by Jeff Nelsen

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(See the accompanying video here)

As musicians, we are creative athletes, and as with other sports, music-making as a discipline has both mental and physical aspects. In order to share our music in a compelling and convincing way, our preparation and performance must satisfy both the intellectual and the corporeal demands of our craft. This is no simple endeavor. 


Though this work might be frustrating at times, I can usually find a way to appreciate how complex this learning is. With each day, I get to try to simplify my complex discoveries into usable pieces, put those pieces together, and go out there to try to share some beautiful musical lines out my bell. We are all at this place because we’re always learning…and we always have potential growth ahead of us.

coaching model smAbout a year ago, I was doing some intonation work, and choosing to get frustrated with the slow progress. I was feeling uncomfortable with my work because I’d been seeing pretty much the same level of results over days and weeks. One day I went to a lecture by music education learning coach Gregg Goodhart, and he revealed this graphic.

I was VERY relieved to see this!! So, that uncomfortable feeling was simply due to me being out of my comfort zone? I was in a good place when I was feeling uncomfortable!? And it’s called the Learning Zone. Nice.

This graphic explains an important idea in regards to how we approach our time both in the practice room and onstage. The comfort zone is fine. Hang out there. There are some seriously good super-hero movies worth watching! But once you’re working, leave your comfort zone and get learning. Push yourself. If you’re in your comfort zone, you’re maybe not doing badly, but you might be missing out on some growth.

That’s the first mistake - aiming to feel comfortable. The second big mistake people can make is deciding to freak out when they’re uncomfortable. They think that being uncomfortable is bad, so they skip their learning zone and go directly to panic zone. This graphic has helped my students and me to embrace being uncomfortable. It is possible to look at what we’re uncomfortable about, and dive deeper into the feeling. Do we just need to be in total control? Do we want to be sure about something that maybe we can’t always be sure about? Maybe we need to leap out of our comfort zone, stay calm, and see what happens next.

But for those times when we do think our learning has stopped, remember it’s mental. This tough moment is a choice. In his book, “How The Best Get Better”, Dan Sullivan writes that when you’ve hit that wall and you feel like you’ve stopped learning, you’ve hit what he calls “The Ceiling of Complexity.” You’re broken things down or exploded things wide open so much that there’s too much for you to take the next constructive step toward your learning goal. At this point, he writes, the best thing you can do is break everything down, and start again. I see my routine each morning as doing just that. Starting over, as well as possible with what I have so far, while trying to incorporate some new things too.

And remember…

great things

I’ve also made a short video about what I believe is a critical mistake we make when we walk out to “perform our best” and end up playing worse than we know we can. We change too much.

A 10-step process to learn to connect your practice work to your performance

Before one of your practice sessions today, ask a friend to randomly contact you by walking in or calling you on the phone. At the moment they interrupt, you are to perform whatever passage, excerpt, scale or solo you’re playing.

Stop whatever you’re doing, and decide you’ve just been asked to perform for an audience that matters to you. You’ve been offered an exciting opportunity, and now you get to perform for the person offering it! Dive into this simulation in all the creative ways you can. Picture the concert hall, the audition panel, the audience. Then do some creative performance simulating.

10 steps to learning what YOU need to perform well

  1. Decide exactly what you’ll perform.
  2. Walk a couple steps away from your music stand.
  3. Stand there and feel like you’re backstage about to go out and really perform your absolutely best.
  4. Do your mental game work. (I use an “Inspirational Sheet” with words that help me focus, calm, and center myself.)
  5. Walk out and either accept applause (if that’s your audience) or walk to your music stand in silence (if you’re auditioning)
  6. Sit or stand, horn down, thinking first. Get into your musical story.
  7. Start your musical timing. Hear your orchestra, piano, or metronome VERY loudly before starting.
  8. Perform! Perform like it’s the real show! Keep going. No going back for notes. No making faces for mistakes. Perform like a pro.
  9. After you’ve finished playing, find one thing you did well, and embrace that.
  10. Think about what else you’ve learned…and go do some more good work.