I started playing music when I was eight–my parents thought it would be a good idea for me to learn to play accordian. So I took lessons with my uncle, a professional accordian player in Milwaukee. My older brother had been taking according lessons from him for years and in my mind my brother was what an accordian student should sound like. But when my eight year old self tried to play, I didn’t sound as good as my brother. I wanted to sound good, but I didn’t and accordian playing ended up being a completely frustrating experience. I abandoned the accordion as quickly as I could. A year or so later I switched to another instrument. In high school I was one of the best musicians. I had great fun playing; it was relaxing not stressful; and I didn’t need to practice much. As a senior I won both music awards my high school offered. I was Mr. Hot Stuff music-wise in my tiny corner of the universe: Boys’ Tech and Trade High School in Milwaukee.

As a freshman in college majoring in music I discovered that I wasn’t so hot. There were tons of people better than me. Some phenomenally better. I thought I sucked compared to them. And as a result of this thought, I had fears before and during performing because I thought I would screw up in front of people. And because of these stresses and fears I did screw up which just confirmed those fears. I was a performance anxiety wreck. Over the next few years these fears greatly diminished. I can’t explain why that was. Maybe it was the camaraderie in the suite of practice rooms–the feeling that we were all in this together. The silly imprompteu late night jams. Finally I could once again play music for the sheer joy of it. I could feel the ecstasy in the music and feel connected to the other musicians in the band.

Years later, as an adult, I became a student in the piano studio at New Mexico State University. This required something new: playing alone on stage. And playing complex compositions from memory. Those dormant fears returned. I felt I sucked compared to the other students and I had fears of screwing up. In reflecting on that year, I can say that fear and anxiety are not good for memory. Let’s say my playing wasn’t effortless.

Kenny Werner in his book, Effortless Mastery (public library)“Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Master Musician Within” says “When you approach your instrument, no matter what lofty goals you say your have, wanting to sound good will predominate and render you impotent.” He mentions

For example, some horn players I’ve worked with didn’t have a rich tone. In working with them, I’ve often found that they weren’t really taking a deep breath and moving it through their horn. Doesn’t it seem odd that horn players wouldn’t take a deep breath? Why is that? Because they are afraid to commit themselves to what’s going to come out. A really deep breath is going to add tone and weight to the next phrase, but the horn player is not sure about the next phrase. His lack of confidence causes a shorter breath, and a shorter breath creates a weaker tone… The result confirms the player’s fears.

Fear takes away the strength of what you are doing. Without fear of wrong notes, you would feel the body’s craving for more air, and a new posture would emerge spontaneously. [Pianists] don’t let their arms move freely because they are afraid to play poorly. The result is anemic tone and rhythm. In this way their fears are confirmed.

A self reinforcing loop: I have a fear of playing bad. That fear and anxiety makes me play bad, which in turn reinforces my fear.

Werner then quotes from the book Zen and the Art of Archery Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel (public library) about shooting an arrow: > The right short at the right moment does not come, because you do not let go of yourself. You do not wait for fulfillment, but brace yourself for failure.

He adds:

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to play well, but needing to play very well is the problem.

The path out of this pit is to work on accepting who you are right now and–I am hoping this next bit makes sense–to have a plan rather than a goal. Shunryu Suzuki, a famous Zen Roshi has a nice quote:

Each of you is perfect the way you are… and you can use a little improvement.

There is a prayer that we recite at Zen services that ends

I now wholeheartedly accept who I am

Kenny Werner writes:

My four-year-old daughter can walk over to the piano and enjoy herself more than ninety-five percent of the professional pianists.

What does this have to do with Zen?

We face similar obstacles when we sit in meditation. We try to be 100% present in the moment and “just sit.” We have some idea of what a perfect meditation would be. But we end up having all sorts of thoughts in our heads. Or we might think “this meditation is not as good as the one I had last week.” Or going beyond the meditation cushion, we might have a goal of being a good person and leading a good life (however we define ‘good’), but we constantly fall short. It is frustrating both on and off the cushion. Before we even start the meditation session we might fear we are going to screw it up.

Returning to playing an instrument,

And perhaps that same four-year-old daughter can sit on the floor with the dog and be present in the moment better than ninety-five percent of Zen students.

Throughout the day a little voice in our head critiques your performance. I’m not good enough. I should concentrate on the moment more. I should meditate longer. I should have been kinder to that woman on the phone.