Fear and Peak Performance
You know, everyone's heard the "study" that claims the only thing we fear more than death, is public speaking! As a performing musician, I can admit to being fearful sometimes during performances, but COME ON! Really???
Or........... maybe that IS really true! Are we more afraid of embarrassment and failure than we are of the ultimate lights-out? I feel like, maybe if you even THINK that might be the case, that you may be focussing on the wrong thing(s)!?!?
As part of my series examining different facets of audition skills, I'd like to discuss my own thoughts and experiences in dealing with performance pressure, stage fright, and just a general lack of confidence in one's ability.
I have been extremely fortunate in my career. I have managed to study with some of the finest musicians and teachers that anyone could wish for, and at the right time! I say I've been fortunate because I have learned a great deal about performing from my mentors, starting with my teacher in high school, Dr. Neill Humfeld. That does not mean that I haven't experienced significant doubt, fear, and feelings of inadequacy at many times throughout my performing career!
Performing can be terrifying, no doubt. I remember thinking, at one naive point in my career, that many of the musicians I looked up to didn't get nervous before, or while performing. As I've gained experience (cough, age) I've realized that things probably aren't quite always what they seem!
I will admit to being nervous when I perform, sometimes. At this point, it takes playing something pretty exposed, or doing something out of the ordinary for me to get nervous enough for it to affect my performance. A full recital tomorrow would have me pretty stressed, as would performing a major solo work with a band or orchestra. There are a few ways that I choose to deal with these types of stresses - and none of them involve saying NO!
During my sophomore year of high school, in my auditions leading up to All-State, I advanced to Area tryouts (the round after all-region), and had a miserable audition. Many things went wrong, but mostly I just wasn't mentally prepared for the stresses of the day and how I would handle them. I totally folded, and missed making All-State by quite a lot! I returned home, and at my lesson the next week with Dr. Humfeld, he asked me how it went. I promptly burst into tears and blubbered on about a bad warmup, or something. He very calmly smiled and proceeded to tell me about a recital he once played that, according to him, was terrible. I remember a light going off, that maybe I wasn't the only one that had bad days, and how inconceivable it was that a musician like Dr. Humfeld might not always sound amazing! That lesson has stuck with me for years. That's not to say that we can blow off bad performances by chocking it up to a "bad day", but we do have to forgive ourselves for our inadequacies and shortfalls. The key here is that we learn something from those bad days. In my case, I learned that I needed to have a routine (warmup, arrival time) for auditions that didn't leave necessary parts of my preparation to chance!
While I was a graduate student at Juilliard, Joe Alessi used to have a lot of guest artists in for master classes during the weekly low brass class he ran on Thursday evenings. One particular class, we had the pleasure of a visit from John Marcellus. I had been tasked to play (Hindemith's Sonata) and I was pretty nervous. Well, totally terrified might be another good way of putting it. I don't remember a lot about the class, except that I remember playing through the whole Hindemith to start my portion of the master class. I don't think it really went all that great, but Doc immediately zeroed in on a big issue that put me at ease, right away. What was it? Well, he had me start at the beginning, and he sang along with me as I played the opening part of the Hindemith. I remember feeling like a different person, and musician.
For the longest time, I couldn't figure out what magic Doc Marcellus had worked on me that day in New York. I put it in the back of my mind, until it resurfaced years later in a lesson with David Fedderly. I attended the Catholic University in Washington, DC over a 5 year period, where I had the unique opportunity to study with, yep, a tuba player! Dave is a master teacher, and after a couple lessons with him, I realized why Doc Marcellus had such an instantaneous effect on me years earlier.
From the very beginning of our time together, Dave was all about the music. You may be saying, "well, duh?!" But really, most of us get so wrapped up in how things feel, and our own ego, and not failing, that we forget the one thing that brings us back to Earth.
Music. Pretty simple, right? When I am nervous, and I start getting into that place where the nervousness starts to cripple me as a trombone player, concentrating on the music brings me back. It sounds really easy, but in practice, it's extremely difficult. That's what Doc did for me during that Hindemith performance - he brought my focus back to the music I was making, and forced my mind, through his singing, to return to the music.
So, when I have a difficult performance coming up, I keep the musical focus foremost in my mind. The trick is to keep that rolling into the live performance!
This leads us to visualization. I first read about this in James Loehr's book, Toughness Training for Life. At a point in my life where my confidence was very low, Loehr's writing really rang a bell with me. Visualization is very powerful. For a visual learner like myself, it can mean a lot.
Years ago, I heard a master class given by Mark Lawrence. During the class, he talked about a performance he gave of the Creston Fantasy on a San Francisco Symphony concert series. What struck me (other than the terrifying thought of playing that piece with an orchestra) was his preparation for it. He talked about how he began to visualize the performances months ahead of time, how he imagined himself walking on stage in Davies Hall, wearing his tails, his colleagues all seated behind him, and beginning the performance...
I began using visualization informally around the time I joined the Marine Band. For me, picturing in my mind the setting, feelings, clothing, audience, terrible feeling chops (don't they always feel terrible?), and every other detail I can conjure, has become an essential part of my preparation for important performances.
This was really solidified for me when I became a triathlete. I took five years to grow my ability and endurance to the point I could race Ironman at a level I was happy with. During those many hours swimming, biking, and running, I really learned what it meant to imagine something in my mind and move towards it, both physically and mentally. I think maybe this is a big reason that so many musicians are attracted to endurance sports. The time alone gives you time to focus, and really think about where you are going (both physically and mentally), and how you will get there. Telling yourself the same thing over and over creates belief, and belief inspires confidence. The fear of waking up at 4AM to eat breakfast before Ironman is very similar to the fear I feel before walking on stage for a big performance.
So, do you have to be an Ironman to perform music well? Of course not. But, we can all learn mental strength, visualization, and confidence in many different ways.
The final thing is, of course, preparation. Most successful musicians can't be accused of practicing too little. They just simply wouldn't be where they are without adequate time in the practice room. Specific preparation, meaning spending time on the things that work for YOU, is what makes our fear tolerable. When getting ready for Ironman, we used to head out for 105 mile bike rides, and follow it up with a 4 or 5 mile run. These were what I termed "race rehearsals". Now, with 2.4 miles of swimming before the bike, and 26 miles of running after, did these really let me rehearse the whole race? No, but they gave me a lot of confidence that I could make it through the longest part of the race, and know what to do if things weren't going well for me physically.
Performing can be the same way. Specific practice such as mock auditions, recording ourselves, visualization, flashcards... all these things can give us confidence when done in the correct way.
I encourage you to explore some of these things. Most of all, I'd love to hear from you about what works for you, and what techniques you have successfully used to produce your best performances. Please leave your comments below!
Stay tuned for some more pieces of the puzzle in next week's post!