We’re joined by Mark Morley-Fletcher from Play in the Zone. Mark is a jazz guitarist turned peak performance specialist. He’s developed a system for helping everyday music learners tackle performance anxiety.
Mark has taken ideas and techniques from the world of performance psychology and drawn them in to a clear, coherent framework. He does a fantastic job of tying the underlying concepts behind performance to practical tips you can apply right away in your own musical life.
In this conversation we talk about:
- The non-musical activity that helped Mark draw together the latest research on peak performance into a practical system for musicians.
- The difference between “good” autopilot and “bad autopilot” when it comes to performing.
- The specific things you can do to defuse the negative physical and mental reactions to performance situations.
You’ll love the insight in this episode – whether you’re gearing up for your first performance, or you’re a touring veteran. Jump in and learn how to play your best!
If you’d like to learn more from Mark then click the button to register for his free upcoming Musical U masterclass.
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Mark: Hi, I’m Mark Morley-Fletcher from Play in the Zone and this is Musicality Now.
Christopher: Welcome to the show Mark. Thank you for joining us today.
Mark: Thanks so much for having me on.
Christopher: So I came across you obviously through your project playinthezone.com where you touch on all these fascinating topics of performance anxiety and preparation and peak performance and getting into the flow. And it’s made me super curious to know about your own musical background. I know only the barest highlights. So I’d love if we could start off with telling a bit of your own musical story. What were your early music experiences like?
Mark: Yeah, absolutely. I’d say it’s a little bit mixed because I was very serious into music when I was really young as a chorister. So before my voice broke, doing a lot of choir singing. Thinking back, I think my first ever paid solo performance would have been age of about 12 just singing two or three lines in, I think, it was Mendelssohn’s Elijah, but up on stage with a couple of professionals and a whole choir behind me. So that was quite an experience. But that wasn’t something that I really continued with after the voice broke and I hadn’t really done the instrumental stuff alongside it. I’m one of these many people who learned the piano for a bit, gave it up and have spent the whole rest of my life regretting giving it up. So I’m sure many people can relate to that.
Mark: But where I really got back into it again was picking up the guitar in my teens. And I think the difference there probably was I didn’t hate it, but I’d been talked into picking up the piano, whereas taking up the guitar was my idea. And so it was a little bit less formal perhaps. I had various teachers along the way but a lot of it was just my own learning. But that was where I really started to get into things and to find my own way. I guess I’d say I started out with rock music, blues, that sort of thing. And then as I got a bit older and met a few different people, I started getting into jazz more, really studying that. Eventually starting to play in a few bands, getting out and playing function gigs, all those sorts of things. And before I knew it, I looked back and this was a huge part of my life.
Christopher: And I’m always curious to know whether someone took formal lessons or was coupling together their own education, whether they were playing mostly from sheet music versus figuring things out by ear. You said you found your own way with guitar. What did that look like?
Mark: It was a bit of a mix of both. So I did have a couple of different teachers to start with but I was also doing a lot of self directed learning. So I probably started off for the first six months or more just learning myself and then got a teacher to try and take that a bit further. That wasn’t quite the right fit. He was a bit more of a classical background and we did some finger style stuff but it didn’t quite gel with me so I was exploring other things on my own. I found another teacher, great guy who was much more into the rock side. As it turned out later, he had done a whole load of serious jazz work and all those sorts of things. But sadly when I was having lessons with him, I didn’t have an interest. So I kicked myself for years afterwards that I could’ve learned so much and didn’t.
Mark: One of the things that I found really impressive about him looking back, because this was when I was at school at the time, was he never forced me to play stuff if I didn’t want to. So I remember a couple of lessons where I’d go in, I didn’t feel like playing and so we’d just chat about what was in the news or something like that. Very interesting that he’d let me do that. But the great thing about it was as soon as I showed any interest in picking up the guitar or trying something, he’d be right in there and encouraging it and getting me going. So I don’t know for sure but I strongly suspect that that never forcing me to do something when I wasn’t up for it really helped keep the enthusiasm there, which I’d lost with the piano lessons earlier.
Christopher: Roughly what age were you at that point?
Mark: So I would’ve been about 16, 17, 18.
Christopher: Yeah, that’s interesting. I think it’s crucial at that age. I love looking back because for me singing was my primary instrument in those teenage years and I can just remember, now looking back I’m like, “I was quite difficult sometimes.” I wasn’t a stroppy teenager, I wasn’t moody, but there were definitely mornings where singing scales at 8:30 in the morning before a full day of school was not high on my preference list and I’d do it begrudgingly and it would be fine. But I remember I had the opportunity to go back to that same teacher for lessons a number of years later, I was auditioning for an acapella group and I did a few brush-up lessons with her, and it was really nice to go back as an adult and be a bit more mature about the whole thing.
Christopher: But it just made me very conscious of how I had been a little bit, not hard to handle, but I think all teenagers are at that age. There’s the enthusiasm coming and going and I think the best teachers can allow for that and compensate it rather than try and keep everyone strictly on their path.
Mark: Yeah. And I can really relate to that enthusiasm coming and going because there’d be times when I just didn’t feel like doing anything and times when I literally locked myself in my room for four hours or whatever and practice incredibly focused, just straight through. So real bursts of massive activity and periods of just not applying myself at all.
Christopher: Yeah. And it’s definitely not something to just put in a box labeled teenagers because we know full well with our members at Musical U, motivation is a crucial part of the whole thing. And the mindset that goes into keeping a consistent practice habit or staying on the same path for more than a week or two is tough for adults even if you consider yourself mature or you can sometimes force yourself through it. The reality is we are emotional beings and you need to give yourself a little leeway I think to ebb and flow with the motivation. So maybe we can touch on that later because I know that community and peer support and expert support are part of how you teach online these days so maybe we can circle back to that question of motivation. But before we do, when did peak performance and performance psychology become so interesting to you and when did you start to specialize in it?
Mark: So it’s been interesting to me for a long, long time. I can’t remember if I got into that as an undergraduate, but certainly as a postgraduate and still playing in all the function bands, this, that and the other, I came across a Kenny Werner’s book, Effortless Mastery, if you’re aware of that and was fascinated by that and that was a start of digging into a whole load of different resources in this area. But that was always very much a nice thing on the side and I could see how it was really going to help and I wanted to do it and I kept trying it for a bit and then falling off the wagon or not quite being sure how to put it into practice. So I guess you’d say it’s been a nice ongoing thread for the last 15 or more years. But it was really only probably about four or five years ago now that I got very heavily into, “Okay, how are we going to make this work properly?”
Mark: And as… I don’t know how many of the listeners know, but in my opinion, there’s a lot more out there in the field of sports psychology around peak performance and performance anxiety and stuff than there is available in music. So it was perhaps not a surprise that that’s actually how I really came across it. I’d taken tennis up much more seriously a few years before suddenly found myself playing the odd tournament, whereas before I’d just gone out to hit for fun, and was right back in that situation where, “My goodness, I’m getting ready to serve at the start of the match and my legs are shaking and my arms are shaking and what’s happening here?” Because to go back to the musical journey, that’s certainly something I’d experienced playing in bands and getting up on stages but through 10 years of doing this repeatedly and getting exposed to it and just getting more familiar, that had gradually decreased certainly in most situations. We can perhaps talk about different situations causing different things later.
Mark: But I thought this is something I’ve got through. So it was a real surprise to get on the tennis court and suddenly think, “Wait a minute, here is this thing again that I haven’t felt for five years and I thought was gone and totally different context.” So I didn’t feel as at home and you’ve got that result. And I was lucky enough to find a tennis course that did focus very heavily on the mental game side of things, went and did a three day training course there and I couldn’t believe how much progress I made how quickly and what was equally fascinating was so A, this was me thinking, “Well, if I had this in music 10 years ago, that would have been amazing.”
