The Practice Notebook

flutist Zara Lawler shares tips on learning music

Defense against the Dark Arts for Musicians


stop voldemort

Sometimes a life in music can feel pretty crappy.  You love the music so much, it’s hard to ever feel satisfied with the way you play it, or a big concert is coming up and the stakes seem so high that you walk around with your stomach a knot of fear all day.  Negative voices in your head say you’ll never be “good enough.”  When the negativity really gets going, it can feel like a Dementor attack, straight out of Harry Potter.

For those of you who aren’t up on your Harry Potter, Dementors are the guards of Azkaban, the wizarding prison.  They feed on all human negative emotion, and when they attack, they literally suck the soul right out of you.  If you haven’t read Harry Potter, but you HAVE gotten all worked up about a concert or an audition, you probably know a little what it feels like to have the soul sucked out of you.  Sure, Harry Potter is fiction, but the ability of negative thoughts to suck at your soul is, unfortunately, all too true.

So what’s a musician to do?

I recently got a great pep talk on this very topic from my dear friend, soprano Mary Ellen Callahan.  I was confessing to her the great fear I have been feeling while practicing for my upcoming performance at the NFA Annual Convention.  It’s that kind of fear that just sits at the bottom of your stomach, present as you do your daily routine like practicing or washing the dishes.  It had gotten to the point that I had a hard time even doing positive visualizations, because the fear was dominating my mind.

Mary Ellen suggested thinking of a time that I felt really good performing—even if it was a different piece, and then once I was nicely in that memory, I could just slip in a new visualization of me playing the music I’m working on now, but feeling as good as I did in the memory.  It’s like reminding yourself of what feeling good was, and then bringing that feeling into the present (and, ultimately, the future).

It just so happens that later that same day, I watched Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban on TV, and realized that basically Mary Ellen was suggesting a kind of real world Patronus Charm.  You remember the Patronus Charm:  that’s when a wizard thinks of his very best memory, a time when he was really really happy, and thus can conjure up a magical shield that protects him from Dementors.

So, for my practicing, I’ve remembered a few times when I felt really in the zone, when time slowed down, and I felt like I could do anything.  Then, as Mary Ellen suggested, I pull a fast one on my mind, and switch the original piece with Lowell Liebermann’s Eight Pieces. It’s worked pretty well so far.  Not only has it helped me to feel more calm as I practice, it has also made my practicing more effective.  On a couple of occasions, things that normally would take me two 10-minute segments to learn got done in less than one!

Also in The Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry and his classmates learn the Riddikuls charm to ward off boggarts.  A boggart is a magical creature that takes on the form of your worst fears, and it is disarmed by turning it into something funny.  For example when Ron’s boggart takes the shape of a giant spider, he envisions it on roller skates and the hilarity of the image of a spider skittering around on eight sets of wheels robs the boggart of its fear-fuelled power.

I’ve been using the Riddikulus Charm like so:

Fear:  Me at the NFA Convention:



Yes, that IS Sir James Galway’s head on my body.  Riddikulus indeed!
What do you think is riddikulus?  How would you re-envision a scary performance to make it funny?  Whose head would you put on your body?  Send them in, please!

PS.  In case you need a little more Harry Potter inspired humor, go here and watch my Asterisk colleague Meaghan Heinrich doing her amazing “Baby Got Wand” as H. Pizzle himself.

PPS.  Photo credits:  Stop Voldemort by Ellie, Me in Krishna pose by Mike Wheatley, Sir James in Krishna pose by me.

One Comment to

“Defense against the Dark Arts for Musicians”

  1. On October 17th, 2009 at 8:16 am Rachel Says:

    I love your analogies! I completely understand what you are talking about because I also am guility of over-concentrating on certain auditions and solo performances even though I know I am fully capable and always bring my finest work. As to your anology to the “Riddikulus charm”, with outeven reading further on, I stopped and thought….wait she is SO RIGHT… I DO need to trust my abilites and to stop all of this negative talk because really this is just completely ridiculous since I know it’s not true. So Thank you for having touched on a subject that many people have brought to my attention but have never truly made me fully understand or been able to articulate into a relatable example.

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