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The Power of Positive Rituals
ur daily lives are filled with ritual. We work to earn promotion, provide for our families, maintain a home, pay bills, eat, sleep, worship, and through it all manage to keep the “dishes spinning.” We spend much of our time seeking fulfillment in some dimension of our lives, in our work, relationships, and/or play. However, the daily routine of our music career can steal our zeal and cause us to lose heart. How do so many professional musicians, faculty and performers lose their “first love”?
Powerful positive rituals can help us stay fixed on the reason we began a music career in the first place. The concepts of performance rituals, centering down, routine, and balance are key components to our effectiveness and creativity. While possessing natural ability is desirable and in fact touted in our educational programs, it is not the determining factor in achievement. Many naturally gifted and talented students lack the intrinsic motivation to work through barriers in their playing. The required discipline of practice seems to be fading in our current culture of on-demand information, entertainment, and commerce. We can combat complacency and restore discipline by practicing positive rituals. Practicing Positive Performance Rituals A positive ritual is a behavior that becomes automatic over time, fueled by some deeply held value. In contrast to will and discipline, which require pushing yourself to a particular behavior, a ritual pulls at you. Look at any part of your life in which you are consistently effective and you will find that certain habits help make that possible. • Mothers have rituals around spending quality time with and without their kids. • Athletes have regular workout routines and often practice very methodical visualization exercises before competing. • Successful leaders regularly offer feedback that leaves people feeling challenged rather than threatened. Great performers have rituals that optimize their ability to move rhythmically between stress and recovery. We can use these powerful performance rituals in our daily lives to combat stress, to help us prepare for the day ahead, and to focus during performances, in rehearsals, and while teaching. These rituals will soon feel like a close and trusted friend in our moment of stress and daily practice. I regularly teach my students to practice these techniques as they prepare for tests, college auditions, and as they take the concert stage.
56 Southwestern Musician/October 2007
by Brent Phillips
Centering Down This technique comes directly from Don Greene’s books: Performance Success, Audition Success; and Fight Your Fear and Win. I believe the centering down ritual is the most effective tool I employ when playing recitals, touring, soloing with orchestras, and presenting master classes and performance clinics. Centering down involves the process of simply doing. For example, saying “I will not overeat” is not nearly as effective as eating fruit instead of cake. This is called “priming”—focusing on the behavior you want to introduce rather than behavior you want to resist. “I will not crack any notes” places me in a defensive and cautionary performance stance. “I will captivate my audience” places me in an expectant, joyous, and very confident performance position. Here are the steps for how to use the centering down process to command your space and enjoy your performance. I practice this while standing and holding my horn. 1. Form your clear intention—“I will keep my phrase spinning.” This intention has one action, one purpose, and one goal. Nothing in your “intention phrase” can be negative. Never use the word don’t. You are priming with words of clear intent and positive reinforcement. 2. Pick a focal point—find a small point that is low and distant. Fix your stare on it and clear your mind of distracting thoughts. Always focus back to this point. Later in this centering sequence, you will focus your energy on this point of commitment and determination. 3. Breathe deliberately—close your eyes; focus on each breath. Inhale through your nose slowly and exhale through your mouth. Breathe in steady measured counts. Practice this during every set of rests, tacit movements, and during your warm-up. 4. Release tension—perform a mental muscle scan while you are still breathing deeply. Keep your eyes closed and imagine the tension in your neck and back slowly escaping with each breath.