Mark: But even more than that, I found I was able to push through a lot of the bad stuff that was holding me back, but found that there was still further to go on the other side. There was potential to raise my game beyond where I thought I was capable of. And so that definitely left me going back to music saying, “Well wait a minute, I’ve got unfinished business here. If I can do that in tennis, what am I leaving behind on the music side of things?” And so I got really fascinated at how much can I bring of this to music. And like you say, you mentioned the community and all sorts of things like that. The other piece of the puzzle, if you like, there was the way in which this experience had happened in tennis because as you said, I’d been following the peak performance and the performance psychology stuff for years in music. And I kind of got it and occasionally something would work, but I never really got it to really bed in or to stick with it or to get the full amount out of it.
Mark: And there were a few things that I realized were there in the tennis course that I hadn’t had in the music. So it was the community, it was having a whole group of other people there who were keen to do this, who were motivated and that provided both motivation, looking at what they were doing but also accountability. Because I could look at them and think, “Right, if I’m just going to slack off here, I’m letting these other guys down.” So that really helped. It was having some instructors there in person just to keep bringing you back to doing it because it’s the same in tennis as it is a music. There’s so much technical stuff you can focus on and it’s really tempting to do that because that’s what it feels like always has the effect. So it’s very easy to fall back into, “Oh, I’ll just check how my backswing was or what am I doing with my foot position?” Or stuff like that.
Mark: And having someone there to say, “Nope, you’re meant to be thinking about what is going on in your head instead,” stuck me with it when otherwise I might not have done that. And finally it was having a real structured approach. There was a very definite, here are the things we’re going to work on, here’s how long you need to do each one, here’s the order, here’s how they all fit together and you could see that as a system. Whereas what I’d done on the music side was I had a whole load of great information, a whole lot of great ideas. And in fact, when I look back at that tennis course, I didn’t learn a huge amount that was completely new. But going through it in a structured way rather than just me sat at home going, “I’ve got a hundred different tips here, which one should I use? When should I try another one?” It’s just that much harder to stick with it and get things out of it.
Mark: So that was really when I decided let’s bring this back to music and really have a go of applying it. And I guess it was seeing what might make a difference in terms of the structure but also seeing what results were definitely available. Because I’d seen this massive increase for me in tennis and I really wanted that in music as well.
Christopher: That’s really interesting. I’m reminded a little bit of a unrelated area where the same thing maybe happens. You described there what I’m sure is very familiar to a lot of musicians who’ve been gigging a while, which is the nerves go away over time and you’re glad about that, but you don’t really understand how it happened and you just trust that if you continue it’ll be okay. And from, we’re talking about playing by ear at Musical U, sometimes people will be like, “But my friend Bob, he’s been playing in a band for 10 years and he can just do it and so why would I need to do this ear training thing?” And part of the answer is, “You’ll get there a lot quicker than 10 years if you do the ear training thing.” But part of the answer is there’s a real downside to just letting it happen passively and automatically, which is your friend Bob has no idea how he can do what he can do, which means if the random night comes up where he is off his game and those nerves come back, he’s got nothing to do about it. He’s doesn’t have a toolkit. He doesn’t have the mental models to handle that.
Christopher: And I think a similar thing is true here where yes, over time you get less prone to nerves in performing. But if you can equip yourself with the structures and the tools and a clear understanding of how you overcome those nerves or how you reach peak performance, you’re in a much stronger position and you can get there a lot quicker.
Mark: Yeah, that’s absolutely true. And I’d add one further thing to that, which is that not everyone does get it from just putting in the hours and hitting and hoping if you like. It’s definitely the case for performance anxiety. I think it’s the same for ear training as well. Some people, if you just give it enough time, it will naturally sink in, but that’s not guaranteed. So the other side of it is do you feel like taking that chance? Now you can say to yourself, “I’m just going to keep getting up on stage for 10 years and hope that it will get better” and it might not.
Mark: And actually the other one I would mention, I alluded to earlier, different situations and I definitely found when I first got up on stage playing in a band, that was one thing. The nerves were there and as I got more used to it, they went away. They went lower again, not completely away. And then as I started taking more solo spots in a band, nerves a bit higher again, because this is unusual for me. One thing that really got me though was the first time I ever played a solo guitar gig. So I got asked to play solo guitar, a half hour set at a friend’s wedding, and I did so much practice for this. I was really happy with all this stuff I’d put together. Totally fine. Looking forward to it. By this stage I would quite happily get up in bands and play all sorts of stuff and I didn’t really get nervous.
Mark: And so I assumed it was going to be exactly the same for this solo gig right up until the moment when I’m setting up my guitar. Totally fine. No idea that this is going to come, I sit down, I get the guitar there, I’m playing in basically a classical guitar position so I got legs on a footstool just really easier for the finger style and all of a sudden my body just starts shaking massively. Totally wasn’t expecting this, really disconcerting. So two things here actually I find really interested, one is, put yourself in a slightly different situation and you could be right back in there. So I didn’t have these techniques to deal with performance anxiety at the time so I just had to deal with it and I frankly don’t think I dealt with it brilliantly but it would have been really helpful even if I wasn’t getting it all the time to have that then.
Mark: Second thing, which is related to how you do deal with performance anxiety, is your perceptions of the situation and your emotions about it are huge and they can be very misleading. So it’s one thing I’ll never forget, feeling this body shaking massively. My legs are going all over the place. I looked down at them, they’re not moving. I can feel them shaking hugely, but my eyes are saying no, they’re absolutely steady. And that difference, it comes up a lot in all the mental side of music, that the way you perceive you think things are happening is not always accurate but that can totally affect your decisions, your feelings, all those sorts of things because you feel the body shaking massively, you interpret it in a negative way. This makes you more worried. Things get worse and at that point you might actually genuinely start shaking in a noticeable thing. So yeah, so many different experiences there.
Christopher: Yeah, and I think you touched a moment ago on the reason I was so keen to invite you onto the show, which is, these days there is a fair amount published about performance psychology and blog posts and books and Ted Talks and all that kind of thing. But I think to the average music learner, it can feel like such a jumble of cool ideas and tips and tricks and this is the one true method versus just try a bit of everything. It can be really confusing if you’re trying to actually practically put it into practice, into your practice, into your performance and you are one of the few individuals I’ve come across who has very thoughtfully tried to aggregate everything that works and put it in a clear coherent structure for people and I know that you have a number of areas you consider are important to think about and to work on to get to that level of peak performance reliably. I wonder if we could talk through some of those.
Mark: Yeah, absolutely and I think I’d just say as you’ve hinted at before we start out that there is no one correct way to do this. This is something I find really useful that works for me at the moment. It may be that I will change things up or do it in a slightly different way in the future. To be honest, I would love, like you say, if I could make it even smaller and even more concise, that would be amazing because, as you wrote, you said, “I think one of the hard things is there’s so many things for me to think about. Shall I even bother doing any of them?” But yeah, if we talk through some of those areas and why they’re important and what you can do with them. Does that sound good?
Christopher: For sure, yeah.
Mark: Yeah, so it’s a nice lead on from what we’ve just been talking about. The first thing that I look at is responses to pressure, pressure situations. And there’s two really big concepts here. The first is when you’re in a pressure situation, your body will have a physical response that we’re all pretty familiar with, the heart rate goes up, you get the butterflies in the stomach, you might get the shaky arms, all those sorts of things. But they’re also your mental response. What happens to your thinking process and your emotional response, how you feel about it. So that’s one whole thing. And I’ll say a little bit about some of that in a second.
