got a misunderstanding embedded in it because it sounds like there is this separate state called performance, which is definitely a real separate thing that happens. So you can’t be in the same state of mind when you’re practicing as when you’re performing. They have to be different. It kind of implies it’s a separate, distinct activity. And that there’s this experience called anxiety and the anxiety seems to be coming from this thing called performance. But the thing called performance is a thought, it’s kind of a categorization in our mind. And this thing called anxiety is a thought, is a kind of, I guess like resistance to the fact that we’re feeling a little bit out of sorts and we don’t like that. It shouldn’t be that way.
Nick: We don’t notice the fact that all those feelings that are occurring within us. They’re not given to us by the performance or they’re not given to us by our personality or something. They are creations. Moment to moment they’re being created. If we overlook the fact that we are the epicenter of where all that creation is taking place, then we think that we’re victims of circumstance, or we think we’re victims of not having a good enough training, or we’re victims of our history, or we’re victims of what might happen in the future. And those are thoughts. They’re creations that we are part of.
Nick: Most people, to a greater or lesser extent, they miss the fact that the problem that they think they’re experiencing is being created by them. I don’t mean deliberately. It’s not anybody’s fault, but it’s just how the human experience works. It’s just how the musical experience works. It’s an inside creation.
Christopher: Absolutely, and I’m keen to hang on to you after the interview end and do a little book club because I think we’ve probably read a lot of the same impactful books that help with this kind of thing.
Christopher: For me I know that one thing that, you know, it’s no exaggeration to say it transformed my experience of life, was an idea in a book by Michael Singer, talking about the fact that your emotions come from within you and when something happens and makes you feel angry, it’s not that that thing has made you feel angry. It hasn’t created anger in you. There is some anger in you and that thing has triggered it.
Christopher: That just flips your concept completely or how to relate to the world as you described there, you know, instead of thinking, “I am at the mercy of this terrible world and anything could happen. I am prone to performance anxiety, I am going to behave and react in a certain way if I’m in that situation.” Suddenly you realize, “Actually, I have total responsibility and total control to whatever extent I choose in terms of how I respond and react and how I feel in any given situation.”
Nick: Absolutely. There’s so much more freedom there than most of us stop to even consider. But it’s well worth considering it. I think that’s the thing that I can’t emphasize enough. It seems so fundamental how our mind works and how feelings work, why we feel a certain way but that’s the foundation that behavior is then built, or a career is then built on, or a musical skill-set is built on. If that foundation isn’t built on anything that’s solid, or you know, isn’t made of anything solid then we’ll be laboring in a superstitious way to some extent and we need to kind of not take that out but be aware of the fact that we can be prone to superstitious behavior.
Christopher: Awesome. So you mentioned the word superstition there and I know that if I remember myself 10 years ago, I was ultra sensitive and resistant to anything woo-woo. Like anything spiritual, except like, the clear Catholic upbringing I’d had. To be honest I was very skeptical of philosophy as a whole because it just seemed so wishy-washy compared to the kind of hard sciences like physics that I’d studied, and I’m sure that there are some people in our audience who can relate to that and are thinking, “Okay, that all sounds interesting conceptually but does it work? Does it help us at all?”
Christopher: So I wonder if we can take these concepts and really talk about the nitty gritty specifics or you know, your average adult musician who’s practicing for half an hour evenings and weekends, they love their instrument, and they really want to become the best they can be. They really want to understand how to practice and how to approach their practice to enjoy it and get the most out of it. How do all of these ideas apply?
Nick: Yeah, that’s a really good question. I guess that there’s so many different directions that a musician might need to be sort of nudged in to help them develop, but I’m imagining say, an adult, a beginner or an amateur who has achieved some level of musical skill but they want to get to the next level of performance. And unknowingly there’s a whole felt experience taking place. So they might be practicing their scales, or they might have been told by a teacher to practice scales and maybe their intonation is not quite what it could be. Or their sense of time’s not quite what it could be. And when they’re practicing in a practice session, they might have a feeling of boredom come up. Or they might have a feeling of like, “It’s a bit too obsessive. I’ve got a life outside playing the violin and really I just want to do my bit of practice and get better,” without realizing that in that moment there’s a sort of infinite depth of detail of awareness that they could hear in a single note or in the way that two notes connect to each other.
