Fear and Performance: Top 5 Lessons Learned
In part one of my discussion of Performance Anxiety, I talked about some of the nuts and bolts of performing in pressure situations. Now, I want to talk about another part that is just as important, and oftentimes totally overlooked in our education as musicians.
Over the years, I have had my share of failures. I’ve had auditions where I got nowhere, and didn’t have any clue as to why I didn’t do better. I’ve played solo pieces where I just struggled to get to the end. I’ve played concerts where I was so worried over one small little passage, that I let it affect my enjoyment of the music, and my performance ability. Following is a list of the most important realizations that I’ve come to over my years performing, and I’d like to share them with you here...
- Separate your self worth from your musical ability. Many times, we get the two confused. It’s easy to let the thoughts of failure creep in when a performance doesn’t go well. It’s very easy to let that small, temporary failure begin to color our view of our self as a person. For instance, when a performance hasn’t gone well, I have thought to myself, “I just don’t have it.” That leads to, “maybe I shouldn’t be doing this?” Confidence is hard won. It is also easily lost. It comes and goes at times, and it can be elusive sometimes. One of the biggest differences between more experienced players in an audition is confidence. That person believes they belong there. They also know that a poor performance has no affect on their worth as a person, their morals, their work ethic, their personal relationships, and their family and friends’ love for them.
- When you play music, it’s not about you. The performance is about what’s on the page, and how that connects with the listener. I finally realized how egotistical I can be by assuming that someone is only there to hear me play trombone. Most of the time, audiences (and committees) don’t care so much about your trombone playing as they do about the music you play. The trombone playing is definitely important, but most people tend to forget about the instrument if you are making great music. There’s still pressure to perform, but by taking my self out of the equation, I’m left with trying my very best to communicate the music that I’m playing, not convince a group of people that I’m a great person, or that I’m the best trombonist that ever lived. Why do our friends and family still love us when we fail? Because they don’t base our value on how we play our instrument!
- Embrace the fear. Yeah, that’s right. It can sound kind of cliché, but once I began to think of performing in a different way, it got a lot more fun. Notice I didn’t say easier! Just more fun! Realize that we, as performers, get to feel something that many people never (or rarely) get to experience in their lives. The feeling of walking on stage, the feeling of people listening to the music you’re playing, the gratification of hearing the result of all your hard work… It is truly special. Enjoy it. Savor it. Sometimes, “I’m the only one here that gets to feel this” can be a strong conceptual motivator to help you embrace that fear you feel when you walk out on stage.
- Learn to forgive yourself for your imperfections. Learn to forgive yourself for, at times, being totally lost and directionless. The important thing is to keep at it. Glenn Dodson once told me he auditioned for the Philadelphia Orchestra seven times. What if he had quit after the sixth audition? If something doesn’t work, forgive yourself and move on. Forgive your faults, and work your ass off to make it better next time. That kind of attitude and work ethic is what realizes goals.
- This brings me to the most important thing on my list. Find your crew. Develop and nurture relationships that support you, come hell or high water. I have a core group of friends and family that back me up always. If things aren’t going well, or if motivation is missing, I’m just a phone call, text, or email away from instant support. Likewise, if I need advice, I have a strong network to rely on for guidance. And, don’t forget to use your support crew! It can be hard to ask for help. You have to learn to ask for help, and not wait for it to come looking for you. In Amanda Palmer’s great book, The Art of Asking, she emphasizes this by telling you to “take the cookies”. Read the book to find the story, but it’s a great lesson to use the help that’s offered to us without hesitation. The people that love us truly want to help, and they will get great satisfaction from being able to provide you with help.
Life doesn’t just happen to you, it’s out there waiting to be made. Persistence, relationships, and valuing your self - those are the ingredients that will keep you moving forward. Good luck on your performances. Keep moving forward!
I would love to hear from any of you that have things that help you as a performer - leave them and any questions in the comments! As always, if you’re not already, I’d love to have you as a subscriber!