Perspective

When you hit a rough patch, it’s easy to become negative. I know, because I’ve been there. If you suddenly lose the ability to do what makes you happy, especially if said passion pays the bills, it is very difficult to NOT become depressed. I think it’s acceptable to feel sorry for yourself a little, but you can’t give in. I believe that a lot of us who have suffered through depression do so because we cannot see the bigger picture. We are so obsessed with the thing that we lost that we are unable to move forward. In certain cases, you can’t get back what you lost, and you have to learn how to cope with that fact. In other situations, you can regain what you lost. It will be hard, but attainable, and it is ultimately up to you to make the decision that it is worth that extra effort. I don’t want to wake up at 5:20 am every morning, but if that’s what I have to do to get enough practice, then so be it.

Sometimes, all we need to do is alter our perspective. Some of you might ask, what is perspective? Well, it is a broad term. Basically, it refers to your attitude towards or interpretation of a particular concept or circumstance. A person can have lots of different perspectives, but really, I think that we all are programmed to deal with events, good or bad, in our own personal ways. For instance, as I have mentioned, I am a pessimist, and I always find the bad, even in a good situation. However, others are always able to stay positive and move forward even when there is a bump in the proverbial road. Since I have a tendency to focus on the bad aspects of any situation, my perspective is obviously skewed, and I need to fix it. The big question: How?

Perspective is fickle, because it deals with the mind. If you don’t have a strong constitution, your perspective probably changes constantly and can be influenced by outside sources quite easily. My problem is that I am hyper-critical of myself, and I tend to change my own perspective, usually in a bad way. However, I am also stubborn, and when I set my mind to something, I tend to be unwavering. This was my mindset when I began my journey as a horn player. For those of you that are unaware, I played saxophone for six years before deciding to start learning horn on the side. I played both instruments until my junior year of undergrad, when I decided that I wanted to become a horn player. After I switched instruments, plenty of people were skeptical and didn’t really think that I possessed the capability to earn a masters degree on horn. This doubt didn’t discourage me, on the contrary, it actually fueled me. This drive/desire served me well until that little bit of doubt was allowed to creep its way into my mind after my injury. Once it settled in, it just kept growing and my perspective honed in like a heat-seeking missile.

For a few years, I was unable to step back and look at the bigger picture. How would I be able to change my perspective, when nothing seemed to happen the way that I had planned or desired? I wasn’t being considered for full-time college positions, and I wasn’t even being offered a job as a grade school band director. The jobs that were offered either didn’t pay enough, or were positions that I didn’t particularly want. I was mired in failure, and I did not allow myself to use these experiences in a positive way. Instead of trying to use these setbacks as a chance to improve, I focused on the negative and allowed myself to slip even further into depression. This continued until I allowed myself to see the bigger picture and understand that all of these so-called “failures” did not define who I am as a person.

So, what is the “bigger picture?” To me, it’s life, and it also represents how we live our life. Do you want to be that person sweating the little things, or do you want to be able to let things go, be happy, and enjoy the good moments to the fullest. I finally realized how unhappy I was and decided that it was time to make a change. I had a place to live, food, clothes, a car, plenty of other luxury items, two wonderful children, and a loving wife. I needed to broaden my perspective, because I wasn’t allowing myself to enjoy these great things that I already have. Most of us forget that there are people out their that don’t have enough food to eat, don’t have a place to sleep, have to live in battle-torn conditions, have to deal with racial or religious discrimination on a daily basis, etc. With all of that in mind, most of us have it pretty good, and I think we all just need to sit back and realize that sometimes. Once you have a greater perspective for your place in the world, the fear of going on stage and playing in front of people, seems trivial when compared to the hundreds, thousands of people who suffer and die everyday around the world. Be thankful for what you have and grateful for the fact that you can go on stage and share your passion with others.

Now, allow me to backtrack and address the inevitable failures that we will have to deal with and overcome in our lives. Failures are important, because anything worth doing is never easy. You need failure to grow as a person. I think that most of us who suffer with anxiety probably let our fears have too much power and dictate our lives. We also tend to blame others for our failures in certain circumstances. I fully admit that I have done this on several occasions. This “blaming” is another habit that is unhealthy and that will continue to keep us from moving forward. The only way to get past our mental roadblock(s) is to embrace our failure and turn the tables on the mental game that we play. Instead of thinking, “I must be really bad at this, because I just had a horrible audition/interview,” we have to think in a more constructive manner. First, make sure that you take the time to prepare and set yourself up for the best possible outcome. Next, if you get that job or position, wonderful! If not, say to yourself, “I know that I put forth my best effort, so how can I continue to get better?” This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t feel disappointed, but you have to treat everything as a learning experience, because too much negativity inevitably leads to more failure.