Nick: And if we were to really get granular, if someone feels that they have this sense of boredom or they have this sense of, “Oh, I’m being too obsessive about my intonation, it’s not worth spending half an hour making sure my F sharp is really properly an F sharp.” Which I’ve kind of been there. I had some rather heated arguments with teachers about making sure the intonation is really properly in tune. If there’s that feeling of boredom or that they’re being too obsessive and they take that feeling as an instruction that, “I’m feeling bored, therefore I should stop practicing.” Or, “I’m bored, therefore that means that this isn’t the right practice for me,” then that’s a misunderstanding because if we know that any feeling, any experience in the moment is a creation then it means that boredom is telling you about the fact that boredom is being created. It’s not telling you about the actual task at hand and what needs to be done, you know?
Nick: There’s kind of these surface level feelings that we have and there’s, like you said, there’s this more sort of fundamental like bigger picture desire to improve what we need to do. And sometimes we’re afraid, and I mean me in my own practice still, sometimes I’m afraid of going into the kind of depth that I need to go into, based on how I’m feeling in a particular moment. But when I don’t take those feelings quite so seriously and I guess like, pour myself into the moment, you know so, “Is that in tune? Or I’m curious about whether that could be slightly more beautiful tone, how do I make a beautiful tone?” And kind of pouring myself into the moment of making music, that’s a very different experience to thinking, “Oh, I’ve done my fill of practice. I’m feeling bored so I need to move on.” Or, “I like playing fast and it makes me feel good when I play fast so that means I should do more of what makes me feel good in a practice session.”
Nick: What we don’t want to be is completely controlled by feeling good, or not feeling good. Or feeling motivated or not feeling motivated. I guess, being present with the instrument or being present with the people you’re making the music with and doing the job at hand. I know it sounds very, very simple, but if we’re confused by what our feelings mean, we’re sort of prone to take these tangents and it wastes time. It wastes effort because we’re basically sort of fortifying this idea, we’ve got to make ourselves, we can’t be too bored or we can’t be too obsessive or we can’t be, like we’re saying about sounding bad, “If I feel bad because I play badly, that’s a sign I’m practicing badly.” It’s just not true.
Christopher: Absolutely, and if I may, I think one of the common reasons too to, “I’m feeling bored or frustrated,” isn’t just resentment of the practice regime I’ve been trying to do, it’s also, “I’m not good as a musician,” right? Like, “If I was better, this would be easy so I’m just going to be a bit disappointed in myself.” I know that’s something that comes up a lot for our members at Musical U and something I definitely went through in my teenage years, for sure.
Christopher: There is so much packed into your book and I think for me, this was the crux of it. Like if I had to point to one or two things that would be the most impactful for people, it was these two ideas for practice. One of which we’ve just touched on, and I love the way you just described it. It’s almost a short circuit or a way to sidestep all of this stuff around, “How can I make practice more fun, or what should I do to keep up my motivation or boredom?” Having that understanding that I am separate from my emotions and the fact that an emotion has come up in me, doesn’t necessarily mean anything or doesn’t necessarily mean I should change anything about what I’m doing in my practice.
Christopher: There’s such elegant purity to that way of approaching practice that, I’m here to do the thing. I know what I should do. I’m going to do it, and if I get a bit bored, it’s not about pushing through that boredom and forcing myself to be okay with it and trying to transform it into joy. It’s just about identifying, “Oh, there’s some boredom, let’s continue.” It sounds, as you say, it sounds so simple but it genuinely is an option for people that I think most of us even realize is a possibility.
Nick: Yeah, that’s right. It’s also an incredible sort of subtly to the way that our moment to moment experience changes as well. I was practicing saxophone yesterday and noticed that I was feeling quite conscious of how it must sound to my neighbors. I hadn’t really noticed that sort of coming and going in my practice before but I’m sure that’s something that a lot of people can relate to, or people that you live with.
