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. 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.
Athletes often talk about The Zone as well. Whether it’s the basketball player effortlessly swishing three-pointers or the hitter in baseball completely “locked in” at the plate, the feeling is that of being one with the game, fully engaged and focused.
In Awesome Step #6, we’re going to explore this concept in more depth. This is where all of our hard work comes to fruition: in The Zone!
Awesome Step #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?
Absolutely! However, psychologists prefer to use the term 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 … 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.”
There are some very interesting ideas here. First, flow is about harnessing and aligning your emotions with the action and using that energy in a positive way. It’s not uncommon, for example, for folks to use anger or fear to energize and focus themselves.
The second big idea was that feelings of anxiety prevent you from achieving the flow state. This may be the key element 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 in the flow state. Any experienced performer will tell you that there is a deep, almost spiritual contentment when they are able to find The Zone.
Let’s explore the idea of harnessing and aligning our emotions in a little more depth.
I once attended a seminar in Los Angeles where 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 – a positive attitude and feeling. Negativity, on the other hand, causes performance anxiety.
Any experienced performer will tell you that anxiety is the kiss of death on stage. Those doubts and insecurities will only spiral out of control, eliminating any chance you have of finding The Zone.
PRACTICE VS. PERFORMANCE
The practice room is where you sort all of these things out. That’s where you punch the clock with quality reps, work out the problem areas, develop your muscle memory, etc. You dig into the material and polish it to the best of your abilities.
The performance, however, is where you let go and let ‘er rip. When you play, you have to flip the switch in your mind from practice mode to performance mode. That means less thinking and more trusting your preparation.
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.
The second 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 mistakes 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 a performer. But care too much and you wind up shouldering way too much pressure. This can have a paralyzing effect on you, where your mind races, your memory fails you and your skills fall apart.
Let’s check out three separate performance contexts that you may find yourself in.
“I did a lot better practicing this at home”.
I probably hear this at least once a day in the guitar studio. 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 hand, I understand this. They are paying me their hard-earned money to watch them, troubleshoot problems, and help them improve.
On the other hand, you simply can’t play your best when you are overly concerned about what anyone else – including your teacher – thinks about your performance.
When you’re playing, you must only engage in the music. Nothing else matters.
Finding the Zone is your most effective ally in battling stage fright.
Learning to deal with stage fright is, of course, part of the gig for performers. But caring too much about what your audience thinks will only allow your nerves to escalate.
So don’t let the audience dictate the quality of your playing. The music is the same whether it’s 10 people or 10,000, whether you know everyone in the crowd or they’re all strangers. Make yourself happy with your performance and other people will probably like it too.
Performance anxiety is often at its most acute when auditioning. Whether it’s for a band, a role in musical theater, or a singing competition, the pressure is definitely turned up at an audition. After all, we really want that gig.
But ironically, the best way to get the gig you want is by not caring too much!
Focusing all your energy on the music and not on 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.
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, as long as you can channel that nervous energy as controlled excitement (positive) rather than fear (negative).
Fear is tough to overcome, but it can be managed through solid preparation and a commitment to letting go of the negativity. When you stop worrying about how bad or inexperienced you are, 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.
QUESTION: Have you experienced The Zone? Leave me a comment below!