A TED Talk by Jeff Nelsen



This talk happened a while ago, back in May of 2011, but it’s still worth a watch. I have always admired Jeff Nelsen, and he is definitely one of the top horn performers and teachers out there today. I was first introduced to his playing a long time ago, when he was still performing as a member of the Canadian Brass, one of the few full-time brass ensembles around at present. A friend of mine had me listen to a track from one of their CDs, which was the group’s rendition of the Paganini Variations, featuring Nelsen. To say that it was incredible would be an understatement. His playing was both flawless and effortless, and it was also super fast. Since then, he has definitely been one of my favorite horn players to listen to, and I tried to setup a lesson with him once, but it unfortunately didn’t work out. I’ve also been fortunate enough to see him perform live on a couple of occasions, and it was awesome. He even said “Hi” to me in passing at the IHS Symposium in Ithaca, which was an exhilarating moment as well.

Jeff is Professor of Horn at Indiana University, and is also the pioneer of Fearless Performance, which is his systematic approach to dealing with performance anxiety. He even hosts a seminar on Fearless Performance every summer at IU. I would actually love to attend one of these, but it’s not cheap. In the near future, I do hope to possibly interview and take a lesson with Jeff, but for now, this video will have to suffice.

In the video, he mentions that we not only perform when we are on stage, but that we perform all the time throughout our daily life. Nelsen states that “you are engaged in performance, when what you are doing matters.” Now, just let that sink in for a moment. If this is true, then we are all engaged in performance on a constant basis. Our jobs, when we cook, parenting, and everything else all require us to perform. So, why do we get so nervous and afraid when we step on a stage or have to do a presentation? It’s fear, but Jeff mentions that we are not innately programed to fear, rather it is a learned response that we all must learn how to diffuse.

The first step, or really the only step, is to take the fear out of the equation. Jeff speaks about focusing on what we are doing and making it the only thing that matters. Block out all of the outside noise, especially the noise coming from our own selves. The self-doubt, worrying about what other people will think, or worrying about anything else. Focus on what you can control, which is your performance. This is especially difficult for me, and I’m sure this is also difficult for others that deal with anxiety on a daily basis. We feel anxiety, because we cannot stop thinking and worrying about what other people think. We don’t only feel this when we perform, but we feel it concerning all things: our appearance, the way we talk, everything. So…how do we turn this off? I don’t feel like Jeff gives a complete answer to this, but he does give a framework of a solution. It’s a process that will take time, and probably a little bit of indoctrination on our part, but his concepts are sound. Things won’t drastically change overnight, but if we are willing to change our lifestyle and adapt/believe many of these concepts, then it could have a resounding affect on not just our performance, but on our daily life.

He does this great thing with the audience during the video. In order to demonstrate/simulate the fear that we feel before performing, he asks a random audience member to say her name. Jeff talks about the rush that one feels from being asked the simplest of questions. He then scares the entire audience by saying that there’s a spotlight that he intends to shine on a random person in the audience. That person will then be required to do the same easy thing, state their name. It’s seems silly, but we all know the feeling. On the first day of class, whether you’re in grade school or college, we all get the same feeling when the teacher goes around the room asks each individual to say their name and maybe give an interesting fact about themselves. We don’t want that attention to be focused on us. It makes us feel uncomfortable, but why should it? We all know our name, and it should be easy to say something about ourselves, because well, who knows you better than yourself? Fear is a choice and is often caused by the fact that we are always overly aware of our surroundings. Again, this goes back to caring too much about how other people may or may not perceive us.

Back to the video, Jeff continues by talking about the three facets of performance, and then discusses three factors or ideas that can help one on the path towards fearless performance. The facets are “The What, The How, and The Why.” For musicians, the first two facets represent the music and our technical abilities. We all focus on those things way too much, but how many of us focus on “The Why?” Why do we get on stage and perform? Why do you pick up your instrument and practice every day? Why do you write, draw, create, etc.? If we are more aware of “The Why,” then the performance becomes more personal, and we can stop worrying so much about the outside noise.

Jeff then goes on to discuss the “Fearless Factors” and starts by reminding us to “Surrender.” He doesn’t want us to surrender to our fears, but to surrender our fears. Stop worrying about every little thing and focus on what you can control. We must all learn that we can only control the presentation, not the perception. If we have prepared, then there is no need to be nervous. We’ve done the hard part, which means that the presentation of our hard work should be enjoyable, not stressful. The second is to “Be Creative” and find ways to fool yourself into not thinking about fear. Jeff lists some helpful words of wisdom, or mantras, in the video, and he also reminds us that we have to perform often. Don’t wait until you’re bulletproof to put yourself out there, because it’ll never happen. The last factor that he mentions is to “Share.” If you are only in this for yourself or to get something out of it, then you’re not thinking about it the right way. Performing is about sharing, and that’s why a lot of us became musicians. We love music, and we want to share our love of music. See it as intention or motivation. What is your motivation to perform? Focus on that and replace your fear with your intention or motivation. It sounds simple, but it’s not easy for those of us with anxiety, which is why Jeff reminds us to perform often. Train yourself in the art of redirection or replacing, learn how to efficiently and effectively replace your fear or redirect your focus to something more positive.

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