“Going on autopilot” doesn’t sound good. It sounds mechanical, unfeeling, antithetical to bringing an audience on an emotional journey. To truly affect someone, you have to be, well, conscious, right? In most cases, sure. But sometimes, things get scary—moments at the extremes of dynamics and range, moments of unusual technical and expressive demands. At those times, when your mind is distracted by sheer terror, the ability to let your training take over is indispensable.
Let me clarify what I mean. By autopilot, I mean ingraining your technical and musical mission (to co-opt a phrase from Daniel Matsukawa) so firmly that, no matter what else is going on in your mind, your body knows what to do. Most of us experience performance anxiety at least some of the time, whether it be in an audition or a high-pressure performance. Of the variety of ways to deal with that, and without judgment of any of them, I’ve found this to be the strategy from which I learn the most. By confronting my nerves head-on and finding practice strategies that enable me to (hopefully) play well in spite of them, I learn about myself and am able to put that knowledge to use in future high-stress situations.
What does this mean in practical terms? Practice a piece in the wrong key. Run around the room, then play before you’ve had a chance to catch your breath. Play an excerpt well five times in a row, consciously noticing the tension that creeps in as you get closer to your goal. All of these make your life more difficult in the practice room, so that playing under normal circumstances becomes easier. We don’t want to only be able to play a passage well when we’re at our absolute best—comfortable, warmed-up, playing in the privacy of the practice room. We want our preparation to extend beyond the reasonable expectation of what we’ll have to do—we have to be better than the demands placed on us, because only then can we expect to play well in difficult situations.
This extends equally to one’s musical purpose. Making music is not an intellectual exercise, but many aspects of one’s musical goals can be quantified, and we can train ourselves to replicate them under pressure. A fantastic quote by Marcel Tabuteau appears in the liner notes to David McGill’s seminal orchestral excerpts CD: "If you think beautifully, you play beautiful [sic]. I believe to play as you think more than to play as you feel because how about the day you are not feeling so well?" It is precisely those days that we’re talking about. Mr. Tabuteau is referring to the ability to make music under any circumstances.
Gradually, we learn what strategies give us the ability to function on autopilot when necessary. We grow in our confidence that our preparation is sufficient—focused, intense practice that has done as much as possible to maximize the odds that we’ll play well, even if we’re a roiling mass of fear on the inside. Ultimately, the audience doesn’t care what is or isn’t difficult. That’s our problem, and it’s our responsibility to take the steps necessary to provide the insurance that, when the chips are down, we can still depend on our preparation to carry us through.