Nick: I’m thinking of like, when I was sort of practicing the violin much more intensively, sometimes there were movements that you need to practice because the body needs to learn a movement. When you’re at the stage of learning the movement itself, the sound that movement produces isn’t good. But actually, it’s kind of a developmental stage that you need to go through to kind of get the smoothness of the movement or to join a movement up. So there’ll be a time when it has to sound bad, but if you don’t go through that stage of sounding bad then you won’t refine the movement required in order to sound good.
Nick: But people can shy away from that stage of sounding bad because they’re very conscious of what the neighbors next door will think, or what Mum or Dad thinks, if they’re watching TV downstairs or something. Being able to just notice that’s a little bit of insecurity and like we said, just do the work anyway, whilst feeling embarrassed or whist feeling insecure, which is the truth of our experience if we’re honest with ourselves. Then we’re able to tune into what needs to be done rather than just be at the mercy of our feelings.
Nick: Yeah, it’s been a real game changer for me. On stage too actually. And for clients as well because they often come to me and think that because they are having these feelings of not enjoying their performance experience that that must be something wrong with their whole music career or who they are as a musician, and it’s just not true. Because we misunderstand what the feelings mean.
Christopher: Absolutely. And I don’t want to labor the point, or belabor the point, but I think it’s important to be clear, we’re not talking about suffering through those bad emotions. I think a lot of the, how to become a great musician material will talk about, “You’ve just got to push through, you’ve got to force yourself, do it even though it’s terrible.” And you have a lot of suffering musicians, and really what we’re talking about is kind of looking at that emotion and being okay with it and not being immersed in it and suffering through it, just letting it go. And you’ve a Miles Davis poster behind you, I’m reminded like, we’re kind of talking about seeing that boredom or frustration and being like, “So what? It doesn’t need to mean anything about what I’m doing.”
Nick: It comes and goes, yeah, it comes and goes.
Christopher: It comes and goes if you allow it to. I think that was a big epiphany for me was when you start taking this approach, it’s not, a lot of the things that we assume are big and important and barriers like, “I’m getting bored of my music practice.” Actually, if you can just observe it and accept it, it goes away pretty quick and you’re back to being okay and at peace, and enjoying what you’re doing.
Nick: And you’re fine if doesn’t go away as well, you know, that’s the thing. It feels like we’re suffering but really the suffering is the resisting of the in the moment experience. It’s not the fact that we have a momentary sort of feeling we don’t like. It’s how much of a fight we’re putting up against our experience. So that’s really the thing, that we don’t even need bad feelings to pass, we can continue doing what we’re doing in any feeling. We’re safe as musicians, we’re safe as human beings, we’re safe as who we are, no matter what feeling we’re having. Whether we’re on stage, or in the practice room or in a lesson with someone we want to impress, or anything, we’re fundamentally safe, but convince ourselves that we’re not.
Christopher: I mentioned there were two practice concepts that for me really stood out in the book, and that was one of them. The second, if I say it in a rush, I think it’s going to sound like an exact contradiction, so I’m going to take a moment and phrase it right, but you talk in the book also about letting go of the right way to practice and having the perfect practice plan, and actually trusting in yourself a bit more that you know what’s right to practice. I think on a surface level that kind of sounds like, go with your feelings, but it’s not quite that simple. So maybe you could explain a bit about that idea?
Nick: Yeah. This is about not giving your power away to a teacher or to a method. I think that’s what it’s fundamentally about. It’s that there is a fundamental desire to learn music, or to grow, or to develop, or to create. That’s just fundamental. Something brought us to our instrument or to this practice of music. Whatever that thing is that brought is to music, is the thing that actually is kind of driving our musical development long term, large scale, right?
Nick: That curiosity might take us to a particular teacher, or it might take us to a particular book, or method, or website, or what have you, but I’ve come across people back when I was a school teacher, the head of music, I would see some students who, one particular student that sprang to mind that learnt about how fanatical John Coltrane was as a sax player. And that he did one hour long tones and did this much time on this particular thing. This student tried to mimic exactly the kind of routine that Coltrane used, without taking too much time to think whether that was appropriate or whether that could change over the course of the next few months.