I have always set very lofty goals for myself, and in recent years, I have wondered if I should lower my expectations. The answer is definitely no, because if I lower my expectations, then I will never reach my full potential, no matter the ultimate outcome. A colleague of mine, Marcus Redden, wrote a wonderful blog post on this topic recently. It can be read here. The fact that I don’t play in a top-tier orchestra, or that I’m not a professor at a top university doesn’t make me a lesser person. Failure does not define the person, but rather it is the decision or action taken after a collapse that can tell us who we really are.

My ultimate goal has always been to become a college professor, more specifically, a horn professor. I don’t plan on backing away from that goal anytime soon. Sure, it’s disappointing that it hasn’t happened yet, but I know that there is a great opportunity waiting for me, so I just have to keep pushing myself. In the meantime, I may not completely enjoy my current job, but I have to see the positive. I have all the things that I need, I get to spend time with my kids and watch them grow, and I also get to mentor some pretty talented young horn players. My life may not be what I expected, but it’s pretty good at the moment. Ultimately, the choice is yours. You can either enjoy life, or continue to make yourself miserable.

 

Practicing in New Environments

I feel completely comfortable practicing at home, but over the past couple of years, trying to practice in a different environment around different people has been torture. I guess it’s due to the fact that I have been so self-conscious of late, and I also keep thinking about other people listening to me practice and imagining the negative things that those people must be saying about my playing. It’s a vicious cycle, but one that I am facing once again as I have to end my summer vacation.

In recent years, I used a practice mute in order to allow myself to feel comfortable playing in public. Of course, using a practice mute on a regular basis isn’t the greatest of ideas. Those torture devices can not only mess with your intonation, but also wreak havoc upon your embouchure.

All jokes aside, I do feel a lot of anxiety when I am practicing or warming up around other people, musical or non-musical. Of course, the only way to get over this issue is to face it head on, so I will be forcing myself to practice in more “public” situations over the next few weeks. Once I get used to practicing in public again, I will be one step closer to learning how to positively cope with my anxiety.

I really thought that I was past this stuff. When I was in graduate school, practicing where other people could hear me wasn’t a problem. I do, however, recall some instances on the audition trail that caused my “practice” anxiety to resurface. One happened at an audition for the Canton Symphony in Ohio. This was my third professional audition, and it was my first time driving through Ohio. I got lost and was running late to the audition, so things were already stressful. Once I got there, the warm-up room was just an open room. There were plenty of other horn players sitting around and talking, but no one was playing. I was afraid to be the only playing in front of all of these people. I didn’t want them to judge me, and I could already hear their criticism in my head. Needless to say, since I didn’t really warm up before the audition….it was pretty terrible. I learned two valuable lessons that day. One, leave really early when travelling to an audition. Second, make sure you warm up before playing an audition.

There were other factors that led to that horrible audition, but my anxiety and stress levels were very high, leading me to have severe dry mouth, shortness of breath, shaking, etc. At the time, I addressed some of these issues, but they have resurfaced and magnified since my injury. I know that my anxiety is mostly a mental manifestation of my thoughts and fears. During graduate school, I was able to overcome a lot of these anxious feelings and thoughts by being prepared and being positive. I have not been very positive about my playing since the injury, and I wasn’t practicing much, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when I started to fold under the pressure.

Now, I have a regular practice routine that is pretty extensive, and I am learning to be more positive in my approach to playing the horn. Whenever I have a negative thought, I try to replace it with a more positive thought, or at least something that is constructive. I am a self-described perpetual pessimist, so I feel that most of my battle is learning how to be optimistic. Changing a natural tendency is never easy, but I am up to the challenge, so we’ll see how the “pessimist to optimist” journey unfolds.

Remember: Be positive, Don’t worry about what other people think, and Use your air!

