How "Fake It Til You Make It" Made Me A Better Musician
[Originally published September 8, 2020 on my former website.]
Hello, lovely reader! It's been a while since my last post, but in all fairness, I've had a lot going on. I'm currently teaching 8 students a week, working part-time, practicing a lot, and I launched a new concert series in August! It's called Caitlin's Cozy Concerts, a concert series where you can remain cozy at home and not catch COVID (all the Cs!)!
My first virtual concert took place on August 29th and I will be doing them every last Saturday of the month going forward. The next one is September 26th at 1 PM EST over on my Facebook page, which you can find here. You can also check out my Performances Page for all the details!
Today, I want to talk to you about that good old phrase, "Fake it til you make it". Most of us have heard this at one point in our lives, but it can bring up various feelings depending on the context it's used in. Wikipedia defines this phrase as: "an English aphorism which suggests that by imitating confidence, competence, and an optimistic mindset, a person can realize those qualities in their real life."
This idea of applying "faking it" to my flute playing first came to me in 2017, right before I traveled to Orford for my second summer at the renowned music academy. I had struggled with performance anxiety my whole flute life but had recently had a helpful session with a mental skills coach. I wanted to try tangible tools to manage my anxiety and start joyfully playing my best.
That week at Orford, I would be studying with French flutist Julien Beaudiment for the second time, and I wanted to test something out. Julien is an exceptionally gifted musician, and the year before, I got to know his outgoing, shiny, playful personality whenever he played his flute. He would hop around the room, make up stories to go with the music, play way too loud right in my ear to convey a point! I thought to myself, "I need to channel that this year. What if I pretended I was Julien while I played? What might happen? How might I sound? How might I feel?"
I thought to myself, "I need to channel that [outgoing personality] this year. What if I pretended I was Julien while I played? What might happen? How might I sound? How might I feel?"
I'm glad I thought of this before going to Orford, because as it turned out, I was picked to play first thing in the morning the day after Julien arrived, right at 9 am. When that was decided, I started to panic a little, but I quickly reminded myself that I had this newfound tool to try out, which could be fun! I decided to play solo orchestral excerpts, as we wouldn't have a pianist with us that day. I remember choosing the excerpt from Brahms' 1st Symphony, an excerpt where the flute must play majestically and extremely confidently.
The next day, bright and early, I walked to the front of the room we were in, heart beating fast at the thought of playing in front of such amazing flute peers (one of them went to Eastman, and would later go on to Juilliard, for crying out loud!). I took a deep breath, and channeled my inner Julien before bursting into the excerpt. (I'll admit that part of my confidence also came from the powerful new flute I had acquired just a few months before.) I played out, as if I was the most interesting and captivating flutist in the world.
And it worked.
Julien noticed right away that my sound and musicality were vastly improved from the year before. I felt so good! Not only because someone else noticed my great playing, but because I noticed and I felt proud. I could hear how beautiful I sounded while playing. It felt good to feel so sure of myself, something I almost never was when I performed. (My sister is a singer who has done musical theater and opera; suffice it to say I never thought I was allowed to take up space as an artiste, someone who has a noticeable stage persona.)
A close friend of mine, also at the academy that year, came up to me after the class and said that she noticed how beautiful my sound was and how confident I appeared while playing. I told her that honestly, I was pretending to be Julien as I played, and that by "faking" my confidence, I actually ended up feeling genuinely confident!
Now, what's important to note at this point, is that I didn't fake my playing, nor did I try to sound like Julien himself. I knew the excerpt well and I still sounded like myself when I played it. When I talk about "fake it til you make it", I'm referring more so to vibes/feelings/outward expressions/etc. I don't want to actually play or sound like anyone but myself. I still make my own musical decisions and play with my own unique sound.
When I talk about "fake it til you make it", I'm referring more so to vibes/feelings/outward expressions/etc. I don't want to actually play or sound like anyone but myself.
Full transparency: the confidence I felt that day at Orford didn't last too long, and soon enough I faced one of the worst semesters of my life, almost resulting in me quitting my degree and music altogether. I faced adversity in many forms and it broke me down as a musician. Thankfully, the next semester (Winter 2018), I got back to a place of calm and relative confidence leading up to my Bachelor's recital.
And now, we will explore another way to "fake it til you make it"!
One of the most valuable pieces of advice I ever received in order to manage my performance anxiety was to play my repertoire every day for a week before a concert/recital/exam/audition, at the time of the event if possible. So, knowing my graduating recital would be on a Tuesday at 7 pm, I spent the week before playing through my recital rep at exactly that time, 7 days in a row. I even went so far as to put on my concert clothes, take bows before and after each piece, and imagine the audience in my living room. I was "faking" the conditions of my recital in order to prepare for it. And boy, did it ever work!
I'll never forget the exact moment I walked onto the stage for my recital. I literally thought to myself, "Haven't I already done this?" The week of run-throughs I did made my brain believe I'd already performed my recital! The power of imagination and "faking" actually confuses your brain into thinking it's all real. So as I started to play the first piece of my recital, I knew everything would be okay and I could have fun, because I'd done it already.