Nick: Often musicians can be very sort of focused and prepared to put the work in, but very rigid about how practice should be done because a particular school of teaching saying it has to be done this way. For every person that’s having this very draconian sort of practice regime, there are all kinds of musicians who seem, when they tell the story of how they practice, who seem to be having a more free, more easy relationship with practice. And it’s not to say that they only play when they want to, or only do the things they like to do, but there’s definitely two directions.
Nick: There’s the direction of sort of focusing on other people’s advice, external cues, validation of certificates and qualifications, that sort of thing. Or there’s the internal cues of what I have a curiosity to learn more about, or what I notice that I need to work on, or what I notice that I’m quite proud of, or our internal experience moment to moment. That same thing we were talking about, you know, whether I’m feeling a bit insecure in a practice room or feeling confident. The same thing about my curiosities or the things that get my attention and interest, and enthusiasm and passion. It’s important to be tuned into that as a direction.
Nick: I think that’s really the distinction. It’s not about feeling good or feeling bad. It’s about, am I depending on external cues or am I sort of looking within and deciding what my own opinion is and deciding what I’m drawn to?
Christopher: Yeah, so fascinating. It’s almost like, if you’re able to step back from the emotions and the instinct of reactions to everything that’s going on, the water’s clear and you can kind of get in touch with that intuition or that deeper sense that we can trust and that we can follow. It sounds like from your work with musicians, that really pays off, you know, this isn’t a fun idea that you can dabble here and dabble there and just enjoy practice a bit more, this is something that actually gets to something much more profound and powerful when it comes to how to develop as a musician.
Nick: Yeah, it seems like there’s a paradox. It seems like there’s freedom and then there’s structure and those two things are separate, but I suppose what I’m saying is that when we’re more attuned to what’s actually coming up in our experience then both those things come to the fore, so either we maybe realize, say for me and my sax practice at the moment, I’m thinking, actually, I’d like to be able to sight read some more complex material than I’ve been in the habit of reading. I’m going through a period in my own practice at the moment and thinking actually, carving out that time for reading every single day is a change of gear in my practice that I hadn’t noticed that I wanted to do, and now it’s starting to take shape in my practice as a chapter that I’m then sort of going through, just because it was a curiosity, whereas previously, I think it probably was a bit of an insecurity about.
Nick: I mentioned it in the book because it was a thing that I kind of had. It’s like, I’m not a very good sight reader. That’s definitely changed over the years for me, but to kind of go into this stage for myself as like wanting to become a real master sight reader, it’s something that’s starting to seep into my practice and it’s relatively new. And it’s born out of that kind of curiosity of like, well I’m not really practicing it and I’m wondering if I could do this slightly better? Then it becomes a scheduled thing or it becomes a structured thing and I find some time for it, so it’s not just like go with the flow man and go wherever the moment takes me. There’s the initial inspiration, and then it comes to being. It’s structured, it’s scheduled and it takes place.
Christopher: Terrific, and that’s maybe a good case in point of what we opened the conversation with, which is that you help people reach their full potential by understanding their mind. So I wonder if we could just talk a bit more broadly then about, if someone was to take these ideas away, maybe read your book in full and get this stuff inside them, what difference would that make to their musical life and their ideas about their full potential.
Nick: It’s a really difficult question to answer actually. It might sound like a slightly evasive answer but I’m struck by the fact that no matter what someone comes to me with as a coaching client, when their mind kind of clears and when their relationship with what’s going on internally is simplified, all kinds of things can happen as a result of it. I can’t, as a coach, predict precisely what they’re going to be but what is always predictable is that it’s the right thing that needs to happen for people. You know, in some cases, it could be that actually, music might not be the right career for them, you know? It could be that they have been doing something that someone else wanted them to do, so that could be the perfect thing of engaging with Nick Bottini as a coach, it could be that actually music is something that they want to stop doing, which might sound like heresy on your channel, sorry.
Nick: But equally, it could be that actually they suddenly get clear that actually they really did want to have a professional career and have been finding excuses why they couldn’t do it, and realized that actually it’s their passion and it’s worth making a major shift in their life. Or you know, my experience has been that I feel much less of a distinction between practice and performance. I feel very kind of, almost ambivalent about whether I’m performing or whether I’m practicing now. It feels to me like I’m equally comfortable and equally safe whether it’s in performance situation or a practice situation, or with doing an interview. It doesn’t feel like performance anxiety is so much of a thing. I feel nervous from time to time but it doesn’t mean anything about me anymore in the same way that it used to.
