My sixteen-year old daughter recently played the national anthem on her electric guitar at the high school boy’s basketball game. Halfway through her performance, her amp accidentally got unplugged (a janky extension cord set-up) and her rendition went suddenly silent. The audience, confused as to why she only played half of the revered song, paused for a long, uncomfortable beat, then awkwardly clapped and the night moved on.
Izzie was mortified and humiliated. It took incredible courage for her to volunteer to play in front of a crowd and she spent months getting the anthem perfect. She cried with embarrassment, swore she could never show her face in the halls of her school again. But people’s memories are short and no one is ever thinking about – or judging – us as much as we assume they are. Going to school the next day was a struggle, but she held her head high and got through it.
That night, an ice storm hit, paralyzing our county and closing schools and businesses for a long, four-day weekend. With little else to do, Izzie played her guitars.
It went badly. Horribly. Every song sounded like a car wreck. She blanked on chord progressions she had memorized for years. She could no longer coordinate her two hands. The next day, more of the same. The longer she practiced, the worse it became. She shut off the amp in frustration, stowed her acoustic with shaking hands.
I wrapped my arms around my tearful and panicked daughter. “Aw baby,” I cooed. “I think you’ve got the yips.”
The term yips can be traced to the 1930’s, but was popularized by the great golfer Tommy Armour to explain the twitching, jittering, or jerking that messes up a putt or a chip. The yips can affect any athlete, but are seen most often in golfers, baseball pitchers, football kickers, cricket bowlers, and in tennis players as they serve. Consider how humans flinch in response to the high-pitched “yip” of a small dog. Yips happen when we flinch at the exact time we need a steady hand.
For musicians, the correct term is musical dystonia, which occurs when a musician’s sensory motor programs associated with playing their instrument are disrupted. It’s as if they simply forget how to play. But a yip by any other name is still a crisis of confidence. The yips are often associated with choking in a high stakes situation, but research suggests that the yips are neurological in nature, as if the athlete or musician simply lost overnight all cellular memory they had of their sport or instrument.
The yips are painful to witness and often end careers. Whether neurological or psychological, they suck. There is some brain blip that causes one to choke. Then the yipper feels self-conscious and that nervousness makes it all worse.
So what to do when the yips show up? Some golfers get Botox injections in their wrists to calm the yips down. Pitchers often stop pitching for a month or so; a break can often alleviate the yips. I called Steve, our beloved guitar teacher, and explained the situation. He sent an email in reply.
Tips for the Yips:
Don’t try to play anything perfect and you’ll come closer to playing it perfect. You’re trying too hard. Care less how good it is. Just let it happen.
Of course. Wu wei (無爲). Wu wei is a concept in Taoism sometimes translated as non-striving or non-doing. Some problems are best solved simply by taking a deep breath and just giving over to life’s natural course. It’s giving in, not giving up. It isn’t a philosophy of laziness, but one that accepts that almost nothing is within our control. Sometimes the amp is going to get unplugged. Sometimes your hands will not obey. Sometimes othes will witness your most humiliating moment. The world will do what it wants, regardless of our striving and struggling.
The Tao holds that playing music is the easiest way to speak to God. And if I know anything, it’s that God hears all prayers, even those coming through an especially traumatic rendition of I Want To Hold Your Hand.
So Izzie took Steve’s advice and stopped forcing it. She tried to let it be a prayer. She looked for the playfulness and pleasure in practice, even when the notes clashed and the amp screeched. We’re not totally over the yips yet. But we’re accepting them as part of the journey.