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Tennis, Airplanes, and Guitars

In the deciding set of the 1993 Wimbledon finals, Jana Novotna was ahead of Steffi Graff 4-1, when she choked. She served the ball straight into the net, twice. That double fault haunted her, and she choked. She played worse and worse, each fault making it even harder for her to just let go and play like the world champion she was. By the end of the match, she was playing like a rank beginner, and managed to lose what had looked like a certain victory.

Six years later, John F. Kennedy Jr. took off on a night flight to Martha’s Vinyard, that would be his last. Somewhere over the Rhode Island Sound, he lost sight of the horizon in the misty darkness. He flew around randomly, obviously searching for the lights of his destination. While his attention was thus occupied, his plane entered a one-g spiral dive. Such a “graveyard spiral” is easily corrected by any pilot who can see the horizon, or who is regularly monitoring his flight instruments. In the dark and haze, Kennedy panicked. His attention fixated on finding those darned lights! Most likely, his perceptions narrowed until he literally could not see his instruments. Panic does that. Still focused on his destination, Kennedy flew his plane into the water at over 150 miles per hour, killing all on board.

Both Novotna and Kennedy were responding inappropriately to the same kind of pressure felt by musicians performing before an audience. But their responses were poles apart. Novotna choked and lost all her instinctive expertise, reverting to playing from her head, like a beginner who has to think about every move. Naturally, her play got worse and worse.

Kennedy did just the opposite. In his panic, he trusted his trained instincts to fly the plane, while he super-focused on searching for his destination. In the foggy dark, his instincts told him NOTHING about what his airplane was doing, but his panic would not let him see anything but what he was searching for. Had he choked and reverted to “beginner” mode, as Novotna did, he would have seen his flight instruments, and could have corrected his descent at any time, right up to the moment of impact.

What does this have to do with guitars? Everything. We all make mistakes under pressure. Repeatedly. Good performers just go on with the program. They don’t choke and revert to beginners. When it hits the fan, they just relax, disengage their brain, and let muscle memory take over. It may not be their best performance ever, but the audience probably will never know.

Yet, things do happen. A string breaks in the middle of a song. A mic gets knocked over. My daughter and I were ready for a church performance last Christmas, when she discovered that her sheet music was missing. “Oh, Holy Night”. In French. She could have panicked and delayed the performance looking for it. (She wouldn’t have found it. We never did.) She could have choked and sung it in English, without the difficult obligato we’d rehearsed so hard and so long. Instead, she just sang it, relying on her vocal muscle memory for the French words, her lovely, trained voice, and on my guitar for the timing. It was BEAUTIFUL. The audience never knew.

What made it possible? LOTS AND LOTS of practice. Good musicians don’t just rehearse until they can do it right every time. Good musicians practice until they cannot do it wrong.

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