“Performance Anxiety Cure” by Larry Underhill

Today, I would like to discuss the following book written by Larry Underhill: Performance Anxiety Cure: How to Overcome Performance Anxiety and Stage Fright in All Aspects of Life Forever. This book is available through Amazon for $2.99 and is actually free to read if you are a Kindle Unlimited subscriber. The “book” is 26 pages in length and very easy to read through in one sitting. I have yet to find much information on Larry Underhill, so his credentials and expertise on the subject matter are a little suspect at the moment. If anyone knows anything about the author, please let me know. He does have another book about anxiety and panic attacks, but I haven’t read it yet. This other book is also available through Amazon. I guess this means that anyone can write a book and have it published/sold through Amazon? Anyway…

First off, the title is just a little presumptuous. I mean, it would be great if it were true, but I think the book would probably cost a little bit more if the ideas inside actually worked. Also, this topic is so personal for each individual that it’s very hard to believe that one text or collection of ideas can cure anyone, which is why I’m attempting to read as much material as possible…good and bad.

The book is divided into seven chapters, and the first gives the reader a brief overview of the cause and effects of performance anxiety/stage fright. In this first chapter, Underhill writes that “performance anxiety is the fear of speaking or doing a task before a group of people.” He then proceeds to discuss the two types or categories of performance anxiety, cognitive and somatic. Cognitive deals with our mental response to anxiety, while somatic is the physical. Side effects of cognitive anxiety are a lack of condfidence and an inability to concentrate. Somatic anxiety can manifest in a multitude of ways, but the most common effects are shortness of breath, muscle tension, shaking, dry mouth, sweating, and frequent trips to the bathroom. I don’t think I have ever felt cognitive anxiety without also having to deal with the somatic side effects.

Underhill then discusses the “fight or flight” response and writes about how our body is naturally wired to defend against our anxious feelings. Our anxiety leads the body to believe that we are in physical danger, hence all of those wonderful somatic side effects discussed above. The choice is to either use that extra energy and adrenaline in a positive way, or give in and admit defeat, which will ultimately lead to a bad performance.

There are quite a few errors in this book, but there is one section in this first chapter that just doesn’t make any sense when taken word for word. I do think that I understand what Underhill meant when he wrote this section, but it is very misleading. The portion in question is the part that discusses the four ways in which performance anxiety manifests: Anticipation, Avoidance, Experiencing of panic and anxiety, and Appraisal. Anticipation and Appraisal are easy. We think about negative things happening so much that the nightmare becomes reality. We also care a little too much about what other people think, which can sabotage a performance. Avoidance…sure, I’m afraid to play in front of a large group of people, so I’m going to avoid that. The third is rather redundant, because we’re going to experience the physical side effects in all of these scenarios. Underhill really needed a good editor for this portion of the book.

Moving forward, the next chapter presents basic concepts for dealing with anxiety in any type of situation. The first is to be prepared, which in our case, means to practice. If you’re going to perform a recital, then start practicing for it well in advance. Starting a month or two out from your performance date, or earlier, set aside an hour or so a day to play straight through your music. Give yourself time in between pieces to simulate walking on and off the stage, and also take an intermission during practice if you’ll do the same in the actual performance. This strategy served me well during my DMA, and I always felt very confident about the music when I stepped on stage. It just makes sense and gives you one less thing to stress over.

“Do not take a lot of caffeine or sugar on the day of the performance.” I would go so far as to recommend that you don’t drink anything but water for a few days leading up to the performance. This allows your body to be fully hydrated, and it will hopefully keep you from succumbing to dry mouth. Sugar is in pretty much everything that we consume, so it’s difficult to stay away from it; however, do try to be aware of what you are putting into your body. Healthy decisions will make for a healthier performance. Underhill also mentions that drinking milk will help calm the nerves…I’ve heard of eating bananas, but never milk.

When you start to feel nervous, maybe try focusing a little bit more on your breathing. Our breath gets shallow when we are nervous, and it is proven that taking deeper, slower breaths will help release tension and calm the nerves. Also, taking deeper breaths will help you play that long phrase.

Lastly, Underhill recommends that you not focus too much on negative aspects. This means don’t constantly think about notes that you’re going to miss, or how this person isn’t going to talk to you anymore if you don’t play well. It’s all a mind game. Instead of focusing on the negative, try to picture yourself playing flawlessly. Don’t worry about other people, go out there and have fun and enjoy the music.

In the last few chapters, Underhill tries to discuss more specific techniques to use in different types of anxious situations: Presenting, Public Speaking, Athletic Performance, Music Performance, and Acting. I’ll just focus on the music part, but I’ve basically covered most of the helpful techniques that he talks about in this section. Something that hasn’t been mentioned yet is that you should always practice how you are going to perform. If you’re going to stand during the performance, then practice standing, and vice versa with sitting. Also, make sure that you either choose comfortable shoes for your performance, or if not, at least practice while wearing the uncomfortable ones. Make sure you choose a comfortable chair if you’re going to sit. Keep the clothes comfortable as well.

