Itās clear that before getting up on stage to put forward your own art in an effective way you must spend a long time perfecting the language so as not to trip up over mistakes that would compromise the outcome. But itās also true that the technical baggage that accompanies our talent is often not enough to cope with the catastrophic power of our emotional explosion whose vibrations can be felt long before we actually find ourselves in the wings. In the specific case of guitar music, the instrumental practice preceding a concert cannot afford to overlook the influence on a pieceās execution of emotional reactions to playing before a public. In fact, itās necessary to always bear in mind that the emotional conditions which come into play on the stage will reduce our capacity of concentration and the control we have over our hands by a considerably high percentage.
Therefore, one of the most effective ways of tackling the preparation for a concert, though obviously not the only one, is to separate the technical aspects from the emotional one and concentrate on them each at different times. The first and maybe the most obvious step is to work on your own technical capability so as to give your repertoire a defined āphysicalā confidence. This means working to make the pieces as ācleanā as possible at every point, in perfect tempo so that they flow smoothly and without stumbling for the entire length of the piece. In other words, you need to aim at perfection. But be careful! Donāt become perfect (no-one is!) but reach the peak of your potential, so as to be able to tackle the emotional factor with a safe margin. In fact, my first classical guitar teacher used to say that in the solitude of my bedroom I had to reach my 130% since in a crowded room 30% of my ability would be sucked away by my emotions. That is why it is fundamental to have a complete map of the piece in your fingers which should have assimilated every step of the music to be played at the best of our ability. This way we wonāt be undone if we lose our concentration.
Now, once we have optimised the technical side of own physical potential, itās necessary to tackle the emotional aspect, which is perhaps harder and more delicate to deal with. The custom of confronting our emotions directly with an improbable attempt to control them does not help at all. On the contrary, it can create further uneasiness when we realise that in actual fact we have managed to change little or nothing. According to R.E.T. (Rational Emotional Therapy), the psychological theory at the base of studies of mental and emotional mechanisms developed by the American psychologist Albert Ellis, emotional reactions to any kind of event depend on the thoughts which an individual has about the event and not the event itself. When we get on a bus full of people and someone hits us painfully in the back, we would not have the same emotional reaction if, when we turn around, we see that it was a child with an evident disability as opposed to a large man in a hurry who hadnāt respected the queue. In both cases, the event in terms of the pain in our back was the same but our emotional reaction was different because our thoughts which generated it were different. According to R.E.T., if we define the event as A, our thoughts about it as B and our emotions as C, it is never A to cause C, but B. This theory helps us to understand the emotional dynamics which often, or should I say always, are triggered by a concert or even simply during a performance at home in front of a friend or group of friends. The strong sensations which make us tremble, confuse our minds and cloud our concentration are not the fruit of a sensitive or excessively emotional personality but are the direct result of a thought which R.E.T. calls āglobal devaluation of the self or of othersā. It refers to a string of destructive thoughts such as āIām not good enoughā, āIām going to make a mistake. I know Iām about to make a mistakeā, āWhat will they think of me?ā. Once we have realised this, we see that it is not by trying to control our emotions that we will manage to regain the lucidity we need to complete our musical execution. It is highly unlikely that we can do much by trying to patch up the damage caused by an already exploded bomb. We are better off working on our thoughts with a constructive hand because they are the threat that needs abating. If, before we begin to play on stage (or in the lounge with our friends), our hands start trembling and our concentration fails to find a foothold on which to anchor itself, it will not be by trying to calm our agitation that we will change our emotional reaction, but by triggering different thoughts of equal strength and contrary to those destructive ones. For example: āa mistake wonāt make a fool of meā, āI am doing my bestā, āmy potential is unaffected by whatever people may think of meā. This is not an attempt to convince yourself that it will all go ok or an escape from reality. It is a way of exposing unreal and destructive thoughts and substituting them with real and constructive thoughts. This work of recognising, attacking and transforming thoughts is not simple. It requires practice and training because we will always be tempted to follow old mental paths and to react on an emotional level. But technique in playing an instrument requires practice and training and this is certainly not a deterrent for aspiring guitarists.
The times that Iāve managed to apply R.E.T. techniques, Iāve noticed a complete change in my approach to the evening. There was no longer any fear inside me, but a healthy rush of electricity through the whole of my body which pushed me to excel and that some have misinterpreted as presumption. Emotions donāt disappear. They remain but become a part of the game. They are no longer an obstacle but a taste to be savoured. The idea is not to be unemotional, which apart from being impossible is not at all desirable (I think I would stop playing that very day), but not to become victim of our emotions. Art means sharing emotions and not an emotional trap. In fact, the times I was left victim of my emotions (quite often actually!) the fear of making a mistake ā above all at the most important events ā blocked my hands and clouded my sight, with the result that the concert was flat and shallow. The true message hadnāt been shared successfully.