Mark: The other thing that you can do here is it is your perception of pressure rather than actual pressure. So if you imagine being out on stage, giving a Ted Talk say, in front of however many people in the audience and you know there’s millions more going to be watching on video, that is a very high pressure situation, you might think. But if you imagine you’re on the same stage, the auditorium is empty, the cameras are there, but they’re turned off, no one else is ever going to see this and you give the same talk, you might feel no pressure at all in that part of it. So what you’re doing and the surroundings you’re in are basically exactly the same. It’s whether you perceive pressure or not that has that big impact on your physiology and your emotions.
Mark: So one of the other things you can do is change what you see as a pressure situation. But going back to the physical and the emotional responses. The first thing that I would say about these is they’re normal and they’re healthy and it’s totally okay to get these responses because if you go back into it, this is an evolved response to being in dangerous situations. And it’s not always the right response in the modern world when what we’re dealing with is what we worry about other people thinking or something like that, but it is basically a sign that your body is working perfectly normally. So probably the biggest issue with some of the performance anxiety things around pressure is feeling that we shouldn’t be feeling this. And that makes you feel worried because you’re feeling anxiety and therefore you start to feel more anxious and you can go around in a bit of a loop.
Mark: So the simple, most helpful thing about that is just to feel okay with it. And once you’ve done that, there are things that you can do to change that physical response. But first of all, it’s fine. Secondly, most of those things don’t have a huge impact on how well you’re actually going to play your instrument or sing or whatever it is you’re doing. There are some that will but the vast majority of them just feel unpleasant.
Christopher: I think that’s huge. Sorry to interject.
Mark: Yeah, please.
Christopher: I can remember, for me growing up, it was the butterflies in the stomach that was the symptom of performance anxiety and I can remember so clearly in my brain it was, “I’m feeling this way, I’m not good enough. I’m going to screw it up.” Very clear, logical progression in my brain and just knowing that, no, that’s a physiological response. It’s normal, it’s my brain perceiving a threat, but it doesn’t mean anything about my preparedness or my ability to perform. I think that’s huge.
Mark: Yeah, and it’s really interesting the way that you say, like a lot of us do, “Oh, I’m feeling this, this is bad. I’m going to screw it up.” Because one of the biggest things that makes it a bad response, if you’d like is, is the emotion and the thinking we put on top of it. Really interesting thing is if you look at the physiological response to excitement, very, very similar. If you imagine going on a rollercoaster, you might well get those same butterflies in your stomach, all those sorts of things. But you see this as a very good situation. So actually the physiological response is pretty much the same in both cases. But the emotional response, I’m worried about this, I think it’s bad versus Oh how exciting. I’m really looking forward to this. It’s that that turns it from something that’s really unhelpful into something that can be positive.
Mark: And just to give a helpful tip on one way to actually do this, because it’s very easy for me to sit here and say, “Oh, just see it as fine and it’s great.” And what does that actually mean? It can be a bit harder to do in practice and some good days you might manage it and others you don’t know. So one little thing that I like to do is actually physically talk myself through some of these things. So just the attitude of bring it on or I love it when you get these feelings is a great way of specifically saying to yourself, it’s okay. And if I am on my own in a room with no one else around, I will literally say these things out loud.
Mark: I remember actually back to the tennis one before a local club, a doubles final, I was feeling that just at home before going out. So I was sitting there going, “Oh, I see I’ve got some excitement here. I love it. Come on, bring it on.” Not doing that on the court when other people would hear me but you could try that. But I will definitely actually think the words as I go through that because it’s putting if you’re just thinking, “Oh, I want to accept this. I want to lean into it.” It’s easy to think, “Well I should do that,” but you’re not really feeling it. But if you’re actually thinking or saying the words, “Oh I love it, give me more of this.” It’s pretty hard to do that and not mean it.
Christopher: Yeah. Well I think I’m really reminded of a past guest on the show, Lisa McCormick, who has this note to self method for managing your inner game and she really recommends just responding to that frustration with, “I love this,” just having that little mantra so that when you get frustrated in the practice room, you just stop and you’re like, “I love this. This is an opportunity to learn. This is what I should be doing. I’m willing.” And I know that if you’ve never tried this, it might sound a bit hard to believe a bit. You might have that instinctive response that it’s disingenuous, like I’m saying it but I don’t really mean it so it’s not really going to work. But I think there’s this research that shows that smiling produces happiness, not just vice versa. And if you make yourself physically smile, it can lift your mood.
Christopher: And I think this is similar where even if you consciously know you are choosing to put that thought in your head, the subconscious mind doesn’t really know. That thought is in your head, that’s what it’s paying attention to. And I think it can be really effective to have that proactive response rather than, as you say, just trying to be okay with it to be like, “No, I’m going to replace that bad thought with this positive one. I know it will serve me better.”
Mark: Yeah. And a lot of this comes down to the, what you might hear talked about, as the challenge threat access. When there’s something difficult, you can see it as a threat, “Oh, this is really bad. It’s going to make things worse.” Or you can see it as a challenge. Here is something I’ve got to overcome and I really like that way of looking at it because you’re not putting yourself in the, “I’m just going to pretend that everything is perfect.” The challenge mentality is saying, “Yeah, this is tough, but I am up for it.” And that makes just such a huge difference.
Christopher: Absolutely. So that was the first area was that physical and mental response, is that right?
Mark: Yeah, absolutely.
Christopher: Oh and sorry, before we move on, I’m sure listeners would be annoyed if I didn’t ask about something you said in passing there, which is that you can change your interpretation of what you perceive as pressure. Tell us a little bit more about that because it sounds unlikely.
Mark: So it’s basically what do you feel is going to be the outcome of a particular situation? So if I’m getting there up there on stage and I’m looking out at the audience and I’m thinking every single one of those is judging me. If I make a mistake, they’re going to be writing it down in their little notebooks. Note to self, note to anyone I know, never get Mark out to play again, all that sort of thing. We’ll go around and tell our friends, no one will talk to me. That is a serious situation. But if I’m up there thinking they’re going to really enjoy it, if I make a few mistakes, they probably won’t even notice. And this is where knowing some of the research on this is handy, people notice far fewer mistakes that you make than you would realize.
Mark: So if I’m thinking they’re probably not going to notice, even if they do, there’ll be listening to the wider expanse of what I’m playing and the whole thing rather than that one bit. And they’ve seen me play nine times before and I was great each time. So even if I do play badly this time, they’re not going to say, “Right, well forget all those other ones and we’ll only go with the 10th one.” So there’s a lot of different ways you can do this, but that would be two different ways I could perceive the same situation. What happens if I make a mistake? And so the pressure is much less because I’m not concerned about the outcome. And there’s lots of different ways you can do it. Is it because, well, maybe they’re going to react in whatever way it is, but I don’t care how they react or maybe I’m just getting overly anxious about stuff I think they’re going to do, which is not true at all.
Mark: Or maybe I look at it in terms of the bigger life picture. Okay, maybe they’re going to react badly. I’ll get a bad review or whatever, but Hey, this is one gig. I go back, I hang out with my friends, I have a great time with them. That doesn’t affect that part of my life. I’m healthy. There’s a lot of different ways you can do it. Does that help?
Christopher: Yeah, that’s super cool. So you’re taking the same physical situation, but you’re diffusing the pressure by reinterpreting what’s going on in that physical situation. Is that right?