Nick: That’s been quite a sort of common reaction and people feeling a lot freer I think, to be themselves. And the implications spill into someone’s music but it’s that freedom I guess it’s the more fundamental … freedom with their own psychology, freedom with their own internal world. That’s the foundation that sort of changes and then whatever needs to come of that, comes of that, just a natural consequence, you know?
Christopher: Fantastic. And no doubt it’s clear at this point, I do highly recommend everyone check out your book, Just Play, and we’ll have a link in the show notes but you mentioned your coaching there, which is another way for people to engage with you and start to address whatever performance or musical development challenges they may be facing, or tasks they may want to accomplish, could you talk a bit more about that coaching, and also maybe your community that you have on Facebook?
Nick: So, it’s normal for sports people, you know, elite sportsmen, or even amateur sports people to consider their mindset and working on their inner game, but I noticed that there weren’t so many opportunities for musicians to do that, and yet, these foundational pieces that we’re talking about, they have a huge impact. People have skills but actually, looking at the psychological, the spiritual sort of foundations, it really unlocks what someone already has and so that’s pretty much what I do with a variety of different musicians. They tend to be professionals. They tend to be high achievers, high performers. So either a lot of musicians or classical musicians or what have you, but I’ve worked with sports people and Olympic athletes and business people as well.
Nick: What it tends to involve is this kind of conversation but really tailored to somebody’s specific needs because same for me, there are blind spots that I have in my own experience. Whether you call it life coaching or you call it performance coaching or whether you call it mentoring, we’ve all has those kind of moments. Maybe with a teacher or with a parent where someone just says something that is just obvious to everybody else but not obvious to the person. And that’s really my job, is to reflect these things back to people and to help them unpick these superstitious moments until things become easier.
Nick: That’s become my life’s work now actually because it was such a huge impact, discovering the principles in the book via my own personal journey was so transformational and when I looked for this kind of service for myself I realized that there wasn’t a thing. I just felt compelled to sort of create this movement. So the book came about and out of the book there’s been this Facebook community where people can explore the kind of principles and approach that I talk about there.
Nick: There seems to be generally I think, there’s more of an interest, certainly among professional musicians about mental health and wellbeing. But often we don’t tend to put them together with the whole domain of like achieving excellence. It’s like excellence is one thing, and wellbeing is a separate topic, but they very much are related. So that’s what my coaching’s about and that’s what the Facebook community is about, is just to explore that in some depth with people.
Christopher: Terrific. And you’re clearly someone who goes very deep and profound but is also in touch with the day to day practicalities. And on that front, you have a new course coming out, I think, which is all about the kind of practicalities of getting gigs, getting higher paid gigs, and that kind of career development, is that right?
Nick: Yeah, that’s right. There’s all kinds of musicians who either are looking to transition into professional music making or are already professionals who feel that the kind of gigs that they’re doing are not sort of the caliber that they want to, or they’re not being paid regularly enough. So the course is really an exploration of how we make the blockages that kind of get in the way of us earning the kind of money that we want to from performing, or putting ourself forward for the kind of opportunities that we could be.
Nick: So it’s an introductory dive I guess into the principles and sort of, not applying it, but we’re there for a specific purpose. It’s not the same as just personal coaching for the sake of the understanding, it’s very much, there’s a purpose which is to get gigs and to develop a professional career through the lens of the work that I do. Yeah.
Christopher: Fantastic. Well, I definitely agree that there is not enough work being done in this very important area, and I love the way you approach it in your book and with your coaching. So I definitely would highly encourage anyone who’s found something in this conversation resonated with them, run out and get Nick’s book and explore what this could mean for your own musical life because I know from personal experience, and from talking with our members, how crucial all of this stuff is in terms of how you think about yourself, how you approach your practice and how you consider your potential and what to work on next in music. So Nick, just a huge thank you for joining us on the show today.
Nick: My pleasure. It’s been great.
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