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Focus Through Falling by Dr. Brian Pfeifer

Mar 22, 2021, 01:00 AM by Rhythm Scene Staff

My body is shaking nervously, hands sweating; my breathing is shallow and unsteady. Every breath seems to spread the shaking outward from the center of my chest. The biggest obstacle here seems to be my inability to get a hold of myself. I know that I have the skills to do this, but what if? I know I can deal with all of the rapids, but the last one, a 40-foot waterfall named Illgen Falls is heavy on my mind.

Starting to breathe in and feeling the air around me, the realization comes that I’ve decided to do it and there’s no backing down. Acceptance of the situation starts to set in. I start to breathe in consciously. It’s windy and feels as though I’m drawing each breath directly from the flow. Deep inhale, hold briefly, and return the air back to the wind. It starts to center me. I feel focused and connected, almost hyper-aware, but most of all, calm. I’m feeling everything with my entire body. The wind, trees, birds, rocks, and the water. I’m aware how quickly this change has happened but confident in my decision making and sure that this calm is permanent. I climb into my kayak and shove off into the current.

Does this scenario sound familiar? Part of it? All of it? Do you always make it to the last part where you overcome the nerves? By now, you have likely realized that this isn’t going to be a story about playing music, at least not at first.

Performance anxiety is a natural part of playing music in front of an audience.

Following my partner downstream we get to the first rapid. It comes faster than I expected, but I’m in the zone and dealing only with what’s right in front of me, one thing at a time. The next few rapids come quickly and again, bigger and faster than I anticipated, but my skills and focus are unshakable. Confinement Canyon is aptly named — the moves are tight and the action fast. Gustafson Falls isn’t really a waterfall, but from top I can see a large and powerful recirculating eddy on the right that I know I need to miss. Knowing my long-term goal, I return focus to dealing with each rock, wave, and hole, working my way towards the left at the bottom. Then, Kramer’s Choice demands just that. A large rock divides the flow at the bottom, and you must pick a line and stay on it at all costs or risk slamming into the Volkswagen-sized rock at the bottom. Crashing through the wave at the bottom, I’ve made it safely through the left side.

Now, just one rapid above Illgen falls, my partner asks if I want to stop and take a look before we take the plunge. We had already stopped and scouted on the drive up. I knew my line and knew that pausing would only shake my hard-won confidence. When falling from 40 feet up in a small plastic kayak, you need to be sure. The risks are real, and they are all right there in front of you. Land too flat and risk a broken back. Land pointed straight down and you may find yourself behind the curtain of the waterfall, being pounded underwater by the entire force of the river. Don’t get your body position just right and end up with a broken nose. I knew that I had the skills to control my descent, having run many smaller waterfalls previously, but Illgen Falls is twice as high as the places I’d been honing my skills, and the risks increase accordingly. A 40-foot waterfall is less than one fourth the height of the world record, but for any mortal kayaker it’s plenty high.

“OkAY, I’ll go first and get set up with the camera and get some pictures,” my partner shouted. “No, I’m good, let’s just run it,” I replied. I knew that pausing, getting out of the flow, would only shake me. More importantly I wasn’t in it for the camera. My personal progress and growth as a kayaker wasn’t worth a few pictures. To me, it was far more important to perform in the moment with style and grace than to capture it on film. There will always be someone better, so there’s nothing to prove to anyone but myself.

We paddled into the rapid just above the falls, spaced out so that my partner had enough time to deal with whatever happened at the bottom and clear the landing zone. I crashed through the last ledge before the waterfall. I now had about 20 yards of fast-moving water to get myself in order and get where I needed to be. Spotting the little wave at the top of the falls that I’d picked to be my marker, I got on my line with confidence. As I got closer to the lip I could see the tops of fully grown trees down below and the river continuing downstream. It looks a lot higher from the seat of a kayak than when you’re standing on shore. Five more strokes remain. I know things are happening fast and it’s too late to stop, but none of that is on my mind. All that matters is the line.

With two strokes left, I plant my paddle on the left then the right. With my last stroke I plant the paddle in the water in front of me, waiting. As I roll over the lip I lean into my stroke to put the kayak on edge, spot my landing and pull the paddle back with just enough force to send me out from the falls. Rolling my body back over the center of my kayak I’m falling. There is no time to think, only to react. I see the water coming and instinctively know I’ve pulled too hard on my stroke and am going to land too flat. I throw my body forward to protect my back. Just before impact I take a calculated risk and stomp the nose of the kayak down just enough to avoid an extremely hard landing. 

Landing in the boils below the falls I can’t maintain my composure any longer. I’m ecstatic, celebrating with shouts and high fives with my partner. I’ve done it and done it well. On the climb out of the canyon I felt a wave of different emotions. I’d accomplished what I’d set out to do, but on the other hand, it was done and over. The feeling of success only lasts until the next performance.