Mark: Yeah, and it can be as simple as anything that works for you. I think, I can’t remember which one, but certainly some of the tennis players are talked about as just being really excited when they got to a major final because a lot of people would see it as, wow, so much pressure. Everyone’s watching me. What if I lose? But a great way to flip it around, I think it was Jimmy Corners who used to use this a lot, I’m sure others have, is saying there is no way for me to achieve what I want to, to win the tournament, to get better, to keep being the best in the world without being at this point. This is maximum opportunity, if you’d like, rather than maximum threat.
Mark: So it’s not necessarily that easy to do, but that’s what you’re looking for because to give a very basic example of how the perception of threat is what’s important. Let’s imagine you’re walking on a path in a forest and you come around a corner and there behind a tree is this huge bear. Okay. You’re going to have a massive reaction to that. The fight and flight thing is going to kick in. But let’s imagine that you come around that corner and what you see there is a rock that looks like a bear. You’re not going to have that response because that’s not threatening. And the interesting thing is it’s that perception that’s right. If it genuinely is a bear, but you see it and you think it’s just a rock, it’s not moving. It is genuinely dangerous. But you will not have that response to it. And equally, if it really is a rock, but you think it’s a bear, you better expect you’re going to have that massive adrenaline spike and all those things hitting you. So it’s the perception that drives that rather than the reality of the situation outside you.
Christopher: Terrific. Well, I’m glad, you often hear it talked about you just need to get used to handling the pressure, but I think what you’ve just shared puts a lot of practical detail on that in terms of what it can actually look like to learn to do so, so that’s really helpful. Before we move on to another area I should ask, are these sequential, is a matter that you must first sought out pressure and how you handle it and then you can move onto this next thing? Or are we talking about a group of topics that all work together?
Mark: It’s definitely a group of topics that all work together. I do teach them in a specific order because I think some of the exercises that you do flow nicely that way, flow into others and some of them you just want to be doing for a bit longer. But frankly they’re all standalone topics. They’re all useful but I find actually they tend to bleed into each other a fair bit. We’ve probably already touched on one or two of the things that will come up later as separate topics and I haven’t found a way and I don’t think it would be helpful to say they’re all separate things. In fact, at the risk of going off on a little bit of a tangent, again, it comes back to one of the other really interesting things I got out of looking at how the tennis players work with this stuff.
Mark: In a fascinating interview I got to see with the guy who used to be head of mental training at the Bolity Area Academy, so he’s produced a lot of the top grand slam players and he’s very specific in saying we deliberately train all this stuff together. Yes, you will do a little bit of mental training in a classroom occasionally, but it’s not like you go and do your practice on the court and then at some other point you have two hours of mental training and all this. They’re always trying to bring it together because ultimately that’s how you’re going to use it. It’s no good if you’ve been playing your instrument, doing all your technique. And then at some other point you’ve been doing your mental training and then you get up there on stage, it’s like right, got to bring these two together. Never done that before in my life.
Mark: So a lot of it is, even with the mental stuff and the technical stuff, is how do I try and train them both, maybe not at the same time, but have them always linked in a way. And I think it’s exactly the same for all the different components. If I try and give you, here are six different components and they will be separate things that live in boxes, that’s no good to you as a whole musician when you’re trying to perform as one thing. So I think it’s pretty natural that they’re going to just link into each other.
Christopher: Got you. So what is the next one you would teach after pressure?
Mark: So the next one, and I think in many ways the most fundamental thing, is self-belief. And it might come as a bit of a surprise to say, “Hey, we’re going to train self-belief.” Maybe less of a surprise that it’s important, but a lot of people think it’s something that you have or you don’t but it’s definitely something you can work on. And I think the other thing probably to clear up pretty early on is what exactly it means to have self-belief because it is not saying, “Everything is going to go perfectly. I’m going to play every note in this piece correctly, 100%, no matter what.” It’s much more about knowing that you’re going to show up and give it your best effort. If things go a little bit off track that you will make the appropriate adjustments. You may not be able to keep them perfectly on track, but you’ll roll with it and going back to that perception of pressure thing, knowing that you can handle the consequences, whatever they are, because that’s a huge part of it.
Mark: If you know things can go not according to plan and I will be fine with that, then you can feel confident in yourself rather than this feeling I’ve got to be 100% perfect, otherwise the world ends. That’s much more a situation when who can feel self confident in that case because there’s always things that can happen that are external to you. So it’s first of all about having a realistic perception of self confidence. But then it’s about finding ways in which you can always have a positive way to look at the way things are and where you are as a musician while still keeping them true. Because if we just go into straight positive thinking and I am the best musician in the world, I always play everything perfectly. That might be helpful if you could completely believe it, but I don’t think there’s anyone out there who is going to be saying those things to themselves and going, “Yeah, I’m on board with this. Totally fine.”
Christopher: Maybe Kanye West.
Mark: Yeah, exactly.
Mark: But it’s a question, a lot of what I come back to is, what is actually going to be helpful? And it would be lovely if you could just have that unshakeable, I am the best musician in the world thing, but you’re not going to believe it. So actually it’s going to act against you. So what you’re looking for is something that is a really positive way of looking at things, but is definitely true. So it’s if you’re feeling self doubts about, “What if I messed this up? I made a mistake last time I did it.” It’s about saying, “Yeah, but the nine times I played it before then I got it right.” Can I find something positive to look at? Or maybe, actually I’ve been getting it a lot wrong in the practice room for quite a lot of times, but actually every time I practice it, I’m getting slightly stronger. I can feel that I’m getting closer to it.
Mark: It doesn’t necessarily have to be about perfection. It’s about how can I take the situation that I’m in and see the positive side. Because for every single set of facts, there’s a million different ways you can look at it that are true, but it’s a question of choosing the ones that are helpful and finding something in there that’s really going to give you that confidence. And I guess to give two practical things for people to do with this, the first one is do some work in advance. It’s all very well thinking, right? I’ve always got to find the positive thoughts, find a positive spin on things. Then you get into the situation and all of a sudden you get hit with this doubt, whatever it is. It’s like, “What if I mess up this part of the piece?” And you’re suddenly, “Okay, I’ve got to think what am I going to do here? What am I going to say here to be positive? How am I going to think to myself?”
Mark: And the last point you want to be doing that is just before or even worse, right in the middle of a performance because you don’t want to be dealing with that. You probably won’t come up with anything. And if you do start thinking about it, you’re taking all your mind off the music. That’s not helpful. So for big things like that, just do some thinking in advance. What are the strong points I’ve got that I can rely on that I can bring up? So some of it might just be really just simple words of encouragement. You can do this or whatever, talking to yourself doesn’t require anything there, but it’s a whole lot more helpful than having those nagging doubts going around in your head.
Mark: And other ones are just what you’ve done in the past that essentially gives you the right to say something like, “You can do this.” And you don’t have to go through talking through these things. But if you’ve done a bit of thinking before and thought to yourself, “Okay, I had this piece in the past, it was challenging. There were a couple of small slips in there, but I always kept on track and I got through it.” And you can think of two or three cases when you’ve done that. Then when you’re up there and you’re saying to yourself, you can do this, you’re knowing this is built on something solid rather than this is just hopeful positive stuff. So that’s one of the things you’re looking to do. You’re looking to build up a really solid but very simple, you don’t need a lot of this stuff and it doesn’t need to be complicated, just something that’s positive.
Mark: And the other thing that I’d encourage people to do is get creative about where you draw these things from because it’s all very well if you’re in your comfort zone, if you like, this is another gig. I’ve done lots like this. But what if it’s a new situation? And so the first thing is you can, it doesn’t have to be exactly the same, if I’ve got through a piece when I had some slips and I was playing a solo guitar gig and now I’m worried about it in terms of a band gig, it’s not exactly the same situation, but the general concept is the same. And you can even get creative if it’s something that feels completely different. So let’s say for the first time I’m now going to be playing a gig on a huge stage in front of thousands of people, whereas before the maximum I’ve ever played for was about 50 or 100 or something, that can feel and it is a massive step up and maybe I’ve genuinely never done something like that.
