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The Power of

Positive Rituals

O
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 seek-
ing 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”? by Brent Phillips

Powerful positive rituals can help us stay fixed on the reason we Centering Down
began a music career in the first place. The concepts of performance This technique comes directly from Don Greene’s books:
rituals, centering down, routine, and balance are key components to Performance Success, Audition Success; and Fight Your Fear and Win.
our effectiveness and creativity. I believe the centering down ritual is the most effective tool I
While possessing natural ability is desirable and in fact touted employ when playing recitals, touring, soloing with orchestras,
in our educational programs, it is not the determining factor in and presenting master classes and performance clinics.
achievement. Many naturally gifted and talented students lack Centering down involves the process of simply doing. For
the intrinsic motivation to work through barriers in their play- example, saying “I will not overeat” is not nearly as effective as
ing. The required discipline of practice seems to be fading in our eating fruit instead of cake. This is called “priming”—focusing
current culture of on-demand information, entertainment, and on the behavior you want to introduce rather than behavior you
commerce. We can combat complacency and restore discipline by want to resist. “I will not crack any notes” places me in a defen-
practicing positive rituals. sive and cautionary performance stance. “I will captivate my
audience” places me in an expectant, joyous, and very confident
Practicing Positive Performance Rituals performance position. Here are the steps for how to use the cen-
A positive ritual is a behavior that becomes automatic over tering down process to command your space and enjoy your per-
time, fueled by some deeply held value. In contrast to will and formance. I practice this while standing and holding my horn.
discipline, which require pushing yourself to a particular behav- 1. Form your clear intention—“I will keep my phrase spin-
ior, a ritual pulls at you. Look at any part of your life in which you ning.” This intention has one action, one purpose, and one
are consistently effective and you will find that certain habits help goal. Nothing in your “intention phrase” can be negative.
make that possible. Never use the word don’t. You are priming with words of
• Mothers have rituals around spending quality time with and clear intent and positive reinforcement.
without their kids. 2. Pick a focal point—find a small point that is low and dis-
• Athletes have regular workout routines and often practice tant. Fix your stare on it and clear your mind of distracting
very methodical visualization exercises before competing. thoughts. Always focus back to this point. Later in this cen-
• Successful leaders regularly offer feedback that leaves people tering sequence, you will focus your energy on this point of
feeling challenged rather than threatened. commitment and determination.
Great performers have rituals that optimize their ability to 3. Breathe deliberately—close your eyes; focus on each
move rhythmically between stress and recovery. We can use these breath. Inhale through your nose slowly and exhale through
powerful performance rituals in our daily lives to combat stress, your mouth. Breathe in steady measured counts. Practice
to help us prepare for the day ahead, and to focus during per- this during every set of rests, tacit movements, and during
formances, in rehearsals, and while teaching. These rituals will your warm-up.
soon feel like a close and trusted friend in our moment of stress 4. Release tension—perform a mental muscle scan while you
and daily practice. I regularly teach my students to practice these are still breathing deeply. Keep your eyes closed and imag-
techniques as they prepare for tests, college auditions, and as they ine the tension in your neck and back slowly escaping with
take the concert stage. each breath.
56 Southwestern Musician/October 2007
5. Find your center—stand with your stretching and a very specific warm-up • Deliberate preparation: we delib-
feet shoulder width apart and eyes process of mouthpiece buzzing, glissandi erately practice these techniques of
closed, slowly shifting your weight patterns, flexibility studies, flow studies, centering, role-playing, process cues,
from one leg to the other while scale work, long tones, and lyrical etudes. deep breathing, and stress and recov-
continuing to breathe mindfully, I spend much of this time recording ery so that during our moment in the
releasing stress and being aware of myself and listening back at half speed. spotlight, the program runs automati-
your clear intention. Imagine you Alternating between playing and listen- cally and with ease.
are rooted, grounded, more pow- ing gives me time to rest physically and • Reinforced core values: Rituals are
