Everyone in the horn world knows the Horn Matters site, and if you don’t, you need to check it out now. Dr. John Ericson of Arizona State University and Bruce Hembd, do an awesome job, and there is just so much wonderful information on the site that you could spend days sifting through it all. I’ve spent a lot of time on Horn Matters, and for a period of time, I visited this site every day in order to stay up to date on everything horn. When I began my battle with depression a few years ago, I stopped, because it just made me feel even worse. I know that I’ve missed out on some great articles over the past few years, so I decided to see what Horn Matters has had to say on performance anxiety. Ericson and Hembd have written so many articles over the years that I’m sure I’ll miss something, but here is a quick overview of some of the articles dealing with anxiety:
“Annie Bosler on Dealing with Nerves and Performance Anxiety”
This is a video that I have yet to watch, so it’s now on my list. Ericson doesn’t give too much information about the video, but mentions that it is definitely worth checking out. He also briefly talks about another video on YouTube that features an expert in the area of performance anxiety, Dinka Migic Vlatkovic. He is a therapist and mental coach who was interviewed by the great Sarah Willis during one of her Horn Hangouts. Yet another video to add to the list.
“Beta Blockers or The Inner Game“
For some reason, I have never read The Inner Game of Tennis, by W. Timothy Gallwey . I have read The Inner Game of Music, but I just never went back to read the original. However, I plan on reading it this time around, and I will definitely devote a post to talking about said book. This post on Horn Matters brings up an interesting question: Should one use beta blockers to help ease anxiety when performing?
Ericson’s stance is quite clear on this issue. He encourages his students to try the concepts put forth in Gallwey’s book, and I definitely agree. I think it is very important to be able to gain the level of focus needed to play at a high level under pressure. On the flip side, I feel that some people, including myself, suffer from a different kind or level of anxiety that only medicine can subdue. Beta blockers by themselves won’t help you to play flawlessly, but I do believe that a combination of medication and focusing techniques could help most people suffering from performance anxiety come closer to reaching their full potential.
On a personal note, I have used beta blockers in the past. I liked how the medication took the edge off, but I still had to be able to play at a high level, which meant that I still needed to be able to focus and block out distractions. This is something that I have always struggled with, even with the aid of medication, so I would highly recommend checking out The Inner Game of Tennis or any other book/exercises that aid in clearing and focusing one’s mind.
As Ericson states in his article, consult with a doctor before taking any medication.
“Confidence and Final Audition Preparation”
I think that confidence is something that every performer needs in order to perform well. If you are not confident in your abilities, then you will never achieve the type of success you desire. I also believe that one of the best ways to gain confidence is through preparation. If you prepare to the best of your abilities, then there is no shame in what happens. I like this quote from Ericson:
“For me, careful preparation and knowing I have plenty of chops helps a great deal in relation to confidence and nerves.”
This is so true, because, for a brass player, if you have these two things, then everything should go as planned. It’s simple, but I think most of us tend to “overthink” when under pressure. Sometimes, you just need to stop thinking and trust the process.
“Onstage Relaxation Techniques”
A short article by Bruce Hembd that shares some of his tips for easing tension while performing. A couple of these you should probably only do if you’re playing in the orchestra pit, but you might be able to hide some of these if playing on stage. I can attest to the importance of breathing and utilizing controlled breathing exercises during rests. We often get very tense or begin to breath in a shallow manner if we are under stress, so doing some deep breathing during rests should help to relieve that tension.
“A Few Thoughts About Performance Anxiety”
Through reading many of his articles on anxiety, it is very apparent that Dr. Ericson has never had many issues with performance anxiety, which he states in this article. For him, preparation and learning how to focus under pressure has served him well. All people are affected by anxiety differently and normally deal with or handle it in different ways. Ericson states that there are different types of anxiety that can be roughly grouped into four categories: Panic Disorder, Social Anxiety, Specific Phobias, and Generalized Anxiety Disorder.
He also gives this wonderful bit of advice:
“If your underlying world view is different than that of the book or if advice focuses on dealing with a type of anxiety that you don’t really experience you may need to look to different resources.
I suffer from both General Anxiety and Social Anxiety, so I am aware of how these two disorders can affect one’s performance. Honestly, I don’t think outside distractions matter for me as much as my thoughts of self-doubt. It’s what happens in my mind that wreaks the most havoc. Instead of visibly showing how the situation is affecting me, I normally internalize things. I may look normal on the outside, but my mind is running circles on the inside. This is why I tend to focus more on altering my mindset, rather than physical strategies. For others, physical triggers are the problem, which is the reason why it is so important to understand your disorder.
There is so much advice out there, but not all techniques will work for every individual. We are all different people, and as Ericson states, we all feel or experience anxiety differently, so some of us will cope with our feelings in different ways. I think it is wonderful that we have access to so much knowledge, so it is inevitable that each of us will find something useful.