Mark: But what I might look at is say, “Well remember the first time I played in front of any crowd at all, that was a step up from never having done it. And I did that okay. So clearly I’m the sort of person who can successfully take a step up. This is just another step up.” So it won’t always be the exact same, but if you look around you will probably find examples you can use to say to yourself, “You know what? I can do this.”
Christopher: Excellent. Yeah and that’s definitely another of those things that we’re at risk of assuming just happen naturally and if you’ve got self confidence and self-belief, that’s great and if you don’t, you don’t. But as you’ve so vividly explained there, it’s something you can build very consciously. I know that for me, outside the realm of music, but when I stepped out to do my own thing and be an entrepreneur and try and start a business, suddenly I had to really think about my self esteem. It was all well and good when I was in school or university or employed. I could have a very clear sense of my identity and why I had reason to have good self esteem but out in the wilderness suddenly I had to really do something really to make sure I maintained that sense of self worth.
Christopher: And I know that picking up a book on self esteem in that period definitely helped me see that, “Oh, okay, this is something that I could be conscious about and develop a methodology for and equip myself for rather than just hoping it magically happens and I avoid the pain of it not happening.”
Mark: Yeah. And actually just to throw one other item here in there that you’ve brought up there is just take the time on a regular basis to give yourself a little pat on the back and recognize things you’ve done well because I think people generally, but particular musicians when we’re looking to practice, we’re always looking for what is not so good so I can fix it. Very easy to lose sight of all the good stuff you’re doing every day, but it just flies under the radar. So a great way to build confidence is maybe just once a week look back and say, “What are three things that I did well this week at the end of every practice session?” Maybe what are three things that I did well. Just something like that so you’re feeding your brain a constant list of I can do this, I can do this. Here was something that was successful. Because that’s what’s going to build up your confidence levels rather than if you’re always noticing the bad stuff.
Christopher: Absolutely. So that was self-belief. What comes after that?
Mark: So something very closely connected to that in a way is the concept of letting go. So it’s just feeling free to let the music come out, let your hands, whatever it is you used to play your instrument, do what it knows how to do rather than trying to really consciously control it. And the belief is really important here because if you don’t have that self belief, you’re going to really struggle to let go. But it’s this thing that basically, once you have a technique, a process, in your subconscious brain, if you like, that part of your brain can perform it much, much better than your conscious thinking because conscious brain is hugely powerful, but it’s very slow. It can’t deal with that much information. So if you get in that situation where you’re now about to perform and all of a sudden you think all the pressure’s on, I’d better get this right. I’d better really control it. That is unfortunately, that’s the worst thing you can do. Because as soon as you step in and try and take control, you’re actually making it much harder for yourself.
Mark: A nice illustration of this that I came across, I think in the sports psychology literature, is if you imagine eating with a fork. You put some food on the end of your fork, you open your mouth, you put it in, close your mouth again, chew. You don’t even think about it. You might not even look happens really easily. Now if you imagine a lighting a match, opening your mouth, putting the match in and closing it again, so that’s actually totally fine if you do it right because you close your mouth around it, there’s not enough air for it to burn, the match goes out. You don’t get burnt.
Mark: But that’s not what happens because we’re back to perception of consequences again, you’re worried you’re going to burn yourself. All of a sudden your arm is probably going to tense up because you know you’ve got to get that match in the right place, otherwise you’re burning your mouth and this thing that you can do totally on autopilot, you’re now thinking about it. It feels really weird. You’re probably going to miss the center of your mouth. Maybe even your mouth totally if you even try and do it. But it’s exactly the same motion as the fork. What is different is you are now physically trying to control it because you are worried about the results and that’s the difference between letting go and trying to control your playing.
Christopher: And how do you do that? How do you stay in the subconscious autopilot when you need to?
Mark: So I think the staying in it is one thing we’ll talk about focus in a bit and I think it’s more… I like to look at things as two stages, if you’d like. The first thing is can you get into that right side of your brain, if you like. And the second bit is, well, how do you stay there? And most of the time it’s not a case of holding yourself there. It’s rather noticing when you drift off and coming back. So it’s one of the ones you probably do a fair bit in practice because you’re not so worried about the consequences. The issue is actually the one worst time to do it is when people most tend to actually do it, which is when the stakes are higher.
Mark: So I like to get people thinking about consciously just being aware of what does it feel like to let go? Can I notice it? And then when I see it works, can I deliberately let it happen if you get that feeling that you want to take over. So one thing that I exercise that I to use with people is just find some very repetitive phrase to play. So if you’re playing something rock or funk or whatever, something with a groove, a short phrase with a groove is great, but it doesn’t have to be a groove. It can just be any repetitive phrase, even if it’s a classical piece or whatever. So something simple and repetitive and just get going round and round that. And you should notice at some point that it almost just starts to play itself. And it should feel really good and flowing while this is happening because it’s in your short term memory, it’s in your muscle memory and your fingers can just do it.
Mark: And two things can happen here. One is you stay with it and you just notice how that feels and you’re starting to see, “Okay, this is what happens when I’m not having to make it happen. It just happens.” Another thing that is surprisingly common is you notice you’ve gone into this, you think, “Great, I’m letting go. It feels great and Oh, what’s happened? I’ve taken control over again.” And there’s a couple of reasons why this might happen. One is because you’re suddenly realizing, “Oh, I’m not doing this. I need to be in control.” Right? You realize you’re not willing to let go. But that’s an interesting thing to notice and to work on. The other even more paradoxical, and I’ve seen this a lot, is it feels good. You’re not doing it. You want to take the credit for this.
Mark: So it’s like something good is happening. I must know that it’s me who’s doing it. I will come back in and take control, thanks hand. And then it falls out of it again. So that’s a really counterintuitive one, if you like. Because it’s working and you don’t want to say it’s not me doing it. It’s just happening on autopilot. So surprisingly amount of the time you will get that happening. And in fact, when we get onto the subject of flow, that’s often what’s happening when you fall into flow and you fall straight out again. You think, “Wow, this is great. Must have more of this.” And you’re straight in there-
Christopher: You broke it.
Mark: Yeah, exactly. What you can do. So that’s just a little exercise that you can do. Just play a groove and see if you can notice what it takes to go in and out of letting go.
Christopher: That’s really valuable. I’ve had such a vivid example of that this year in my drum lessons where I’m learning a new instrument and there’s a lot of sight reading exercises and my sight reading is pretty good, but on drums it takes quite a lot of conscious effort and almost every lesson I will have the experience you just described where I have to pay attention with my conscious mind to decipher the notation. I get going, I figure out how to play it. I’m playing it, I loop around a few times, I’ve got the hang of it and now my conscious mind kicks back in and it’s like, “Oh wait, I wasn’t paying attention there for a second.” I played it right but I better get a grip on things again so that I can make sure it goes right again. It’s like I don’t trust my autopilot. And then as soon as you step in, as you say, you break that flow, you break that letting go and the thing tends to fall apart.
Mark: And this might be a really nice time to move onto the next topic that I look at, which is focus because we need to be a little bit careful about this auto pilot thing because, if you like, there’s good auto pilot and there’s bad auto pilot. So the good auto pilot is when you’re just letting your subconscious get on with doing what it needs to do and it’s got all the information to do it and you’re just stepping out of the way but still involved and driving, I guess, the higher motivation, what am I trying to do with this whole phrase or what emotion am I trying to get across? Or let’s just remember that I’m here to do music.
