The Games We Play – Sarah Tatto

Have you ever watched a perfect game where the athletes never fumble a ball, miss the net or mess up a practiced strategy? Probably not. That scenario would be highly unlikely. The same holds true in music. There have been moments where I have seen performers, including myself, fumble the pass. With the play interrupted and seemingly magnified by the spot light, how we recover the momentum has a lot to do with the mental game we play. Some say performing is 10% talent and 90% a mental exercise. Obviously, successful performances require tremendous mental energy (and talent). Let me share two vivid performance mishaps, their different outcomes and the mental strategies I did and didn’t employ.

The “psyche out.” I remember attending a Master class and being told I needed to sing a showier aria for the final concert. I was apprehensive about singing a new aria, out of my comfort zone with only a few days before the concert. To make my situation more trying
was the attitude of another singer. This singer questioned my ability to pull it off and for the remaining days of the Master class, would remind me how brave it was for me to try something brand new before a concert, that it was a challenging piece and how they would never try to do something new before an event. Needless to say the daily reminders and analyzing of how I sang the piece in Master class was unnerving.

On the night of the concert, I entered the stage reminding myself of the comments that other singer had made. I came to the game like I had
already lost and in a scattered frame of mind, I began to sing. Being unfocused and not committed to the aria I cracked the exposed last high note. I still remember smiling faces looking surprised. I was devastated. I had lost the game and dropped the ball completely, not because I cracked but because I lost faith in myself throughout the whole piece. I allowed myself to believe that I wasn’t capable of doing something that the instructor felt confident was well within my abilities. I let someone else’s negative thinking block my concentration and control me in my mental game. I fumbled the ball when I came to my performance uncommitted .

“Going with the flow.” While singing in an audition that was really important to me, I remember the accompanist flipping the pages of my music so quickly that some pages actually fell out of my music book. In mid piece, he stopped playing as the pages were no longer in order. I experienced a flash of panic but then a calm came over me. I felt as if time stood still and that everything was going to be fine. I believed in my ability to sing this music no matter what might happen. The accompanist apologized profusely and I remember turning to the audition panel as smiling saying “take two” to which they laughed. I then proceeded to give the most heartfelt rendition of that piece I could muster.

I was on the top of my game. A disaster could have happened. I could have chosen to throw in the towel mentally, to resent the accompanist, or feel sorry for myself. In that split second I chose not to feel horrified but to use my sense of humor and make light of the situation. My mother has always told me that if you make a problem big or draw attention to it, others will notice but if you don’t give it more attention than is necessary it will become unimportant. The difference between this scenario and the previous one was the mental message I was playing. I had not planned on a mishap but I had programmed myself to believe that I was able to be successful and I was.

According the Barry Green, author of the book The Inner Game of Music, the success of the game of music rests on the performer because “the opponent in this game is inside us.” Mishaps during live performances will always happen. That is a given. However, how we choose to set up our strategy and play the game rests squarely on our shoulders.

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