The power of imagination and "faking" actually confuses your brain into thinking it's all real.
How magical is that?! I felt such joy performing my repertoire that night. Sure, it wasn't my best playing in hindsight, compared to how I play now, but I felt like a true musician and artist that night. I had the confidence I needed to play as musically as possible in that moment. It was my moment to shine, and I took it.
And I'll never forget how many genuine compliments I received for my performance of CPE Bach's Solo Sonata in A Minor. I love playing solo flute pieces, but I'd felt so anxious about this one because of how delicate it was. So to get feedback from peers saying how much of an effect my performance had on them was a huge win for me.
Of course, my journey since adopting the "fake it til you make it" motto back in 2017 hasn't been a simple road to success. I've had many ups and downs, more than I can count, but if you were to map them all out on a graph, the general slope of things is definitely skyward.
When I started working with the fantastic flutist Ariane Brisson a couple years ago, I knew she would become a great source of inspiration for me. Ariane is one of those players whose performances are impeccable and always memorable. Every single note is thought out and given care, and her stage presence is a beautiful sight to behold. She has given me so many more tools than I thought possible in order to play my very best. I kept telling people that each lesson I had with her would make my playing level up as if I was in a video game!
I can remember many times in the last year when I didn't feel like I could access the confidence or artistry needed to play or perform a piece well. In those moments, I would think to myself, "How would Ariane play this?" and I would "fake" Ariane's artistic aura to break through that wall of self-doubt.
I'll reiterate that I don't use this concept in order to copy or imitate someone else's playing. When I think to myself, "How would Ariane play this?", I'm not trying to become someone I'm not. I'm simply trying to access that unwavering confidence I see her display every time she plays and performs. I ask myself these questions:
"Would Ariane be shy about this note?"
"Would Ariane stick to what's literally on the page or would she make this music her own?"
"Wouldn't Ariane take more time to breathe here? Why am I rushing? Who am I trying to please by playing safe and sounding square?"
Do you see where I'm going with this? What I'm "faking" is a feeling of assurance and determination. The result? I start to genuinely feel those things. And then I play differently. I start to make decisions from a place of artistry and creativity, not from a place of fear.
I start to make decisions from a place of artistry and creativity, not from a place of fear.
My perception of flutists such as Julien and Ariane is that their primary goal is to convey their musical ideas to whoever is listening. They appear confident and in control. Whether they truly are or not doesn't matter. When I feel myself going to that place of "Ugh nope I don't like how I sound/feel", I decide to "fake it til I make it". It's a conscious decision that needs to be reflected on frequently.
Because honestly, when you feel insecure and unsure while playing, most people still won't notice that. So, might as well channel your inner Julien or Ariane or whoever you admire, and pretend to feel the way you want to feel. Why not "fake" the best version of yourself, if you have the choice? Why not pretend to be as confident as someone else, and see what happens?
I guarantee you, you'll start to notice a difference in your playing, and soon enough, you won't have to fake anything at all, as the aphorism goes. You will "make it".
A few weeks ago, I had a lesson with Ariane and I played a Furstenau etude for her. I was nervous about it because it was a moto perpetuo situation and it was all triple tongued. But I exhaled all my nervous energy out, I put on my "faking it" hat, and I played as if I was performing in Carnegie Hall and getting paid a hefty sum to do so. Basically, I nailed it :)
And Ariane noticed.
After finishing the etude, I didn't feel like I'd done an amazing job, but the first thing Ariane said was, "Wow!" She said that she was honestly surprised and impressed by my determination and how resolutely I'd played. She was visibly taken aback, in a good way, and that's when I knew I had to write about this topic. (Full transparency: we then discussed how I still have a tendency to rush when the music gets technical, so maybe I didn't nail it nail it. But my vibe was great!!)
As much as yes, I had put in the work to nail that etude, I still felt unsure about it at the moment of performing it for my teacher. But I made the conscious decision to play with the confidence I knew she would play it with (I literally thought to myself, "Alright, here we go!" as if I was buckling myself in for an exciting amusement ride). And so I did! There really is barely a difference between "playing as" and simply "playing". If you pretend you're confident, you're basically telling yourself to feel confident. Which ... makes you feel confident! Look, it's not rocket science, and it works.
Look, it's not rocket science, and it works.
I'll leave you with this. When you pick up your flute, or whichever instrument you play, you have the power to decide how you want to sound. I don't care whether you're a beginner or a professional. I don't care whether you know the piece well enough or not. Every time you play, you can choose how you want to sound, what kind of vibe you want to give off, and even if you make mistakes or still have things to work on, that's okay. If you feel unsure of yourself, that's okay! It'd be strange if you never felt that way. But try telling yourself, "What if I played this with the confidence I want to have?"
You can thank me later. 😉
If you want someone to guide you through this concept and more, and get you playing your best in no time, might I suggest booking a FREE trial lesson with me? Take a look at my Lessons Page and then send me a message. I'll be happy to help you exercise your "fake it til you make it" muscle!