Mark: The bad auto pilot is when you start to play all right, whatever it is on the drums, and you’re thinking, “Hmm, what will I have for supper tonight? I wonder what that person there at the back of the hall is thinking.” That’s not going to be helpful. And one of the reasons for that is because you don’t feel like you’re actively doing it, but it’s all the information that is coming in from outside through your eyes, through your ears, the feeling in your limbs. It’s coming into the brain and although you’re not consciously doing stuff with it, that is what your subconscious needs in order to keep things going properly.
Mark: So this is where focus becomes really important. Is your focus in the right place to give you all the information you need to play at your best? And are you avoiding being distracted by those thoughts of well, what should I have for dinner? Or even worse, going back to the self-belief stuff, some self doubt or actually getting out of the present moment is the big danger here. So it’s thinking ahead. “Oh, this is coming up. I hope I don’t mess that bit up.” Or even, “Oh this bit’s going to be great. I can’t wait to get to the end. I’m playing so well or whatever.” And things in the past when you’ve made a mistake or you haven’t played something as well as you like and you need your attention to be right here on what you’re playing now because playing music, any instrument, singing, whatever it is hugely complicated, all sorts of small muscle movements involved. There’s all the time aspect of rhythms.
Mark: If you’re playing with other people, you’ve got to sync with them as well. So much stuff in there, it takes a huge amount of your brain power and if you’re trying to do that while you’re thinking of other things, yes it can happen, but it’s going to be at a much lower level than if you’ve got your full focus there.
Christopher: That is a really valuable distinction that I don’t think I’ve heard anyone else lay out so clearly that you need focus, but that is not the same as saying your analytical mind needs to be wearing and generating thoughts and I think it’s a slightly subtle thing. Maybe you can just recap that again to make sure it’s clear to everyone, the distinction between conscious mind versus autopilot and keeping focus without falling out of that letting go in the flow state.
Mark: Yeah, so it’s keeping your attention on what you need to do without holding it there too tightly or actively thinking, really struggling to think. It’s this, when you get people saying it, it’s completely true, but not very helpful, saying, “Don’t try, just do.” It’s that sort of thing. A lovely way that I think it’s Timothy Gallway talks about it in a game of tennis, and again, the music and other ones is this concept of relaxed concentration. So your concentration is there, but it’s not held there in a vice-like grip and you’re straining. It’s there relaxed. And we’ll talk a little bit about flow, I think in a second, which is a great way to do this.
Mark: Another metaphor that I love, which I think I came across literally, is a physical one, might even have been about how to hold a deck of cards properly, but it talks about holding it as you would a little tiny bird. So it’s got to be tight enough that the bird can’t escape, but you mustn’t crush it at the same time. And that’s what we’re looking for. You’ve got to hold your attention, your focus, where it wants to be, but as loosely as you can so that you’re not straining things. If that makes sense.
Christopher: It does. Yeah. And I think it neatly makes a bridge there to the mindfulness meditation that’s come up a few times on this show before and the relevance of that to music, that ability to control your attention without it meaning you’ve got a thousand thoughts in your head and in fact meaning the exact opposite.
Mark: Yep. And as I was saying, I think this is one of the reasons why flow is so helpful and such a good thing to chase. And for anyone who doesn’t know what the concept of flow is, it’s often called being in the zone. It’s that state of peak performance. There’s been a lot of great research into it where human beings just seem to do whatever task they’re doing at the height of their powers and it’s very tightly related to focus. And one of the reasons for this is in flow, your concentration naturally does become effortless. And this is such a tough thing to do to hold your concentration in the right spot at the right intensity. But when you get into a state of flow, that’s what tends to happen naturally. You’re so absorbed in what you’re doing that it almost takes more effort to lose concentration and fall out of it than just to stick with it and that that’s really what we’re aiming for.
Mark: You’re not thinking very analytically about it. You’re just so interested in what you’re doing that you’re almost watching like an observer who’s never seen this before. It’s like, “Oh, let me see what happens.” Not forcing it but just paying attention to everything.
Christopher: And so is this a separate topic in the way you approach these things or is this a subset of focus?
Mark: I bring it all together because, again, flow is much bigger than just focus but focus is a huge part of it and if you know what it is that you want to be focusing on, that is a huge part of the battle and I think that was my number one tip for listeners on what to do about focus is the very first thing is to think do you even know where you want your focus to be? Because this is something that we just take for granted a lot. It’s like I’ll focus but on what? So there will be different things that will be different for different people, for different genres, for different points in pieces.
Mark: But for me it’s things such as it might be keeping my muscles relaxed. Are my muscles relaxed because I know that helps me to play well. It might be feeling the pressure under my fingertips as I fret the strings if I have a tendency to fret too hard and if that’s what’s required. It might be just really paying attention to the sound that is coming out of my instrument. It might be listening to the other musicians if I’m in a band, and that’s really important. It might be locking in with the rhythm if that’s what’s needed at that time. So there’s no one right or wrong answer, different situations, different preferences.
Mark: But having an idea of where it is I want my focus to be is what allows me, if I notice it drifting off, to bring it back. Otherwise I’ve got this thing that I know I need to do something with, but it’s like a tool. It’s like well, do I go and hit this nail over here with my hammer of focus or that one or shall I bang this or whatever. I know I’ve got to be doing something with it, but I don’t know what. So as soon as you’ve got an idea actually this is where it wants to be. That’s a large part of the game.
Christopher: Yeah. And again, I think that’s an analogy to the meditation where you might choose to focus on your breath purely because it stops your mind going elsewhere. How important is it what you choose to focus on? You just gave a lot of examples. Are we talking about you should focus on this because that’s what will help you play well or is it you should focus on something because that will help you stay in the zone?
Mark: So it’s a bit of both. So as I said, there’s a bit of personal preference and with all these things you want to experiment a bit and find out what works for you because it will be different for different people and it might change over time. The other thing though is it goes back to what we were talking about about good auto pilot and bad auto pilot. If I’m daydreaming, looking up at the ceiling thinking what I’m going to have for dinner, that’s clearly not helpful. So think that you need information coming into you to allow yourself to play the music even if you’re not consciously making all those decisions. So your focus wants to be somewhere where it means you are getting all that information.
Mark: So if I’m a bass player in a band and it’s really important for me to lock in with the drummer, then having my attention on the drummer would be a great choice. It could be on the whole band as well because I’m getting the drummer there. It could be on something related to that, but if I’m paying attention only to the exact tone of voice the singer is getting, that’s probably not going to be so helpful for me. And certainly if I’m thinking about stuff that’s way outside the band, but you’re depending on what the music is and what your goal is, that might be different. If you’re a lead singer in a group and you really want to connect with the audience, it might be more important for you to have your attention out there than some of the other things.
Mark: And this also might shift at different points. So let’s say there’s a part where it’s out of time and I’m singing as a lead singer and I really want to connect with the audience, but then it goes into a very tight groove after that, I might make the decision beforehand, “Okay, I’m going to be focusing on the audience at first. Then when we get into the groove, I’m going to be listening to the whole band and locking in with the rhythm because that might serve me different at different points.” But as long as I’ve made that decision, then I can make sure my attention goes there. Whereas if not, I’m just flying by the seat of my pants the whole time.
Christopher: Got you. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. That’s really helpful. So what would the next area be after flow?
