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Shut up and play

There’s a lot of cross-talk in my life between music and sports, which I imagine is true for many musicians.  The first Sunday in April is the first local road race of the season, the Rome Fort to Fort 10k run.  This year I was excited for the new season, and even played some psych-up music in my head before the race (John Adams Short Ride in a Fast Machine).  As a result I went out rather too fast, and found myself hanging on for the rest of the race.

In the middle of a race, when things are somewhat uncomfortable, there’s a tendency to give yourself some kind of pep talk, recite a mantra, or tell yourself something positive about your ability to keep going at that speed.  In the middle of the 4th mile my mind started grasping for something to help me keep going – along the lines of “you can keep this up for another x minutes.”  (I like to calculate distance and pacing while I run.)  Then I noticed that even that positive thought seemed to drain energy – even a cheerleading thought that you can do something contains within it the doubt that perhaps you can’t.  So at that point the thought came, “just shut up and run.”  Immediately the inner talking quieted, and I got back into my body, monitoring all the sensations of running and letting the mind automatically respond to the feedback loop of sensory information, heart rate, oxygen level, and generally managing the discomfort of running fast.  My energy level stayed consistent, and I was able to stay on pace to the end, with a (for me) respectable time for the beginning of the season.

Of course, where I’m going with this is that the same applies to music.  It’s all too easy to get caught up with expectations, hopes, fears, and pressure we place on ourselves around a given performance.  I’ve tried various kinds of self talk to manage this.  The best I’ve found is simply “shut up and play.”  Whatever story you have about the significance of a performance, about what it means to you or someone else, is arbitrary, irrelevant, and ultimately counter-productive.  What matters is to be fully in the moment, absorbed in the task at hand without second-guessing yourself.  Two authorities I respect on this are Mihaly Czikszentmihaly, author of the book Flow, who’s made a lifelong study of optimal achievement; and my musicianship teacher, the great  Marianne Ploger, who would use the expression “Coach out of the pool!” – meaning your inner coach needs to shut up and let you swim your race.  (This is discussed more in her article on the Causes of Musical Error – included in my links.)

So for my recital today my goal is to take my own advice – simply shut up and play.

2 Responses to “Shut up and play”

  1. Bill says:

    Finally checking in with your blog and enjoying every word. I couldn’t agree more with this post. I’ve been trying to find a way to communicate this very concept to my students, and yours is refreshingly uncluttered. All the preparation for performance leads to the point where we simply need to produce, and at that point, nothing else matters. I’ll be trying this on my students when school resumes in January. Thanks for the tip!

  2. Emma Garcia says:


    This post sums up much of what I’ve learned since starting my studies at college. I make myself, “just shut up and play,” all the time now, every time I pick up the bass or work with any other instrument. It helps me solve the playing problems I WOULD talk about, internally or to someone else in the room, if I didn’t make myself…well…”just shut up and play.”

    Awesome blog entries! Lots of great information in a concise, interesting, and easy-to-grasp format. I’m hooked!

    I’ve been trying to come see the HCO play for ages, but all of my vacations thus far have started a day or two after your concerts.

    Hope you’re well! Please keep in touch!

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