Monday, 5 September 2011

Will Somebody Please Shut That Damn Monkey The Hell Up!

Every music teacher since the dawn of time has heard this excuse about a million times.

It gets trotted out, usually in an exasperated whining tone, (at least it is when I do it) when a pupil cocks up a piece that they have been working on:

“I don’t understand! I played it perfectly before the lesson.”

The thing is, it’s probably true, and in my own case it really is. In my own practice time, I can play my pieces all the way through. OK, I’m never going to be booked for the Albert Hall or Ronnie Scott’s but nevertheless I manage to get to the end in a vaguely passable fashion.

As soon as I play in front of my Musical Jedi Master , however, all those successful performances fly out the window and stupid mistakes creep in.

It is maddening.

It is frustrating.

I blame the monkey.

The monkey that lives in my head and who just will not shut up.

Now, to play music successfully, you need to be able to concentrate and focus. All those little dots don’t read themselves, you know.  Once you've taken your eye off them, they have a nasty habit of jumping about the page in gay abandon and you'll never get them to behave after that.

What you absolutely do not need is someone who, just as you’re getting to the tricky bit, will demand in a loud voice “Ooh, are we having faggots* for dinner?” or, just as you’re approaching that nice easy bit that will take you coasting nicely to the end, will suddenly screech excitedly “You’ve got to the end! And with no mistakes!“, which of course results in an instant musical train wreck.

I hate him.
He knows just the very best moment to pitch in for maximum annoyance. He knows, for example, that distracting me when I’m by myself is hardly worth the effort (although he does have a go occasionally - usually when I'm trying to get to sleep). No, he knows the real money’s in causing maximum embarrassment by popping up when I’m trying to impress somebody like my teacher or an audience.

I have tried meditation. You know how that’s supposed to go. You’re supposed to clear your mind of all thoughts and just concentrate on your own breathing or belly button or whatever.

I generally get to about five seconds before it’s “Hi, how’s it going? Gosh it’s really quiet in here. Oh, I’m sorry! Were you in the middle of something? “

I’ve tried cutting out caffeine to absolutely no avail.  He stays the same and I just get cranky.

I’ve tried alcohol but, based on empirical observation, it would need enough of it to knock over a rhino before there would be any noticeable effect, and the resultant loss of control over limbs (and possibly over bodily functions as well), would kind of defeat the object.

There are times, though, when his yammerings have lesseffect. For example, he’s only ever once managed to sabotage a singing performance of mine to any degree, and that was over twenty years ago.

He only spoils a guitar performance if I'm trying to record it and want it note-perfect.

His doesn’t bother me much when I’m making a speech at Toastmasters – especially if it’s an impromptu one. In point of fact, in the latter case, his quicksilver flitting from thought to thought at the speed of light can actually be a help.

So what’s the difference?

It must be a confidence thing. I believe I’m good at singing. I believe I’ve good at speech-making.

If only I could make myself believe I was as good at saxophone and piano.

Self-confidence is the monkey’s Kryptonite.

Anybody out there got any idea how I can get more Kryptonite?  Failing that, does anybody know of ways to cage/silence the monkey?

*Faggots: a kind of meat pattie, usually served in a rich savoury gravy.  Not the kind you were thinking about.


  1. Watching and listening to professionals at work and seeing how nonchalant they are about making mistakes, I can only say, play the damn music and forget about the notes. Conductors flounder, soloists flounder, orchestral players flounder, sometimes, not all the time, of course, but it only causes them to make a joke about it and they actually get paid for it!

    The other thing is practice. Practice the notes, of course. Practice and you shall have perfect confidence.

    But concentrating on the notes while playing is always wrong. You'll never make music that way.

  2. Oooh, that's interesting. I seem to live my life to a constant soundtrack of 'think about this! and this! and what are you doing about this?!' that never goes away until I do really challenging things that require nigh-on 100% concentration to get right. So I deduce I'm in the opposite place from you, and can offer no assistance whatsoever.

    God love Friko, she sounds like she knows what she's talking about.

  3. Friko, you're right. I do try to practise as much as I can and still the problem persists. I definitely need to just play the damn music though and enjoy it more. I do this when I'm by myself and it's very rewarding but when teacher is there....

    Titus, my monkey is a-chatter the whole time. I suspect the bottom line is, I need to learn the art of concentration as much as anything else.

  4. was it Edison that believed there were tiny people living inside your head?

    I think the issue is more of focus in my case -= i'm always too busy to move on to the next thing and tend to forget to concentrate on what i'm doing now

  5. DFTP, you mean there aren't little people living in our heads? If that's true then we're responsible for our own thoughts and actions!

    I have heard your tourettic monkey, mine gets like that when I'm alone usually, but they sound like they might be cousins all the same.

  6. I never was able to play a piano piece straight through during a recital, but that was stage fright. And also, I never really learned the MUSIC - just the notes. The big difference here is that I didn't really have any talent whereas you obviously DO have talent :)

  7. OK, my 2 cents worth, after around 20 yrs & many thousands of $$$ spent to shut up my own very loud brain...

    3 changes made a huge difference for me and I really started enjoying myself on stage:

    1) a few minutes at the end of EVERY practice session should be a 'concert' - pretend HRH is there, your Jedi master, Branford Marsalis, BBC TV, whoever's presence would give you the yips, and play a tough passage or short piece that you think is pretty solid, no stops.

    2) If you think a piece is ready to perform, try performing it 5x through with no mistakes. If it's a high pressure gig or a really tough piece, practice until you can do it 10x through with no mistakes. Run up a flight of stairs and immediately play it - whatever will amp up the pressure in your head during practice.

    3) Whatever your 'nerves' symptoms are, try to make them BIGGER, not smaller. If your hands shake, look at them and try to figure out if they're shaking from side to side or front to rear, and try to make them shake more (humorously, but truly trying).If you get dry mouth, eat saltines & play (have a good repairman on speed dial for this one).

    If your brain gets loud, imagine the noise becomes higher & higher pitch like a chipmunk voice you can laugh at.

    (ideas are not mine, just an amalgamation from the book 'A Soprano on Her Head' and several amazing horn teachers)

    Really like your blog & your ideas - haven't managed to get the music playing yet.


  8. Bug, I was pretty much the same with the piano, learning the notes not the music and still am when playing other people's stuff. On the sax, it's a bit better as it's more like singing but i still have a way to go. Thanks for the kind words.

    kc, these are all good ideas and I'll be trying them out in my lesson tonight.


Without your comments, I am but a wave without a shore...