“Confidence, Optimism, Fearlessness, and Trusting Yourself”
Ericson did a survey on Twitter asking horn players to pick a word or mindset that best describes themselves and what they’re thinking when performing at a peak level. The four mindsets are in the title and Confidence and Trusting Yourself gained the most votes in the survey. Ericson mentions in the article that these words probably mean different things to different people, and he is correct in my case. Fearlessness does not have a strong connection with me, because I’m never truly without some form of fear. I’ve just learned how to cope with it. Optimism does not resonate with me as much either, because I’m not a very optimistic person; however, I do feel that it is important to be positive and enjoy your performance rather than dreading it and wanting it to be over.
Confidence is definitely a feeling or mindset that I need in order to perform well. When I feel confident, I don’t worry about messing up. The inside chatter isn’t as much of a problem, and I’m able to focus more completely. Trusting Yourself also falls into the same category, because if I’m playing confidently, then I will trust myself and my abilities, which will inevitably lead to a good performance.
“Deeper Insights 2: Anxiety”
In this article, Ericson gets personal and discusses life lessons learned from raising his son, who has Down syndrome and Autism. First off, having two young children myself, I know how difficult it is to balance personal and professional life, especially when involved in such a demanding field as music. Being able to balance the practice time, teaching schedule, and performance schedule is rough. Also, being an Elementary music teacher and having contact with special needs children on a regular basis, I know how delicate and demanding things can get. Kudos to Ericson for being such a consummate professional, while also being there for his family.
Ericson talks about the severe anxiety that his son experiences when things don’t go as planned, which I can relate to on a lesser level. For my anxiety, it is best when things go as planned. The few orchestral auditions that involved some sort of travel mishap always ended badly. I’d get there late, my nerves already frazzled, and things would spiral even further out of control once I went in to play.
Don’t overlook something as simple as keeping a regular routine leading up to a performance or audition. It could be the difference between success and failure.
“Deeper Insights 3: Fearless Optimism”
Again, I just don’t like the use of the term “fearless” (or “fearlessness” for that matter). There’s nothing against anyone that uses the term, but it just doesn’t resonate with me. I would rather focus on being positive, which is really what Ericson is getting at. I love this quote:
“Honestly, I think you might be better off cultivating optimism and faith in your life than fearlessness.”
It’s all about mindset and having the correct approach to everything that one does. Don’t worry about what happens to other people, because you can’t control their lives. You can only control your own life, so it is your obligation to do what is needed to succeed. If you’re doing everything right and things still don’t work out, then maybe you’re not in the right situation yet. Things have a way of working out for the best, but don’t be afraid to adapt and change your perspective as needed.
“They Think You Are Nervous”
If your chops are stiff during a performance or audition, then your response is going to suffer. We’ve all been there and have had to deal with it, but non-brass players don’t realize that it’s just a side-effect of playing too much. Sometimes, they might get the impression that the player is having issues, because they are nervous. This misconception is understandable, because both circumstances affect response, but brass players can normally tell the difference.
In my own experience, I will sometimes become more anxious and nervous if I suffer from response issues during a performance. Even if it isn’t related to my anxiety, it’s still a mental issue. I have to remind myself that everything is fine, but that I might not be as accurate as I would like. When I was a young undergrad, I would often struggle with issues similar to this, but as I grew as a musician, I was mentally able to deal with these circumstances. Unfortunately, as I have been battling severe anxiety issues during the past few years, this type of inner struggle has occurred more often. I honestly don’t really have a cure for it, but you just have to keep working at it. As long as you practice and continue to improve all aspects of your playing, the situation will get better. With more confidence in oneself, comes greater control over one’s feelings(anxiety).
“Anxious? A Couple of Books to Read”
The Inner Game of Tennis by Gallwey and Performance Success by Don Greene are two books that are essential reads for any serious musician. As I’m writing this, I just downloaded the Inner Game, because I’m a little ashamed that I have never read it. I read Performance Success during my doctoral studies, and I used the training log as I prepared for an audition with the Buffalo Phil. I didn’t win the audition, but I came away from that experience as a much better player.
“Nerves and Bananas?”
Another post that discusses the use of beta blockers and some other natural alternatives. Ericson also shares a link to a very informative article concerning the use of beta blockers amongst musicians: Beta Blockers and Performance Anxiety in Musicians. I have taken beta blockers in the past, and I will probably experiment with them again. I don’t feel that they enhance one’s abilities, but rather make it possible for those of us that suffer from severe anxiety to perform at our full potential. It’s not a performance enhancing drug.
I have used bananas before with limited success, but Ericson also mentions that dairy products and turkey may also be beneficial. In my experience, I have also tried drinking low sodium Gatorade before many of my performances. It has a lot of potassium, and the electrolytes help to give a little bit more energy. I had a lot of success with this strategy, but you have to make sure that you get the low sodium version, otherwise you might get too much sodium in your system, which could dry you out.
“The Dilemma of Performance Paranoia”
“Play by sound. not by feel.”