The rest mainly reiterates the point that you should try to be as positive as possible. You will never completely get rid of that anxious feeling, but the difference between a good and a bad performance is taking that anxiousness and channeling it into something positive. Jump and down, laugh, get excited about your performance. Don’t think, “Man, I hope this doesn’t suck,” but say to yourself, “I’m excited and I’m going to enjoy myself no matter what happens.” I think it’s good to be a little selfish sometimes, especially when we perform, because we, the performers, have put forth a lot of time and effort, and it is only natural that we should enjoy the fruits of our labor.

Final Verdict: If you are a Kindle Unlimited subscriber, then go ahead and read the book, because it’s free. If not, don’t waste your $3. I feel like I just did a better job of explaining his ideas…albeit, I must give Underhill some credit. He puts forth a lot of good ideas, but I just feel like the writing and execution is sub-par.

 

Embouchure Overuse Syndrome

“Because embouchure overuse syndrome most often appears at a time when a player is at the top of his form…” -Lucinda Lewis, “Broken Embouchures”

The beginning of this statement is very true for me. My experience with embouchure overuse syndrome began when I was at the height of my playing abilities, at a time when I felt bulletproof. Unfortunately, my vest had some flaws, but all kidding aside, it did occur because I was playing/practicing too much. I pushed myself too far, injured my top lip, and then I never gave it time to properly heal.

Before we get too far along, you may be wondering what it means to have embouchure overuse syndrome, or EOS. Well, according to the creator of the term, Lucinda Lewis, it refers to the following:

“An embouchure problem which follows a period of heavy or intense playing that does not improve with rest and is accompanied by lip pain, lip swelling, strange, numb, rubbery or cardboard sensations in the lips or face, lacking endurance, unfocused sound, loss of playing control, and difficulty playing in the high range is a unique performance injury called embouchure overuse syndrome.” -Broken Embouchures, p. 3

This is a very vague definition, and if you’re skeptical, try reading this blog post by Dave Wilken at Wilktone: A Skeptical Look at EOS. I don’t really like the term, and I do feel that the definition can be linked to just about any embouchure injury, but at the moment, a better classification system doesn’t exist. However, regardless of whether or not you agree with Lewis, she has a lot of great information concerning embouchure injuries in her book, Broken Embouchures, and on her website. I will discuss some of her findings and exercises in another post, but for now, I would like to discuss the symptoms that I felt during this period.

At first, my injury felt like a typical case. I practiced a little too much earlier in the day and showed up for my late night orchestra rehearsal already pretty tired. I pushed myself a little too hard and suddenly felt a sharp, shooting pain in my top lip. Thankfully this happened at the end of the rehearsal, so I basically stopped playing right after it happened. The next day, my embouchure felt weak and was a little sore, so I took it easy. Unfortunately, I couldn’t take too much time off, because I had a DMA recital to play a few days later, so I at least tried to limit myself as much as possible. Well, the recital was great, and my lip felt fine, which led me to believe that everything was back to normal.

All of you who have been in grad school as a performance major, know that you always have something to play or prepare for, whether it be a multitude of concerts or orchestral auditions. The same was true for me, so I was never really able to stop playing like I should have done. About a week after the first instance, I injured my top lip again, and this was the injury that lingered and never went away. I don’t really remember exactly how it happened, but I definitely remember the context.

It was a hot, muggy afternoon, and I was rehearsing a chamber piece that I would be performing with a Guest Artist at WVU, Dance of the Ocean Breeze, by Roger Kellaway. It was a Sunday, and we were rehearsing in the big rehearsal hall. This would have been fine, except for the fact that the A/C was not turned on and it was way too hot and humid in the room. The piano was out of tune, the tuba player couldn’t play in tune, and neither could I for that matter, but I was still doing my best to match pitch. Somewhere within this version of intonation purgatory, I hurt my top lip again…and it didn’t get better this time. (Helpful Hints: when you sustain an injury, REST! Also, don’t try to rehearse in a room that is too hot or cold.)

I felt most of the symptoms described above by Lewis continuously for a period of about six months: pain, constant discomfort, some swelling, loss of endurance and flexibility, etc. I didn’t lose ability in the high range, but my low range suffered, and my articulations started to get a little sloppy, which was odd, because I don’t think that I have ever had trouble with articulation. I also dealt with air issues, which Lewis also attributes as a side effect of EOS. Essentially, I became less efficient with the use of my air, and over time, I began to lose the ability to play long phrases with one breath. It wasn’t too bad at first, but it was enough for me to notice and worry about it.

