Lately, I have been applying some of my philosophical studies to my practicing and teaching. Probably one of the most overlooked concepts in playing well is the removal (or at least the taming) of fear and judgment. When a great player performs, there is a confidence, a radiance, a certain type of grace which only shines through when fear and judgment is let go.
Ask a great player what it feels like to be on stage when everything is going smoothly and they say something like "it feels free, fun, I'm just one with the music". That is to say - there is no fear, no judgment. When things are REALLY going well - there's no thinking at all.
As students (especially guitarists who see themselves as inferior musicians many times) we learn to fear and judge most of what we do. If the tone isn't quite right or if we miss a note, we get upset and judge ourselves harshly. When a difficult passage creeps up, our natural tendency is to tense up - a reaction of fear. We rarely enjoy what we do - instead we expect one day we will get better, and THEN we can then enjoy it. But I'm afraid that this keeps us "chasing our tail", because as we DO get better, our bar for perfection also rises. Thus we are always one step away from where we want to be - and fear and judgment continues no matter how far we've progressed.
There are two ways to deal with this fear and judgment when playing.
The first way is the way that most are taught (myself included). Practice a technique or piece/passage so much that eventually the body relaxes, the mind calms down, you start to enjoy the playing, and eventually confidence begins to come. You "know" the piece - and fear and judgment begin to melt away. On some days they totally disappear and you play great. On other days, they show their ugly heads and you play worse. We've all experienced this.
There's nothing wrong with this approach, however, it's incomplete.
The second way to deal with fear and judgment is even better in my opinion, because it deals with our mental state. You practice the mental and physical attitude of mastery and allow yourself to make mistakes - completely and with enjoyment.
This means, when you practice, you completely allow the mistakes - make them on purpose, with joy, with confidence. The whole time you are doing this, feel confident and enjoy whatever arises out of the chaos. Don't in any way think about the inaccuracy of notes or tone. Pluck multiple strings at once, enjoy your "bad" tones, make shifts fast without caring about accuracy, and push the tempo to what you feel like it should be regardless of current physical limitations. Practice with complete abandon and freedom regardless of what comes out. Imagine that the piece is written this way and you are playing it perfectly.
For people who obsessively judge their mistakes and fear imperfection in playing (most of us), this will seem weird, and if their mind is not open to this idea, they will think it's stupid and a waste of time. However, remember that playing well is much more mental than physical - we want to practice the mental state of playing with freedom, without fear, and with unconditional love.
So you want to focus on the state of effortless, free motion regardless of what happens. Will you make mistakes? - yes, and please make many....haha. Enjoy it, relax, laugh at the mistakes - don't let them intimidate you at all.
When you go back to practicing accurately, remember the feeling of freedom you had when you dropped your fear and judgment. Try to feel like that when you are then focusing on accurate playing. If you make a mistake, enjoy it and "allow" it as you did before. With this mentality you'll end up making less mistakes and build your courage and confidence. With time, you'll notice more freedom, more accuracy, more relaxed technique, bigger tone, and more joy.
When we do not fear and judge, we are free to be creative and happy. This is a major key to great playing (notice the word - "playing"). It may sound crazy to some, however it is based on the wise principle of "what you resist, persists". If you resist making mistakes (aka - try not to) you actually will continue to make them over and over again.
The key word is "allow". Allow yourself to be free. Music is free - be like music.
NYC - Feb 4, 2008