This article by Bruce Hembd discusses that wonderful moment that all brass players dread. The moment when we realize that our chops feel pretty stiff, but the show must go on, for better or for worse. For the seasoned player, this is nothing new, but for a younger player, or even someone with serious anxiety issues, it can be very traumatic. It’s second nature for brass players to play by feel, because inevitably this is how we learn to play. Usually, if what we play on our instrument sounds good, then it is going to feel good, or rather, feel like we are playing efficiently.
Playing on tired chops is not efficient, and it feels like a constant struggle. You’re having to work extra hard to sound good, which is going to have a negative effect on your psyche…unless, you don’t give in. The quote above is something that has helped Bruce get through difficult performances, and this concept is also what helped me to overcome my playing issues. Hembd doesn’t give the name of the teacher that supplied this quote to him, but I know that I myself have heard this line from many different people throughout my career. It’s something so simple, yet extremely difficult for brass players. It goes against all of our instincts to not pay attention to how our chops feel. However, it makes sense, because if you just focus on the sound, you get your mind out of they way and allow your chops to do the work. We’ve all worked hard and logged countless hours in the practice room, so just go for it. It may not be perfect, but allowing those thoughts of self-doubt take over will be much worse.
If it sounds good, then don’t try to dissect it. Don’t try to figure out what you did differently, because you didn’t actually do anything different. You were finally able to trust yourself, which is something that most people with anxiety are unable to do. Most people with severe anxiety don’t even like themselves, let alone possess the ability to trust themselves. I was finally able to get to this point, but it took countless hours of practice and a number of really good experiences for me to finally feel comfortable.
Professional players still have bad days, but they just know how to cope and forget about their mistakes. They don’t listen to their inner chatter, which is very difficult for people with anxiety. It takes a ridiculous work ethic, acceptance of a more positive mindset, and putting yourself in difficult situations and working through it. Not an easy task for people that normally shy away from adversity, but necessary to finally overcome those demons.
“Quote of the Week – Farkas on Stagefright”
This particular article, written by Ericson, attacks anxiety from a religious perspective. A religious approach doesn’t work for everyone, because not all people are very religious and some may not even believe in a higher power. Having faith, no matter the religion, can be difficult for people with anxiety, because it is difficult for us to stop worrying and believe that everything is going to be fine. We not only need tangible evidence that the issue is going to be resolved, but we also need it to happen right now, because we can’t stop thinking about it. When anxious people worry about something, it will not only affect their quality of life, but can also be detrimental to relationships, job performance, and other similar aspects of life.
I’m not trying to say that faith isn’t helpful, nor am I trying to sound negative towards religion; however, I am trying to make the point that just praying and then waiting for something to happen or for a problem to fix itself is not ideal. It’s good to have faith and to believe in a higher power, but you have to log the work and effort needed to attain your goals. You won’t become a “fearless” player overnight just by praying for it to happen. It takes a lot of hard work, and you have to be willing to fail. Failing isn’t the end, but rather a beginning. Giving up is the end.
In the case of Farkas, he used his faith to remind himself that he was in this position for a reason. The circumstances that led him to becoming the Principal Horn of the Chicago Symphony were not by luck or happenstance. He was there because he worked very hard, and he believed that God put him in the right place at the right time. Farkas had faith that he was put in this position for a reason, and therefore he didn’t need to worry or be nervous.
The text that Ericson discusses in this article is from the book, The Art of Musicianship, which is one of a few books that Farkas wrote. This one in particular isn’t just for horn players, but is meant for all musicians. The following quote speaks to the wisdom and confidence of Farkas:
“So it wasn’t just a series of unrelated, random events which eventually put me on stage. It was a series of incredibly interwoven and predestined events which put me there…I was there because I had been led there by an amazing chain of events, not just mere coincidence, and, because I had been led there, certainly I could do the work assigned to me, and failure was not a part of the plan.”
We are all musicians for a reason, and those of us that have become professionals, have gotten this far because we have earned it. Sometimes, we just need a reminder that we are worthy. Farkas had strong faith in God, and he was very wise to use this to his advantage. Ericson mentions in the article that Farkas would often read a certain scripture before performing:
“The Lord will perfect that which concerneth me…”
This text is taken from Psalm 138:8. Many performers will utilize text, certain words, and even visualization or pictures to get them in the right mindset before a performance. There are countless options out there, but I will give just one bit of advice. Whatever you choose as your “centering” device, it needs to be something that has true meaning to you as an individual. This is why the text that Farkas utilizes is so helpful, because he is very strong in his faith, and this text has a very profound and deep meaning to him. His text may work for you, but don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t. Find something that is meaningful to you, whether it be religious or not, and try it out.
Horn Matters is a wonderful resource, and as I mentioned previously, if you’ve never visited the site, then you need to right now. Here’s the link: Horn Matters. There is a wealth of information available on the site, and I know that I might not have been able to find every article written about anxiety. These are the ones that seemed pertinent to my research. In writing this post, I’m not in any way trying to imply that Ericson nor Hembd did an insufficient job in their presentation of the material. As a person that suffers from severe anxiety, I’m merely trying to add my unique perspective. I think that those guys do an amazing job, and I hope that one day I can be on the same level as them.