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Mental Blocks - by Kim LaCoste
As much as you would hate to have to experience them, mental blocks in music can occur at any time. I once heard a DJ on a station for classical music talk about a violinist who was being accompanied by a pianist. Out of the blue, the violinist lost his place in the music and couldn’t remember what was next. He asked the pianist, “Where are we?” The pianist replied, “Carnegie Hall”. I recently had a mental block, but it wasn’t because I couldn’t remember the music; it was in front of me on a music stand. My problem involved the execution of it. One would ask, “Was it a complex passage, full of 16th notes?” My answer: it was just four notes, to be played with my acoustic-bass bow…
I’ve told people in the past how it can be easy to play intense pieces of music, where the lines involve the aforementioned 16th notes, but sometimes the simplest pattern and/or melodic passage can be the one that drives you crazy! Years ago, I played the oboe in the concert band at high school. I recall having to work on a piece by Wagner. All that I had to play at a section near the end were five ascending notes. I had practiced on those notes to death. I had learned how to make my own oboe reeds at that time and they were in good shape. A few days leading up to the concert, all of a sudden, I started having problems with my reeds. There was nothing wrong with them. The problem was with me. I had somehow developed a mental block in playing the notes for the work by Wagner, because I knew that it was a passage that was going to stand out. Therefore, I was nervous about how the quality of the notes would sound. On top of that, after all of the practicing, the concert came where my “moment” was upon me and when that moment happened, my reed squeaked! I wanted to die! I failed in fighting off that mental block. Of course, it wasn’t the end of the world because I’m still a musician. That was when I came up with my “theory” about complex passages being easier at times where the simple ones can be harder.

Now let’s fast-forward to the present. I’ve played numerous gigs. Recently, I got a gig to play for a week with a cabaret singer from New York at a theatre here. In fact, today we played our last performance. I had been doing well on my acoustic-bass, with the exception of one thing: I hadn’t enough training or experience using the arco (bowing) style. As fate would have it, I received the music a week before the show’s run. Unfortunately, my acoustic-bass was in the shop for some work on the fingerboard and bridge, so I had to practice the music on my electric-bass. I didn’t get my acoustic-bass back until the weekend before Opening Night, which was on Tuesday of the following week. I even called the musical director to see if I could just use the pizzicato (fingering) technique entirely, but he said that the singer was used to hearing the notes in particular sections of the music bowed. Therefore, there was no getting out of it. Besides, I wasn’t about to reveal that I hadn’t been playing with a bow for very long! I had only 4 days to work on the arco sections of the music and let me tell you, I was nervous as hell, for Isaac Stern I’m not when it comes to bowing! Anyway, there was a section of the music where, yes, I was going to have to stand out and it involved playing 4 notes, where the first three were in a lower range and the fourth was F-natural on the G-string. My mental state went straight back to the incident in high school! I practiced like hell on them, and then Opening Night came. The section came in the music and – I played the notes, but they weren’t at the level that I wanted them to be. I experienced anxiety over them! Over last week, I tried all kinds of mental “fighters”, like telling myself that “I can do it” or using the mental image of “picturing the audience in their underwear” to counteract my nervousness. And do you know what finally worked? I thought of a line that was said in a movie. The line was, “Don’t think; just throw.” In other words, I told myself not to think about the notes, just play them. I knew where they were on the acoustic-bass, for I’ve worked very hard on the ranges of the notes and having good intonation. Okay, so I haven’t played with a bow for a long time yet. Big deal! I told myself that I could do it and I had been teaching myself the arco style using F. Simandl’s, “New Method for the Double Bass”. I used that knowledge and forced my mind to relax. As it turned out, I had a great time and the music went smoothly. We even got a good review by a critic. However, I’m not stupid. I’m in the process of finding a teacher to instruct me with the arco technique. The best musicians in the world have always had a teacher at some point in their careers. One may think that he/she may be doing everything right via self-instruction, but a good teacher will see the subtle things that you may be doing incorrectly, helping you to avoid musical anxiety attacks in the future.

I have to hand it to classical soloists; they have to memorize music to a great degree. Different types of memorization skills are required when learning a concerto, as opposed to learning a jazz standard. I would’ve hated to have been the violinist that I talked about in my first paragraph who lost his place in the music and couldn’t remember where he was. Mental blocks will happen, but the key is to not get so caught up in the music like I did where your mind (if you allow it to do it to you) will have you acting like you’re the reincarnation of Chicken Little. In case you don’t know who I’m talking about, Chicken Little was the epitome of pessimism, whose famous line was “The sky is falling!” Just rely on your skill. I think musical mental blocks are the music gods’ way of telling us that we’re not perfect. True, we come close to it at times and sometimes we musicians do have performances where perfection was attained. But don’t worry, you’ll have that performance or situation that comes along and it’ll be one of those days where you’ll be wondering why you even bothered to get out of bed! And when that situation happens, by all means, don’t think about it; just relax, let some other schmoe get an ulcer.

BY Kim Michele LaCoste

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