Mark: So the next area is how you react to mistakes. Because like it or not, mistakes are things that are going to happen. So first of all, no one is perfect. But secondly, I like to look at it as the only way you can even come close to playing no mistakes is if you’re playing it really safe. If you’re pushing the edges at all, if you’re trying to use all the potential that you’ve got, chances are you’re going to go over that line at some point and there’ll be a mistake there. So it will depend a little bit on your attitude to these things. It might depend on the type of music you’re playing. For me, I do a lot of improvising and jazz, so perhaps it’s a bit freer there, but I certainly, even in the classical world, I would rather hear a performance where there were some amazing parts and the odd mistake than something that was technically perfect throughout and just have no fire behind it.
Mark: So that’s the first thing to look at is our minds tend to default to, “Oh, I don’t want any mistakes.” But actually think about, well, what are you throwing out if you say, “I will avoid mistakes at all costs.” Because typically the only way to do that is to play it very, very safe. And that may or may not be a trade-off that you’re willing to make.
Christopher: Yeah, I’m reminded of an analogy we use quite a lot here at Musical U, which is the idea of a music playing robot. And if you’re fully focused on instrument technique and playing the notation note perfect, excellent timing, never a wrong pitch. That’s all well and good. But we’ve got robots these days that can do that. We’ve got CDs that people can listen to. That’s not really why people come to listen to you play.
Mark: Yeah, absolutely. And there’s a lot more that you can say around mistakes. We touched on earlier the idea that actually people notice mistakes a lot less than you would think, particularly if you’re in a group or whatever. And even more than that, even if they notice it at the time, will they remember it after the performance is done? Probably not, particularly if the rest of it was good. So they might even notice it at the time but then come to the end of the piece, it’s not there in their memory at all. And this is a really interesting thing back again to how what we perceive can be deceptive. So for you as a musician, typically what you will notice is the things that go wrong. For you as a listener, and see if this rings true for you, what you’ll typically notice is the things that sound really good, that go right.
Mark: But when we’re up there playing, we’re in that musician role. So it’s very easy to think the audience is having the same perspective as us. They’re on the lookout for those bad bits, which is very rarely true. But again, that can skew our perception of whether a mistake is such a bad thing or not. So that’s the first thing is to just look at your attitude to mistakes because it’s one of these paradoxical things that the more worried you are about making mistakes, the more likely you are to make them. Comes back to that letting go again. If you’re worried about making mistakes, you want to take control. If you’re not worried about them, you’re happy to let go. And as long as you’ve done the practice, your body knows what to do. When things tend to go wrong is when you think you know better and you’ve got to control it. So that’s the first bit.
Mark: The other thing I find really important about mistakes is it’s not usually the mistake itself, the initial mistake, that is the problem. It’s the reaction to it. Because what will tend to happen is you notice the mistake, your body might tense up. You will certainly start thinking about it, “Oh, I can’t believe I made a mistake,” maybe one. Or it might be, “Oh, what will people think about it?” And then you might get an emotional response as well, feeling bad about it, feeling worried, whatever these things. But all of this stuff that you’re… So the physical tightening up is never going to be good for playing music, thinking stuff takes you right out of the present moment. You want to have your focus again.
Mark: Focus should be something that’s happening right now because that’s the only bit of music you can control. If your mind has gone to I can’t believe I made that mistake or I hope I don’t make another one or whatever, you’ve lost that again. You’re playing at a lower level and that’s when you’re likely to make another mistake and that will just make things worse and you can end up with a bit of a chain reaction. So this is the tricky thing, can you let go of that instinctive reaction to mistakes and just get on with, “That’s fine, it happened. I’ll address it later. Let’s keep playing.” Which takes a bit of practice. It is something you can practice. Find a piece that you know you are likely to make some mistakes in and just play through it with the aim to just keep playing as much as possible after them is a very simple way into it.
Mark: Another thing that people might find useful if you’re, like I certainly have been, in this category of musicians who notices these things because you want to get better, you want to iron out mistakes. When I get up and perform, I want to learn from it. I don’t want to have it as a black box. So this is the tricky bit for the performance thing, I want to be totally in the moment, not hanging onto anything that’s happened so I can give my best performance. But if I do that, my brain is going to be nagging away going, “Oh, but you lost your chance to learn from all the things that didn’t go right.”
Mark: So if you have a recorder there and you record the performance, that is a great way that allows you to do both. And you set the recorder going before you start to play and your mind just now knows I don’t have that excuse where I need to. Because it will be telling you, “Oh, but I need to go back and log this mistake because otherwise I can’t get better.” Well if you’ve got the recorder there, that doesn’t mean your mind won’t want to do it, but you’ve got a much stronger argument, if you’d like, to say, “Nope, let’s stay in the moment. Let’s stick with this because I can always come back and review the recording later.”
Christopher: That’s really helpful. I should hold back from making too many analogies to meditation, but I can’t help one move, which is often people give you the tip that if you find yourself getting into that with meditation where you have a good idea and you don’t want to lose that good idea so then you spend the rest of your meditation session trying to hang on to the idea. Some people are like, “Just have a pad of paper. Let yourself write it down so that you can then let it go.” And I think this is similar. I think for me what helped was just reframing as if it matters, I’ll remember it and then you can let it go. And just trusting in yourself that if it was a really good idea or in this case if it was quite an important mistake to learn from some part of you is going to remember that even if you don’t fixate on it.
Mark: Yeah, absolutely.
Christopher: So we’ve already covered a great deal and a lot of really actionable stuff, which is fantastic, but there is actually one more area you consider really important to cover. What’s that?
Mark: Yeah. And that is what I call the real world. And it’s a bit of a mishmash of a few things. Two big ones really. So one is, as we’ve alluded to already, I’m yet to find one magic exercise that works perfectly for everyone.
Christopher: What was the point if there’s no one perfect…
Mark: I’ll get there. Maybe not. But different things work for different people at different times and different instruments, different genres. So it’s good to play around with these things and just to know that all these ways of doing it are not set in stone. So the important thing for me though is when you’ve got an exercise is to understand what the principles behind it are. Because then you can think, “Well, how might I change it to work for me?” Because as long as you can do something that’s in the spirit of that then that might make sense. If you’re taking something and going, “Well, I don’t like this bit so I’m going to cut it out.” And that’s a fundamental part of it. That may not be be so helpful, but I definitely encourage people to be a little bit creative but just see what’s working and see what isn’t. And if something really doesn’t suit you or doesn’t suit your situation.
Mark: So for example, the examples I’ve given about where you might put your focus. If you’re playing an instrument or a type of music where that is totally not appropriate, then you don’t have to go with any of the examples I’ve given. But remember the thing that I was talking about where I’m saying it wants to be somewhere where you’re getting the information that is most important to you and you can work out well, I’ve got three ideas of what that might be. Let’s experiment with them and see which one works. So that might be one thing.
Mark: The other aspect of the real world is a lot of these practices you can do work great when you’re on your own in the practice room and most of them are set up so they should work at a gig as well or whatever but sometimes things don’t work like that. Really big example for me is going to jam sessions, which I do a lot as a jazz musician. So partly if there’s just a little bit of a routine I like to have before I play, just to get myself ready, only takes a few seconds. But if you’re getting up on stage on a jam session, I’m having to plug my guitar into the amp, check that’s all working. There were other musicians getting up at the same time, people are deciding what tune we’re going to play. I’m trying to work out if I know what the music is. Sometimes they’ll start before I’m ready. I just don’t have the option to do that. So what are ways that I can change that around so that I can still get some of the benefit, even in a situation where it doesn’t seem to fit and I can find ways to do that. That’s part of it.
Mark: But the other part is just accepting this is what happens in the real world. It’s okay. Just because I haven’t been able to do my little pre-performance routine as I would like, it doesn’t mean that I might as well shut up shop and go home or think it’s a lost cause. It’s that challenge mentality again. This is not how I would choose to do it, but you can bet I’m going to find a way.