erful, claiming your performance then re-engage. I spend time studying powerful tools that help us translate
space, stabilized and anchored. Keep scores, and after teaching several hours, our most significant value system into
your breath down and your balance I frequently listen to recordings of the our everyday lives. We must be fueled
grounded. On very loud or high masters of my instrument to recalibrate by a deep sense of purpose, a tran-
solo passages, I often raise my bell my ear. I study every aspect of tone, scendent cause. If the only thing that
and try to keep my chest forward; articulation, phrasing, and interpretation. propels us is being the world’s greatest
however, I always stay grounded. I buzz the mouthpiece to and from work musicians, winning honor ensemble,
6. Focus on your process cue—this while in the car. or earning tenure, our purpose will
is one of the most important steps fail us. We must seek to connect with
and comes immediately before you Achieving Balance our heart’s desire, our first love. How
perform. A process cue is a scene, Balancing work and practice with can we affect our students, audience
an image or sound. I enjoy shooting family life has become my chief priority. and family? How can we give back to
a compound bow. Before perform- Time away from the horn, completely the community?
ing, I imagine drawing my bow in a disengaging from the creative and ana-
smooth, controlled, stealthy motion. lytical process, is necessary to return Transformation through Rituals
My chest is full of air and my arms empowered and fresh. Turning atten- Our most creative and insightful
are relaxed and still. I place the pin tion to others can be a source of strength moments in life usually do not materi-
on my mark. As I gently squeeze and renewal and in turn will infuse your alize when we are exhausted, but rather
my trigger release, I feel the power teaching and creative abilities like never during a long walk or an unforced
stored in my limbs explode forward, before. The more energy and time I pour moment of introspection. We must regu-
I hear the string slice through the air into the lives of my family, church, and larly identify with our purpose, with our
and I see the arrow hit my mark. The students, the more energy and strength I heart’s desire. What do we do that makes
bow is my instrument, the string is seem to have performing and doing cre- an impact on others? Do we have a tran-
the attack of articulation, squeezing ative work. scendent cause?
the trigger is the point of the attack; Think of life as a series of sprints rather
the limbs exploding forward help Why Practice Rituals? than a marathon. We must fully engage
me let the air go. The arrow hitting • Efficiency during performance: in our creative work and then be able to
my mark is sound on the back wall. positive energy rituals help us con- step back and recover our hearts, engage
7. Direct your energy—open your serve our best moments for the appro- with our families, and identify with a
eyes and hurl your energy to the priate time. We can learn to toggle cause and purpose greater than ourselves.
focal point you established earlier. our energy level up or down during This is counter to our culture of long
One directed motion—one act of performance. Each of us has a spe- hours, careerism, and self-promotion.
total commitment. Your intent, pos- cific ideal performance state. Think The power of positive rituals will not
ture and process cue all working of those times you felt the most ener- only transform the way we go about our
together. You are relaxed and now gized and confident during a perfor- teaching and performing but will affect
have an aggressive, powerful and mance. This ideal performance state the lives of those around us.
positive stance. rarely happens by accident. You can
recreate it with practice. Brent Phillips is Assistant Professor of
Practice this at least three times a day. • Precision: these rituals must be prac- Trombone at Baylor University and
Each time you work on this, you will ticed and should be considered a skill principal trombone of the Harrisburg
improve your focus time. Ultimately, to be developed. Imagine your favor- and Waco Symphony
you want to be able to accomplish this in ite athlete or musician immediately 0
under 10 seconds while on stage. before a performance. They all have
specific rituals they repeat that serve
Establishing Routine as physical cues to the mind and help
I use my daily warm-up routine to prepare them for their task.
focus on my tone, breathing, and ease of • Reduced conscious effort: ritu-
playing. When preparing for a major per- als will help us to get out of the ana-
formance, I adopt an inflexible daily rou- lytical side of our brain and perform
tine of devotional time followed by exer- more naturally with a quiet, calm, and
cise. My first practice session involves focused mind.
58 Southwestern Musician/October 2007