5. Find your center—stand with your feet shoulder width apart and eyes closed, slowly shifting your weight from one leg to the other while continuing to breathe mindfully, releasing stress and being aware of your clear intention. Imagine you are rooted, grounded, more powerful, claiming your performance space, stabilized and anchored. Keep your breath down and your balance grounded. On very loud or high solo passages, I often raise my bell and try to keep my chest forward; however, I always stay grounded. 6. Focus on your process cue—this is one of the most important steps and comes immediately before you perform. A process cue is a scene, an image or sound. I enjoy shooting a compound bow. Before performing, I imagine drawing my bow in a smooth, controlled, stealthy motion. My chest is full of air and my arms are relaxed and still. I place the pin on my mark. As I gently squeeze my trigger release, I feel the power stored in my limbs explode forward, I hear the string slice through the air and I see the arrow hit my mark. The bow is my instrument, the string is the attack of articulation, squeezing the trigger is the point of the attack; the limbs exploding forward help me let the air go. The arrow hitting my mark is sound on the back wall. 7. Direct your energy—open your eyes and hurl your energy to the focal point you established earlier. One directed motion—one act of total commitment. Your intent, posture and process cue all working together. You are relaxed and now have an aggressive, powerful and positive stance. Practice this at least three times a day. Each time you work on this, you will improve your focus time. Ultimately, you want to be able to accomplish this in under 10 seconds while on stage. Establishing Routine I use my daily warm-up routine to focus on my tone, breathing, and ease of playing. When preparing for a major performance, I adopt an inflexible daily routine of devotional time followed by exercise. My first practice session involves
58 Southwestern Musician/October 2007
stretching and a very specific warm-up process of mouthpiece buzzing, glissandi patterns, flexibility studies, flow studies, scale work, long tones, and lyrical etudes. I spend much of this time recording myself and listening back at half speed. Alternating between playing and listening gives me time to rest physically and then re-engage. I spend time studying scores, and after teaching several hours, I frequently listen to recordings of the masters of my instrument to recalibrate my ear. I study every aspect of tone, articulation, phrasing, and interpretation. I buzz the mouthpiece to and from work while in the car. Achieving Balance Balancing work and practice with family life has become my chief priority. Time away from the horn, completely disengaging from the creative and analytical process, is necessary to return empowered and fresh. Turning attention to others can be a source of strength and renewal and in turn will infuse your teaching and creative abilities like never before. The more energy and time I pour into the lives of my family, church, and students, the more energy and strength I seem to have performing and doing creative work. Why Practice Rituals? • Efficiency during performance: positive energy rituals help us conserve our best moments for the appropriate time. We can learn to toggle our energy level up or down during performance. Each of us has a specific ideal performance state. Think of those times you felt the most energized and confident during a performance. This ideal performance state rarely happens by accident. You can recreate it with practice. • Precision: these rituals must be practiced and should be considered a skill to be developed. Imagine your favorite athlete or musician immediately before a performance. They all have specific rituals they repeat that serve as physical cues to the mind and help prepare them for their task. • Reduced conscious effort: rituals will help us to get out of the analytical side of our brain and perform more naturally with a quiet, calm, and focused mind.
• Deliberate preparation: we deliberately practice these techniques of centering, role-playing, process cues, deep breathing, and stress and recovery so that during our moment in the spotlight, the program runs automatically and with ease. • Reinforced core values: Rituals are powerful tools that help us translate our most significant value system into our everyday lives. We must be fueled by a deep sense of purpose, a transcendent cause. If the only thing that propels us is being the world’s greatest musicians, winning honor ensemble, or earning tenure, our purpose will fail us. We must seek to connect with our heart’s desire, our first love. How can we affect our students, audience and family? How can we give back to the community? Transformation through Rituals Our most creative and insightful moments in life usually do not materialize when we are exhausted, but rather during a long walk or an unforced moment of introspection. We must regularly identify with our purpose, with our heart’s desire. What do we do that makes an impact on others? Do we have a transcendent cause? Think of life as a series of sprints rather than a marathon. We must fully engage in our creative work and then be able to step back and recover our hearts, engage with our families, and identify with a cause and purpose greater than ourselves. This is counter to our culture of long hours, careerism, and self-promotion. The power of positive rituals will not only transform the way we go about our teaching and performing but will affect the lives of those around us. Brent Phillips is Assistant Professor of Trombone at Baylor University and principal trombone of the Harrisburg and Waco Symphony