You’re completely engaged in the music. The notes are rolling effortlessly off your fingertips and you feel the rhythm deeply.
Your confidence level is unusually high. You’re anticipating every musical twist and turn, so that the tempo doesn’t even matter. You feel like you simply can’t make a mistake.
This, fellow six-stringer, is The Zone. Welcome!
Finding The Zone – that feeling of total command – is a beautiful thing and what all musicians aim for when they play.
Of course, athletes often talk about The Zone as well. Whether it’s the basketball player effortlessly swishing three-pointers (“From downtown!” as Marv Albert would say) or the hitter in baseball completely “locked in” at the plate and putting great swings on every pitch, the feeling is that of being one with the game, fully engaged and focused.
In Awesome Point #6, we’re going to explore this concept in more depth, for this is where all of our hard work comes to fruition: in The Zone!
Awesome Point #6: Find Your Zone
In pop culture, we use the phrase “in the zone” quite a bit – sometimes re-worded as, “in the moment”, “on a roll”, “on fire”, or “locked in” – but is this even a real thing, psychologically-speaking?
However, psychologists prefer to use the term flow. According to my friend Wiki, here’s the deal on “flow”:
“Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity.
It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning. In flow, the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand. To be caught in the ennui of depression or the agitation of anxiety is to be barred from flow. The hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task although flow is also described as a deep focus on nothing but the activity – not even oneself or one’s emotions.”
There are some pretty interesting things here, the first being that flow is not just about containing and channeling emotions, but aligning those emotions with the action and using that energy in a positive way. It’s not uncommon, for example, for folks to use anger, fear, or disappointment as energizers in gaining a stronger focus on their mission.
The second significant idea was that feelings of anxiety prevent you from achieving the flow state. True life, my guitar ninja. We’ll explore this concept in much greater depth below, as I feel that this is the key feeling to overcome in your quest for The Zone.
The third thing that resonated with me was the notion of a feeling of joy while performing a task in the flow state. Any experienced singer or instrumentalist will tell you that there is a feeling of joy – not “happiness” as we often think of it, but a deeper, almost spiritual contentment – when they are able to access The Zone in performance. You can also get the sense of being carried away in the moment, as if someone else were singing the words or playing the notes; without getting too freaky-metaphysical here, it’s got elements of an out-of-body experience working for it.
Our House Is a Very, Very, Very Fine House
Finding your Zone is exhilarating and is the moment that hooks a performer forever! It’s what makes creating and performing music the satisfying act that it is. But we have to have our musical house in order, so to speak, before we have any chance of achieving the flow state.
Remember that finding The Zone in performance is the end goal for your friendly neighborhood guitarist; in order to achieve that state of command where we fully immerse ourselves in the music, all the preparatory work has to come first.
Ideally, we have made a true commitment, gained inspiration from a mentor or two, learned to focus hard on the details, and become consistent and efficient in our practice. Once these things are in place, it becomes much easier to find The Zone.
We can relax and stay positive because much of the performance anxiety that we feel comes from carrying around a lot of negative mental “baggage” that prevents us from truly engaging in the music. Doubts and insecurities will hinder our performances so that we can’t seem to get out of our own way.
I once attended a seminar in Los Angeles and one of the classes was given by a prominent vocal instructor. He started the class by asking everyone a question: “What sorts of things go through your mind when you sing?”
It was very interesting to hear the responses, to say the least, as they covered all sorts of ground:
“I hope I don’t sing flat.”
“People say I make weird faces when I sing.”
“I wonder if I look fat in this outfit.”
“I can never seem to remember the lyrics to verse 2.”
“The high notes scare me.”
“What if no one claps?”
This is all mental baggage that will do NOTHING for you but weigh you down. When you’re in performance mode, you cannot afford to think of anything but delivering your best music – which is a positive attitude and feeling. Negativity causes anxiety, which any experienced performer will tell you is the kiss of death on stage, because those feelings will only snowball out of control. Needless to say, it will block you from The Zone.
The practice room is where we sort all of these things out; in practice, we prepare the music with quality repetitions, work out the problem areas, give ourselves cues to remember different elements of our songs, develop our muscle memory, etc. We dig into the material deeply and we polish it to the best of our abilities.
The performance, however, is where you let go and let ‘er rip, even if that performance is just for you! When we play, we have to flip the switch in our mind from practice mode to performance mode. If we can learn to relax and allow our performances to come alive, they will, no matter the audience.
Takeaway Point: Let go and let ‘er rip.
