The first step in getting into ‘the zone’ is being aware of what the building blocks or ingredients are which influence your emotional state. We spend a lot of our practice time getting to grips with the technical demands of the work but pay minimal attention to working out how to tweak and manage our emotional state.
Take a moment to reflect how you subjectively feel when you are happy or excited. How does your body feel? Is your heart rate fast or slow? Is your inner voice active or quiet? What is the quality of your mental images like? Are the images small, big, panoramic, monochrome or in colour? Where is your attention focused? Is it focused on your inner thoughts or is it more expansive, noticing external details and events outside of yourself?
Are there certain associations you can make to evoke or conjure up these feelings? For instance, you may have a strong emotional reaction or association with someone you care about deeply. Even if you see their face in a picture you feel qualitatively better and happier. Conversely you may see a picture of your least favourite teacher and feel your stomach knot and your mood darken!
The brain forms these associations easily and unconsciously. Successful performers are aware of the value of these associations and can consciously calibrate their emotional state according to the demands of the situation. Top performers are able to identify and distil all the required qualities necessary for optimal emotional functioning quickly and effectively.
They are then able to associate this state with a physical trigger or gesture. You may have noticed this in a tennis match. The server may have a series of habitual gestures which happen before the serve, such as a fixed number of ball bounces. These preparatory ‘getting in the zone’ steps are also evident in sports such as basketball and golf. Once you start noticing these individual quirks when watching sports you will be surprised by the myriad of preliminary movements which take place before a performance.
The following step-by-step exercise will help to provide more clarity and structure in exploring how we can manage our emotional state effectively for performance.
· Firstly, identify a resource state you know would like to be able to access during performance. For example feeling focussed and self-assured, projecting an air of effortless poise on stage.
· Recall a specific time when you accessed this state of mind.
· Return to that time and relive this state as fully as possible. The following cues may help: What were you subjectively aware of? What did you see, hear, feel and even taste?
· Come back to the present and carefully select a series of cues to help induce the emotional state you require. These can be a combination of a specific image, word or phrase and a physical trigger or gesture. For example placing the instrument to your mouth, tightening your bow, lifting the instrument up (not recommended for pianists).
· Now in your mind’s eye return to your desired resource state and become acutely sensitive and attentive to what you see, feel, hear or taste. If there is a sequence of episodes which help you enter this state, replay them with all necessary body movement.
· As you feel the resourceful state growing and ratcheting up to its apex, combine all your anchors: see your image, say words or phrases and feel your physical trigger or gesture.
· Repeat the above sequence many times to strengthen and refine all the necessary connections and associations.
· Test the associations by repeating your words, images and gestures. Be aware of how this exercise helps you experience your resourceful state. If you notice any gaps or shortfalls repeat the earlier steps as often as necessary.
· Experiment frequently with the above steps during your practice time.
· Use your associations before and during performance.
You can have as many emotive triggers as you wish and adapt them for whatever performing situation you face.
It is important to remember this exercise is generative, like practising your instrument, the more you do it the easier and more natural it becomes. It will positively influence all aspects of your playing. It will give you more of an understanding of how what happens between your ears influences what happens between your bar lines.
“Every human has four endowments - self-awareness, conscience, independent will and creative imagination. These give us the ultimate human freedom... The power to choose, to respond, to change.” Stephen Covey