The creative supervisor
The great thing about being young, is you don’t fully understand what you do naturally. In the case of performing music at a high level, gifted children will often be in the dark on the details surrounding their technical mastery & nerves of steel.
For a while, it’s probably okay to take this process for granted & simply play dumb to how it all works. Usually, they think, it’s all those hours practicing that yields all this ease.
But whenever a player does some introspection, it can lead to a perplexing & sometimes terrifying place. I believe Yehudi Menuhin went through such a predicament, and he was forever locked in something akin to analysis paralysis about how he actually played the fiddle. A small poem from Katherine Craster best illustrates my meaning:
A centipede was happy quite, until a toad in fun
Said, ‘Pray, which leg comes after which?’
This raised his doubts to such a pitch
He fell distracted in the ditch
Not knowing how to run.
It’s not impossible for performers to be ensnared in this death-spiral for good. And I’d submit the more talented the youngster, the more overwhelming the task to identify what their process is later.
For me, the first person to verbalize how to be great was my former teacher, Dorothy DeLay. Until then, the mystic chant of ‘practice, practice, practice’ was all I’d ever heard on the matter. She would say, you have to know your piece of music to a profoundly high degree.
Arguably, this step of the process is pretty straight-forward. You can dissect each passage, read about the composer & map all the chord progressions — you can even interweave a story with the music so it lives in a world you can better understand. However, this just prepares your facilities for playing the music, not unlike training a dog for performing a trick. Alas, this is just the ground layer for assertive playing & great performances.
It’s not enough to train your inner game — the part of you that does all the labor and later makes all the split-decisions. You also need to acknowledge and prepare your conscious self — your CEO, your slow-moving pencil-pushing supervisor — for a performance, as well.
Thankfully, to prepare a supervisor is a drastically simpler process than to train your inner ninja. But to neglect your supervisor is bad news. If you don’t put your supervisor to work, you will put your mind in a tailspin with questions like ‘am I ready?’, ‘how will I perform this passage with precision?’, ‘what will I do if I mess this up?’
It’s your supervisor’s job to oversee the myriad of trained split decisions you’re presenting. It also checks in with you during a concert to see how things are going generally: how the instrument is handling itself — is it in tune, projecting, in balance — and checks your energy-level as well.
But most importantly, the supervisor is the artist: when it has nothing to do because the inner ninja is busy executing with ease, it can subtly guide & shape the humdrum mechanics in a way that is inspired by it, and create, art.
Help it out
There are things you can do to make for a happy supervisor. You need to make sure you’re well rested, well fed, etc. And of course, you have to breathe to ensure you remain in a healthy state.
Moreover, you have to limit what your supervisor can do. Overseeing the inner self is its only job during a performance. You can observe & take notes, but what you can’t do is dictate what’s going about on the factory floor — the factory floor moves so fast, a supervisor’s commands are never heard in time. That’s why criticizing your workers mid-performance is a useless endeavor.
If you don’t limit your supervisor, it will lead to anxiety. But to neglect or un-employ your supervisor, you’re going to be in even bigger trouble.
A bit like a cake
When your supervisor & amygdala are working in harmony, you’re left with a healthy apparatus to present great art. You’ll know your system is working well when after a show, you won’t feel regretful.
Some times, though, your supervisor may have some notes it took during the performance. You can debrief / jot down what the supervisor recorded: maybe a certain passage is still rusty, in which case, the workers need more time with it before the next performance.
If the supervisor spent most of its time in a dream-like state, then the system is working on a supreme level; you’ll be a happy person when this happens, as the extra hard work has made for an easy-going shift for the supervisor, and most likely, a wonderful dessert for the audience.
If you’ve done the work, and understand the roles your brain takes on, then a performance can be quite the sweet one.