Of course, this also involves a certain amount of risk on your part – you may make some mistakes and feel dumb. Well, as a performing musician, you better learn two things quickly: how to laugh off your mistakes (because you will never stop making them as long as you live – even pros aren’t perfect) and how to cover your mistakes. That one takes experience…the kind you don’t want. It takes failing and being okay with it, and learning from it. Eventually you learn to cover your “clams” like a pro.
Care a Little Less
It would seem counter-intuitive to tell a performer to “care a little less” about their performance, but in my humble opinion – and as the veteran of dozens of auditions, hundreds of private lessons, and a few thousand gigs – the key to managing performance anxiety is to find a balance of care.
Care too little about your performance and it will lack the necessary passion to not only touch your audience, but to fulfill you as the performer.
But care too much and you wind up shouldering way too much pressure; this can have a paralyzing effect on us, where our minds race, our memories fail us and our skills fall apart.
Let’s check out three separate performance contexts that you may find yourself in.
I probably hear this at least once per day in the guitar studio: “I did a lot better practicing this at home. When I play it in front of you, I guess I just get too nervous.”
One of my students calls this “white coat syndrome”, similar to how your blood pressure seems to be higher when the doctor walks into the room. (He tells me he still gets nervous in front of me, even after 5 years together. And I don’t think I’m all that intimidating either!) Truth be told, I’ve felt the same thing in front of my own teachers many times.
Performance anxiety is a very common issue in guitar lessons, and it stems from the fact that the student cares what I think of their playing. On one level, I understand this, because they are paying me their hard-earned money to watch them, troubleshoot problem spots, give them my best tips and advice, and help them improve. On another level, however, you simply can’t play your best when you are overly concerned about what anyone else – your instructor included – thinks about your performance.
If you want to know what I think, wait until we’re done to worry about that. But in the moment – and this is the critical part – you must only engage in the music and try to find your playing Zone. Nothing else matters at that moment.
Finding your personal Zone is your most effective ally in battling stage fright.
It’s been said that one of the greatest fears among average folks is public speaking, but most people are not required to do this on a regular basis. Learning to deal with stage fright, however, is part of the gig for performers. But caring too much about what your audience thinks and how they are judging you will only allow your nerves to escalate.
One of my favorite stories about stage fright I heard second-hand about a jazz musician. To paraphrase, he said something like, “I don’t really care if I’m playing for 10 people in a club or 10,000 people at a jazz festival; it’s all the same music. I concentrate on playing the best that I can for me, and I figure if I can make myself happy, other people will probably dig it too.
If I let the size or the type of crowd dictate the quality of my playing – in other words, if I feel the need to play better because it’s a big crowd or important folks are out there – well that’s a recipe for disaster. Too much pressure.”
Performance anxiety is often at its most acute when auditioning for a band, a role in musical theater, or a singing competition. Of course, the quality of your performance in an audition context is critical to whether you actually get the gig, so the pressure is definitely on. After all, we want that gig!
But interestingly enough, the best way to a quality audition is by alleviating the pressure, and as we’ve said, the way to alleviate performance anxiety is by not caring too much. Focusing all your energy on the music and taking focus off the panel of judges will help you to find your Zone. It’s absolutely easier said than done – I’m not going to claim otherwise – but the folks who audition best are the folks who have learned to take the pressure off of themselves, at least enough so that it doesn’t negatively impact their performance, and get into their Zone.
Try to take the attitude of, “If it goes well, great. If it doesn’t, it’s not the end of the world. I’ll learn from it and move on.” Then you simply invest yourself in the music: let go and let ‘er rip!
For on stage performances and auditions, you may never fully get control of your nerves, but that’s just being human. Most pros think that a few butterflies in the stomach is good for you and keeps you on your toes – as long as you channel that nervous energy as controlled excitement (positive) rather than fear (negative).
Fear is tough to overcome, but it can be managed through focusing on the music, preparing fully, and committing to letting go of the negativity. When you stop worrying about how bad you are or how inexperienced you are – when you learn to get out of your own way – you’ll start to flourish and gain confidence. Confidence breeds more confidence, which typically translates into getting awesome. And that’s what this whole series is about.
Jason Chasin’ the Zone
Most great performers know how to access The Zone – this is why we call them “great performers”. Jason Mraz is one of them.
Truly one of the most talented and skillful musicians working today, Jason’s dynamic vocals reside squarely in The Zone. You can feel the power in his performance whether he’s singing softly or letting it rip. Zero production needed – all Zone. Enjoy!
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