What does any of this have to do with playing music? Whether they want to admit it or not, most people have dealt with performance anxiety at some point. It is a natural part of playing music in front of an audience. Stay in the game long enough and you’ll have to learn to deal with performance anxiety to varying degrees, but better yet is learning to use it to your advantage. When we are feeling nervous, our bodies react by producing more adrenaline than we can use, causing the shakes, sweaty palms, and feelings of doom. By making parallels between these types of activities and music, we can learn to tamp down the effects of that extra adrenaline. After all, you wouldn’t be performing for an audience if you didn’t think you had something worthwhile to present, so why should you let anything stand in your way? 

Not too long after that day on the river, I realized that the real accomplishment wasn’t running a waterfall but the focus I’d found. It dawned on me that sitting there on the riverbank felt a lot like sitting backstage before going out to perform music. All of the same fears and doubts were there, along with the physical symptoms like shaking and sweating. I started to reverse engineer the thoughts that had gone through my mind to get to that sense of calm and confidence. It all started with acceptance. Once I accepted that I was committed to running the waterfall, my mind pushed aside all distractions because they’re not helpful. Everything that followed was a consequence of committing to the task at hand. One singular purpose to the exclusion of all else. 

This is the type of focus we need for a performance that is truest to our preparation. It allows us to be fully connected to the perfection we achieve in the practice room. That doesn’t mean you won’t miss a note in your marimba solo (my run on the river that day was filled with minor course corrections as I went downstream). What it does mean is that you’ll have the focus to play through it without second guessing yourself. This, of course, comes with the caveat that you’ve done the proper preparation for your performance. If you have, then you can trust yourself onstage and begin to block out all of the “what if” thoughts with confidence. 

In case it isn’t obvious at this point, there are a few very direct correlations between my kayaking story and playing music.

1. When kayaking, the consequences are real. You could die if you don’t stick your line in a hard rapid. A music performance can often feel this way, but in reality, if you mess up so bad that you have to leave the stage, you’ll be embarrassed for a while but no one will die. There is more real-life risk and consequence in driving to your performance than actually performing. Go back and read that last sentence again.

2. You have to know the basics so well that you don’t have to think. For a kayaker, this is all of our strokes, braces, rolls, reading water, and safety. A musician needs to know the notes backwards and forwards. You should have more facility on the instrument than is needed for that performance. Never perform at the edge of your capabilities. For example, be comfortable playing your snare solo ten or twenty clicks faster than your performance tempo.

3. Have a plan. When kayaking, we usually choose plan A because it’s the safest option but you have to have plans B and C in case things go wrong. If you have to go to plan B or C, you might still want to get back to plan A because it’s the safer choice. The same applies directly to music. What if you’re performing “Rhythm Song” and you forget where to go? What if you jump to the wrong harmony? Do you know how to get back? These are skills that you need to practice intentionally. Try improvising in the key or style of the piece you’re playing. See if you can weave in and out of the written music. In kayaking we do this by practicing hard moves in easy rapids. You can do the same thing in the practice room.

4. Practice playing with nerves. Again, kayakers do this by making hard moves in easy rapids. You can do this through visualizing your performance while in the practice room. I have my students leave the room, imagine they’re waiting backstage, walk in, take a bow, and perform. Often, this is enough to get the adrenaline pumping like it would in a performance.

5. It’s only you, and your reasons are your own. When you’re in a hard rapid, it doesn’t matter who else is there. You have to focus on what’s directly in front of you. The same is true in music. There is nothing to be gained from worrying about who is in the audience. When I’m about to paddle or play music, I enter my own world where there is no one watching.

6. Remember that you have something to say. We play music first because it’s fun and it moves us. The people at your performance want to be moved. They are not looking for you to fail. An audience will forgive and forget many mistakes during an honest performance.

I doubt that many people reading this are also whitewater kayakers, but this type of experience isn’t limited to one sport — or even sports at all! I’m also a hobby furniture maker who uses only hand tools, and I find the same types of parallels while building a table as I do while playing music. I’m certain that each of you also has some type of extra-musical hobby or pastime that can inform your playing. Please don’t run out to buy a mountain bike and throw yourself down the side of a mountain if it’s not your thing. My wife finds the same sort of focus while knitting a hat. I encourage all of you to explore these possibilities!

Remember, this is a long-term process. This is a journey towards becoming not just a better musician, but a better, more balanced person. Actively seeking adventure and experiences outside of music will reward you in ways you cannot possibly predict. If nothing else, after a year of dealing with COIVID-19 we could all use a little fun.

Brian PfeiferDr. Brian Pfeifer is an Assistant Teaching Professor at the University of North Dakota, where he teaches percussion ensemble, steel band, private lessons, drumline, 12 O’clock Jazz Band, and music entrepreneurship. He serves on the PAS Health and Wellness committee.

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