[ the craft of the guitar maker ]


13. Cleaning up the act

WHILE I was on a lecture tour in the United States last summer, I was fortunate enough to sit in on one of Ronald Pearl's seminars on Performance Psychology. It was a wonderful experience, full of humour and humanity, showing ways of finding strength out of weaknesses. This article is dedicated to him, with thanks. We all fight our own battles to become performers. These are some of the things I have learnt from mine. The first important decision you make concerns the level of change you wish to make. Some performers tackle the symptoms alone. This approach could lead to the controlled use of tranquillisers, and for some this might be adequate. From my own point of view, I have a deep suspicion of solutions like this, which can lead to a series of other related problems of their own. Quick-fix mechanical solutions are a very Western approach. During the 18th century, one Chinese philosopher damningly assessed the arriving European traders as 'men who would be quickly bored in an empty room'.

The next alternative to consider would be the use of one of a number of relaxation techniques. Probably the best known to performers is Alexander Technique, named after the actor who developed his own ways of combating excessive stress on stage. For aspiring executives, the current trend involves the inevitable use of hi-tech medicine to learn techniques like biofeedback. There are so many reports of the beneficial effects of relaxation techniques that they must be taken seriously. They also open the door to greater self-awareness, and allow the possibility of change, which are considerable contributions.

In the end, I did not feel that this was enough. Who I was and what I was did not fit into conveniently separate categories. I wanted to develop a different relationship with myself and my work. I wanted a better sense of proportion. The difficulties of relating to an audience are not really to do with the audience at all. Every time you perform, you make assumptions about the way your efforts will be received by total strangers, and you expect those strangers to behave just like you would. In other words, I would people my audience with hundreds of myselves. If I was critical, the world was full of critics. If I was a perfectionist, the world was full of people trying to find fault with trifling details. Now this is not a reasonable way to approach others. The one thing you can guarantee is that they are not like you are. The only way I could really appreciate this simple fact was through trying to change my relationship with myself. It is painfully slow and hard, and I believe it is impossible without the different perspective of another person - a sympathetic friend. When I started to think about it, it was surprising how many ways I was being unfair to myself.

Firstly, I regularly set totally unrealistic targets for myself, then went through the agony of failure when I did not achieve the impossible. Imagine you leap out of bed tomorrow morning, tear back the curtains, deeply inhale the sunshine, and decide: 'I'm going to climb Everest at the weekend'. It is something the best climber in the world could not do at a few days' notice. In the smaller things in life, I used to do it all the time. Keep an eye open, and it probably won't be long before you catch yourself doing the same: you give yourself the task of reading a book in an hour, or playing a piece in a day. One day I had to accept that I was only human. I had to learn patience. Anything good takes time, and the journey is as important as the destination. The journey is given its rightful importance by planning ahead. It is possible to derive satisfaction from making steady progress towards the ultimate goal. You may be familiar with a situation like this: you have something difficult to do, and it will probably take about eight hours. For the rest of the time you have the routine tasks which are acceptable or even enjoyable. So you will have a blitz on the difficult task tomorrow. And a week goes by and you haven't even started because you'll leave the bad day until you are more ready to tackle it. So the routine tasks are overshadowed by the knowledge that you have other more important things left undone, and time is getting short. Realistic planning can really help a situation like this. You decide: eight hours in one go is too much. But I can handle two hours. So I will start the day with two difficult hours, followed by six hours of something I enjoy. The six hours will go well, because I have started to tackle the difficult area, and I know I am making progress. I will keep to this pattern for four days. By then I will have finished all the tasks I have set myself.

Secondly, many of us get depressed. It often goes something like this: you decide to paint the garage door. It is dark green and you have always disliked it. It is going to be sunny yellow. So you put on the first coat, and then you stand back and have a look. It looks streaky and horrible because yellow does not cover green very well. You have wasted all that effort. You are half-way through and the door looks worse than before you started. You wish you had left it alone. You feel depressed. Now, from the outside, it is possible to see that this is not a realistic view of the situation. You could stand the whole thing on its head: it didn't take so very long to put on the first coat, so the second coat will be just as easy. There's no point in worrying about it at the moment, because you can't do any more until the paint is dry. And after the next coat, it will be just the way you always wanted it. Whether a glass is half-full or half-empty is more than just playing with words. We are at liberty to interpret exactly the same facts in totally opposing ways. We choose the view of the world that we have learned to use, and the glass will become one more, example to justify that view. If life is bad, a half-empty glass is just one more way in which life is bad. You knew it all the time.

As soon as the circular nature of the process becomes clear, it is possible to begin breaking the cycle. Things were out of perspective, and at first I would look for the other side of the coin as an exercise, without any real conviction. But gradually, with practice, it became easier. Half-empty really is the same as half-full. Both are equally true. You still have your half-glass to drink. And you can always order another��. The habit of negative thinking is gradually replaced by the new habit of seeing the other side: Should I really feel that bad about the situation? Am I being fair to myself? Are there no redeeming features at all? And so on. Perfectionism is not a good way of escape either. It is an attempt to avoid the pain of rejection by other people. There is no guarantee that you would earn the respect, let alone the love, of others through being perfect, even if such a thing were possible. You are doomed to always fall short of the impossible standards you set yourself. It is essentially a negative way of life and it was leading me to lifelong dissatisfaction.

The process of living is not about perfection. It is about growing. Faultless performances and faultless instruments do not exist. The standards you find challenging today may well be the ones you take for granted tomorrow, because you learn and adapt and change. It is called life. It is all part of that incredible journey from birth to death. We will change whether we accept it or not. If we can learn to accept the changes of our lives gracefully, we can accept the present for what it is. We are doing our best at the moment and that is all that anyone has the right to ask of us. Music and life are journeys we each take in our own ways at our own speed. We owe it to ourselves to make them worthwhile experiences.

©1991 Trevor Semple

"Classical Guitar Magazine", February 1992

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