“Blanking Out” During Music Performance

In the past few years I’ve been trying to play guitar and sing “off book” – and have had various breakthroughs and setbacks.  I have found that having a robust understanding of the harmonies and chord progressions and brushing up on ear-training speeds up the learning process prodigiously.  However, at the same time I end up in performance situations where I “blank out” and can’t seem to catch onto the chord progression – not even when it is familiar.  One of my sons, Zachary, used the term “wordnesia” yesterday, and since I’d never heard of it before I looked it up.  This is the paragraph that caught my attention:

Charles A. Weaver III, whom Matthew J.X. Malady interviewed for Slate, points out that a lot of our daily tasks, including reading and writing, are done on autopilot—and the best way to disrupt one of those automatic processes is to consciously think about it.  Thing about playing an instrument or a sport and suddenly asking yourself, “Wait, am I doing this right?”  That often leads to blanking out on how to perform a task.  The same thing happens with wordnesia, even though we not consciously be aware of questioning what we’re reading or writing.  As Weaver explains, “anytime that you engage conscious monitoring of those parts that ought to be automatic, you get a hiccup.”

I RECOGNIZE this.  It happens sometimes when I perform music — most recently at the performance at Beatitudes a week or so ago.  A fellow performer started to play Home on the Range.  I knew that would be performed in the key of F; and I’ve been playing the song off and on, including in performance, without chord prompts (i.e. off-book) – needing only some text prompts after the first verse.  However, I couldn’t seem to “catch on” to the chord progression — I couldn’t play it on my guitar.  I recognized elements of it, I remembered fragments of it – and yet, didn’t catch onto it.  What was going on?

It is the same mental “mind fart” that I have noticed it many times when I am playing Fur Elise on piano – a piece that I memorized at age 10 and have played often enough ever since that I never forgot it.  I hesitate to play it in public, because sometimes – even when I’m at home, playing only for myself – I’ll blank out on a part of it.  Sometimes it happens because I start thinking about some other topic while playing the piece, and when I return my focus to what I’m playing, I disrupt the process of playing and can’t pick it back up.  I notice it happening with my students – they wonder why they “play better at home” than in lesson.

I’m not even sure what to call it – because when playing music it isn’t “wordnesia.”  I’m going to need to research this further – and one of my first goals will be finding the proper name for it!  In the meantime, the term “mind fart” can be an apt placeholder.

I already have a couple strategies for dealing with this “mind fart” issue.  The first is teaching the “conscious” mind (or “left-brain”) how to do things that otherwise the “automatic” or “unconscious” mind (or “right-brain”) would be handling, so that when the monitoring starts that it doesn’t throw a monkey-wrench into the works.  The second is for the monitoring to sneak in slowly and for it to remain somewhat detached – less emotionally involved – so that it remains an “observer” rather than an “interferer” into the process of performance.  The first time I did these was when at age 10 or so I taught my conscious mind to observe and learn the process of “double-whistling” – something that I was doing intuitively, unconsciously.  Once I had mastered that, I found that by experimenting, my conscious mind was able to adjust the intuitive act so that I could whistle two nearby tones simultaneously.  (I haven’t been doing this much in the past 30 years, and it looks like I’ve halfway forgotten how to do it.)

I’ve found that by training the left-brain in music theory that it can actually aid the right-brain process of playing a musical piece, rather than hinder it – but doing so is a delicate process.

I suspect that one of the primary reasons why so many who perform music do not wish to ever be “off-book” is because their nerves in a performance situation cause left-brain interference – which causes mistakes – which causes embarrassment and increases anxiety around performances – which causes more left-brain interference during performance, etc.  If they keep their eyes “on-book,” the left-brain is kept busy during performance – it is keeping track of progress on-book, which leaves the right-brain free to focus on making music.  Interestingly, music reading – even if it is just utilizing “supports,” such as lyrics and chords – creates a handy bifurcation in the brain, leading to a performance where the music is closer to “perfect.”  But there is irony in this performance – because a truly scintillating performance needs the skills of the “whole mind” – not just the right-brain with a left-brain entranced in another activity, such as lyric, chord and/or note-reading.  In brilliant performances, the left-brain is fully engaged, observing the music-making, the audience reaction, anticipating what-comes-next, aware of what the body is capable of producing, be it a beautifully sung note or a masterfully executed sequence on a musical instrument.  For performance to be fully realized, there needs to be a synergy of mind-systems. 

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