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Playing music with people I like is one of the great joys of my life, though, like a lot of musicians, the happiness has sometimes been tempered by anxiety. The biggest problem I had was managing the expectation of playing solos. I'm primarily a guitarist (also having played bass and drums with bands), and, while popular music has evolved in recent years, I grew up with the model of bands being centered around singers and guitar solos, with everything else just sort of being an accessory (Guns n' Roses was my favorite band in high school, but I also loved Led Zeppelin, Pearl Jam, the Allman Brothers and, later, Phish, all of which had a lot of songs centered around great guitar soloists.). Unfortunately for me, my skills as a musician were more in the realm of writing and arranging, and I was never been able to just roll out of bed and solo like a pro.

However, that doesn't mean that I did not enjoy soloing. I worked hard at improving my technique, and I always enjoyed hanging out at home with friends and trading solos over whatever songs we both knew. In this kind of setting, it was pretty easy to lose myself in a moment and really enjoy what I was playing, which I take as a sign that it wasn't too bad. However, on stage or playing with musicians I had a high regard for, my ego sometimes used to really get in the way. I'd look forward to the chance to solo in order to impress the people in the room, or to at least prove that I was good enough. Rather than listening to the other musicians, listening to myself, or focusing on creating, I'd get really worked up about sounding good. More often than not, this led to me not playing anything particularly good, and I would react especially badly if I hit a sour note or lost my place for a second. 

Occasionally, things would work out well enough for me to feel encouraged. I knew from playing in low-pressure situations that I had good music in me, and I sometimes felt like I could transfer that to the stage. One time, the band was playing a particularly fun and energetic song with a slow break in the middle. My solo was scheduled for directly after the slow part. As I was catching my breath, I realized that I had broken a string and would be completely discombobulated if I had to play at that moment. Thankfully, I finished fixing the string just seconds before my solo time, and for reasons I didn't understand at the time, playing one of the best solos I think I have ever played. My mind was filled with musical ideas, combinations of notes I'd never played, but seemed obvious, and a freedom to let the music happen. It wasn't until I got into my sport psychology studies that I fully understood what had been going on.

My insecurity as a player had directed me to only focus on the outcome of my solos; I wanted to impress my bandmates, myself, and the audience. It didn't occur to me that playing isn't about the outcome, it's about the process. My mind jumped so far ahead that I was never really present for what the solo itself. However, when I was frantically attaching and tuning a new string just before I had to play, my mind didn't have time to sit with the anxiety of playing poorly, or the desire to play well. It was such a relief to be able to play, that I was playing with joy rather than fear.1 This often happens with athletes as well: they enter a contest focused on winning, rather than what they need to do to make that happen. For me as a guitarist, my playing is much better when I disregard outcome, think about being open to the music, make sure I'm energetic but relaxed, and play with a sense of joy. Having played with anxiety for much of my life, I still need practice at this, but I look at the first phrase of this post, "Playing music with people I like is one of the great joys of my life," and as I better keep my focus on the process rather than the outcome, I find that that statement is more and more true.


1. There’s a section in the book “Effortless Mastery” where Kenny Werner talks about a sax player who is not playing with full breath, not blowing out and making the full sound necessary for good tone. So Werner advises him to hold his breath for as long as he can, and when he can’t hold it any longer, to release his breath into the sax. When exhaling became the most important thing in the world (It tends to do this after a minute or two!), the player was no longer worried about his tone and sounded great. 

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