The question I'm most often asked by beginner and middle school students is "How can I get better at high notes?" For high school and college level players, the question is "How can I be less nervous when I play in front of others?"
The first thing to know about nerves is that anyone who cares about playing well has them, whether that person is a high school student or a world class soloist. If a player you admire tells you they don't experience some form of anxiety, trust me, it's either bravado or self delusion. The perfect player who "never misses" is also a fictional creation too so let's put that legend to bed as well. Anxiety and occasional mistakes are important to come to terms with as horn players. While I would never say that our instrument is the most difficult (as some do), it's undoubtedly the most unpredictable.
While everyone experiences performance anxiety in one form or another, successful performers learn to channel nervous energy into intense focus. With this mindset, mild anxiety is actually an asset because it can be transformed into intense concentration. By being in the moment, or "the Zone", the mind is occupied with the task at hand and there's no room for mental chatter. You're not thinking about what just happened or what's about to happen, you're thinking about what's happening right now. If you can do this effectively, it's almost impossible to feel fear. Speaking personally, my anxiety is highest when I'm on stage waiting for the performance to start. Once the lights go down, the conductor walks out and the music starts, I usually become absorbed in what's going on around me and fear melts away.
We are all born with unlimited creativity and the ability to focus. At some point, a mysterious voice in our heads starts trying to convince us we're not good enough. As we start feeling the desire to be really good at something, self-criticism can becomes self-loathing and, eventually, perfectionism. I used think a "perfectionist" was something I wanted to be. What striver doesn't want to be perfect? But a "perfectionist" is not perfect because perfect doesn't exist. A perfectionist is someone who obsesses with the idea of being perfect to the point of anxiety, frustration and, all too often, burnout and injury. Even if a perfectionist is able to control their anxiety enough to function as a professional, his or her playing will usually be uninspired due to fear of taking musical risks.
I'm speaking as a reformed perfectionist. Early in my career as a principal horn player, I loved when my colleagues complimented me on my accuracy but started wondering why they rarely complimented me on my musicianship. I took a lot of auditions (more than I'd like to count) and, while I would almost always advance and would regularly survive to the final rounds, winning was elusive. I'd ask committee members for feedback and the most common response was some variation on, "you're so solid but there's just something ...missing."
After a few seasons of beating myself up for even the smallest errors, I realized perfectionism was unsustainable and, for my own mental health, was forced to give myself permission to be less than perfect. I literally told myself before big performances, "it's ok to make mistakes." And a funny thing happened: I was less anxious, more free to express musical ideas and I made fewer mistakes! While it took several years to really believe that being less than perfect was ok (and longer yet to become a non-perfectionist at auditions), I eventually became comfortable with the idea that I was a fallible human like everyone else. I still make my fair share of mistakes and get very frustrated when a performance doesn't go according to plan. But now I'm able to shrug off mistakes quickly and hop right back into the Zone.
There's a lot more I want to write about this subject in the future but here are some general concepts that are useful in letting go of perfectionism and using focus to cancel out fear.
- Remember the big picture. One disappointing performance or audition will have no bearing on your career. Your reputation is built on how well you play over the course of months and years. A "bad performance" is only bad when it infects the next performance.
- Performing often gradually desensitizes you to pressure. If every performance feels like a major, nerve-wracking event, you probably aren't performing very often. Young players especially need to create opportunities to perform. Retirement communities, churches, synagogues and homeless shelters are all places where you will usually find grateful audiences. If you are getting ready for an audition or recital, play for as many friends and family members as possible.
- Recording yourself is a great way to simulate performance pressure. The closest thing I've found to simulating the pressure of a live performance is turning on a recorder and playing as if I were playing for an audience or audition committee. Knowing you will eventually have to listen to yourself and confront your weaknesses is very stressful!
- Stay in the moment using mindfulness techniques. Even when you're not practicing or performing, you can practice finding "the Zone" with the help of mindfulness apps (Headspace and Calm are two popular ones). With or without an app, meditating on your breath for 10-30 minutes every morning can work wonders for your mental health and focus.
- Set the highest standards possible in "practice mode" and be completely non-judgmental in "performance mode". I will write more about practice mode vs. performance mode, but the basic concept is that the place for analysis, constructive self-criticism and refinement of technique is the practice room. When you're on stage, remind yourself that the preparation is done you can and simply the ride wave. In other words, demand great results in the practice room but "let go" in the performances. Bud Herseth's trick for battling nerves was to imagine he was in Orchestral Hall performing for 2000 people when he practiced at home. When he was actually on stage performing, he imagined he was in the comfort of his home studio.
- Truly great musicians value risk taking and musical commitment over accuracy. If you take enough auditions, you will notice that smaller, regional orchestras will often eliminate candidates for small mistakes while major orchestras will advance candidates who make minor errors but are musically compelling. Accomplished musicians think of technique as a tool for communicating musical ideas. Great musicians tend to be accurate and technically sound as a byproduct of mastering the technique necessary to play expressively with a beautiful sound.
- Build your performance in the practice room, then set it free on stage. I often think of preparing an audition or a solo piece like building a model ship in a bottle and, at the performance, throwing it into the ocean and watching it float away. The work has been done and now all you can do is release what you've created into the world. In this way, performing in the Zone often feels like observing rather than doing.
- Serve the music, not your ego. When you feel anxious before a performance, it's helpful to ask yourself what you're actually nervous about. Often, it's fear of being exposed as an imposter. This is especially true if you rely on praise from others to convince yourself you are good enough. If you have a shaky performance, you worry that you might not elicit praise from the conductor, colleagues and audience members. Without praise, your fragile confidence structure could collapse. The best defense against imposter syndrome is to take yourself out of the equation and focus solely on "serving the music". Make your performance about honoring the composer's intention and communicating that to the audience. In this sense, you are simply a conduit between the composer and the audience. Stop worrying about how you will be perceived as an individual so you can better contribute to the collective. Sincere praise from fellow musicians, audiences and critics is always nice but hopefully it's not what motivates you to be a musician. Love of music and dedication to the art form is the most sustainable motivation for a long, healthy career.