Mark: And the other thing is just dealing with some of the stuff that the real world throws at you. So in terms of a couple of practical tips, it’s about minimizing the stress from the things that you can control. Because there’s always going to be stuff that might happen. Perhaps the sound system at a venue isn’t working and you thought you’d get to set up and sound check and you don’t, goodness knows the number of times I’ve had that happen. But there were things that you can control. So for example, a couple of quick tips for what I’m going the equipment that I’m going to take to a gig, I like to have a checklist for that so I don’t have to worry have I remembered everything? Might I forget something or even worse actually turn up there and realize that I have forgotten something. Really simple to do but very effective.
Mark: One step further, if you can do it, is if you know what you have to take to a gig and you have a bag that you always take, whether it’s your instrument case, whether it’s a separate bag, just leave everything you need always packed in there so that you don’t even have to find it, worry if you’ve got it, you just know that’s where it lives. I can pick up the bag and I know I will have my spare cables, my tuner, this, that and the other, my spare set of strings, they just live there.
Mark: So that’s another great thing to do and just allow yourself time so that you’re not rushing around. Just make sure you aim to get there early. It’s again, surprisingly simple and often doesn’t happen and on the off chance that you’re delayed on the way or whatever, you’ll still have time. You don’t have to rush, you don’t have to stress about it because there’s all sorts of other things, both the nature of the performance itself, the stuff that you can’t control, those things can affect how you’re going to play. So you might as well just take the small, simple steps to control the things that you can control.
Christopher: Fantastic. And you’ve addressed a question, I’m sure it was on people’s minds, which is what does this look like in practice? If we know these are the important areas, and then I imagine myself six months from now having mastered them all, what does that actually mean in practical terms? And I think you said at the beginning of the conversation something very humble, which was, “This is what’s worked for me.” In fact, it’s also worked for a great number of students you’ve had in your course and throughout your performance where you teach a lot of this stuff step-by-step. And I wonder if we could just paint a picture of using that course, paint a picture of what it looks like for someone to really study and to develop the toolkit and, maybe not master it, but really nail their peak performance.
Mark: Yeah, so a couple of things there. The first is this is not something that you ever finish. It’s just the same as a musical instrument or whatever. Even if you get to the point where you can play that piece perfectly and you go out and you perform it, if you want to play it again at some point in the future, you can’t just leave it for 10 years and expect you’ll comeback and it will be just where it was. So you do want to do some ongoing maintenance on this. But the way that I take people through it is we’ve got six modules in the course set up in those six topics that we’ve covered and there are exercises for each and you can just take them and go off on them. But what I offer is a setup that I call a boot camp which takes you through those modules roughly in six weeks and gives you the set tasks, the exercises, other tasks that I want you to do each week and some of those are right do this this week and then you’ve done it.
Mark: Others are start practicing this week and you will keep doing it next week and then we’ll take this to a slightly higher level in the third week. So there’s various different things going on there, but I’m walking you through all the key exercises in the course with this is how I want you to practice them. This is how long for, this is when you’re going to move on and do something else. Here are the reflections that I want you to make on that and the aim is at the end of the six weeks, you haven’t mastered everything because this is an ongoing process. Even if you get it to where you want to, you want to do some maintenance. But also just like anything, you never master a scale. You can always get better and better at doing it, as you brought up the meditation a lot of times, really important and relevant to this sort of thing, but you look at there are people who spend their whole lives practicing. It’s such a simple thing to do in concept, but you will keep getting better at it forever and this is very similar.
Mark: But what you’ve got at the end of the six weeks is you have had a taste and a good application to all the things in there, so you’ve got a pretty clear idea of which are the ones that are working best for you and which are the areas where you have most work to do. Because I’m a big believer in you’ll get much more mileage out of really doing one or two things well and sticking to them rather than trying to do everything and not sticking with it. It comes back to what I talked to about earlier about community and accountability and those sorts of things. What I’m really interested in is getting people progress. So if I was to say, “Spend five minutes a day on this” and you get a bit of progress, but people actually do it versus, “You need to spend two hours a day on this” and most people don’t even start, a couple of people try it for a week and then you stop. I’m much more on board with the five minutes a day and in fact that’s what I’ve got as an ongoing practice plan complete with a whole load of ideas about how you turn this into a habit, how you just make it keep happening and do itself.
Mark: And that comes down to picking well what is the most important thing for me to work on now? What is one exercise I can do to get better at it? And let’s put that as a regular daily thing. And there are little assessments as well, so you can then go back and say, “Okay, right, has that improved? Maybe it’s time to switch to another one.” But that’s really what we’re looking to do. Give you a six week way to get started, get a taste of everything, get used to doing the exercises and then say, “Okay, where do I need to put my focus now?”
Mark: And of course if you want to spend more than five minutes a day doing this, lovely. You will definitely see more results. But the really important thing is you will definitely get results from doing five minutes a day and that’s the most important thing to do. Just a little bit of this, it can make a huge difference to your music. How well you play? And the thing that I think has been under there, but I haven’t perhaps stated as strongly as I could do. It’s makes such a difference to my enjoyment of music and I see that for so many of my students as well. It’s not just can you play better if you’re not worried about making mistakes, if you can let go rather than trying to control everything, if you believe you’ve got the confidence that you can do this, you can just have so much more fun on the stage.
Mark: And I guess to come back right back to the start of the conversation, how did I get into this? One of the things that always really bothered me was I play music because I love it. I’ve spent years with it because I love to do it. And so it’s the question, well why should getting up on stage be such a chore? And actually I don’t enjoy it, either because I’m not looking forward to it or the one that I really used to get a lot, which is where I get off. I’d have played really well and I made two or three mistakes. I would beat myself up about those two or three mistakes and people would come up to me and say that was great. And I would then tell them about all the things I’d done wrong and I wouldn’t believe them. And I should have got so much pleasure out of it and a lot of the time I didn’t and that really frustrated me.
Christopher: Fantastic. Well, I can definitely see how nailing the peak performance and getting past performance anxiety makes an enormous difference to your enjoyment of music overall and that’s, yeah, a great side benefit to have to the main objective. Mark, when I came across your course I was so happy because as I said earlier this is a really important topic about which there’s a fair bit known, but I feel like music learners, myself included, have been lacking a clear, coherent step by step plan to actually put it into action and when we spoke previously it was immediately clear that you really know what you’re talking about and I’m sure that’s something everyone has seen today in our conversation. So it’s definitely a course, Unlock your Performance, definitely a course that we will be recommending to our members at Musical U and I’d encourage everyone to check it out.
Christopher: It was actually a website and YouTube channel that first caught our attention that’s playinthezone.com and you have some great blog posts and videos they’re touching on some of these topics. I believe you also have a free ebook, which might be an easy entry point for people into your world. Is that right?
Mark: Yeah, so the ebook is called Unshakeable Foundations and it’s just going through the nine key mindsets that the top performers all share. It’s very true for musicians, but frankly applies across sport and the rest of life as well. And so it gives you those mindsets you’re aiming for so you can see maybe you’ve got five of them and four you want to work on and just some really simple ways that you can take that forward and say, “How am I going to work on these? How will I know when I’ve made progress?” And like I say, that’s the foundation of all this. When you’re starting from those mindsets, beliefs, that’s when everything is built on much firmer foundations.
Christopher: Fantastic. Well, a big thank you, Mark, for joining us today and sharing so much really meaty detail about these topics that are often glossed over or talked about in a way that is totally impractical for people to actually get any benefit from. So a big thank you and we’ll have links in the show notes, of course, to playinthezone.com as well as that ebook and the course for people to check out.
Mark: Fantastic. Thanks so much, Christopher.