Like I stated in my introductory post, my level of playing stayed the same, but the shooting pains and discomfort really bothered me. The discomfort is very difficult to describe, because it was just a very weird feeling. Every time I would set the mouthpiece on my embouchure, it just felt like something was there. I wouldn’t feel pain, but it’s kind of like when you have a small pebble or a little bit of sand in your shoe, it doesn’t hurt, but it’s definitely enough to annoy you and break your concentration. It worried me, and since the sensation lasted for so long, I began to change the placement of the mouthpiece on my embouchure almost on a daily basis. This was what really hurt my playing the most. If I had toughed it out and not changed anything, I don’t think I would be writing this post at present. The constant embouchure changes made playing feel foreign, and my abilities continued to deteriorate, because I kept trying to play using an inefficient/defective embouchure. This crushed my confidence and led to the debilitating performance anxiety that I feel today.

It’s cathartic to finally talk about what happened. I’ve used it as an excuse for so long, but now it’s time to put it in the past and move on. I have often wondered what my life would be like if this stuff hadn’t happened, but I don’t think I would ever go back and change anything. The events of the past five years have left scars, but I am definitely stronger because of them as well. In the coming months, I hope to use my recent failures as the fuel that I need to overcome my anxiety.

After this post, I really want to focus on the task at hand. That being said, if anyone needs advice or wants to share their own injury story, I would be glad to help. I can’t promise that I can fix anything, but I can at least lend a sympathetic ear and hopefully point you in the right direction. I will, however, probably discuss and share some techniques that helped me retrain my embouchure in a later post.

 

 

Anxiety & Fear

Unfortunately for me, anxiety is something that I have dealt with my whole life. In grade school, I hardly ever talked, because I didn’t want to draw attention to myself. I was always self-conscious of my appearance, and I constantly worried about how other people perceived me. These things are still true today, but to a lesser extent. I will gladly admit that I have benefited from taking anxiety medication, but the medication only works to a certain point. I don’t know if I will ever be free of the medication, and that’s fine, but I feel that it is time for me to take a stand and face my fears. I was always aware that my anxiety hindered me, but I never thought that it would eventually try to take away something that grounds me and makes me happy, which is playing the horn.

Some of you may be curious about the picture that I use as the logo for the blog. I basically stumbled upon it, but I thought that it adequately summed up my dilemma. One of my biggest fears since childhood, aside form people, has been snakes. I hate them, even the non-poisonous ones. Now, I don’t mind looking at them if they are in a contained area, but I’m gone if you take that thing out. The irony of this situation is that my horn has now become the snake. For a couple of years, I didn’t want to touch it, was afraid to touch it, and became depressed just by the thought of practicing. The stigma is not so bad right now, because I’ve been practicing a lot and have worked very hard to regain my abilities as a player. Yet, I still get nervous even thinking about playing something in front of someone. For a while, I didn’t even want to let my wife hear me practice, because I was just so embarrassed. I thought that my playing was bad and truly believed it, so I let that thought become a reality.

I love playing the horn. Practicing actually helps me to relieve stress and just makes me feel better, because I am doing something that I enjoy. It’s not just a career, but my passion. I never thought I would be afraid to play the horn, but everything happens for a reason. As I stated above, I’ve always experienced issues with anxiety. Along the way, I learned how to deal with it during performance, but I could never really make it disappear. Because of the lingering anxiety issues, I never felt like I truly performed at my best on a consistent basis. My recitals were definitely good, but there were always a couple of pieces that could have gone a little better, or there were notes that I just shouldn’t have cracked.

I want to find techniques that will not just help me deal with the anxiety, but help me to control it. Using the “cobra horn” picture is a way to put things into perspective. A few articles that I have read about performance anxiety state that using a picture as a trigger can help one to refocus if anxious thoughts begin to stir. For me, that picture reminds me that this is just a mind game that I am playing with myself. My mind is turning my horn and the audience into my enemies, when in reality, the audience wants me to succeed just as much as I do.

My horn has always served as my solace, and I am definitely getting back to that point/state. I currently feel comfortable practicing again, but I’m still struggling with playing in front of people. For a time, I wouldn’t even play in front of my students, but now, I’m beginning to feel a lot more comfortable with that as well. The plan is to take baby steps. I will attempt to perform in front of people a lot and do so in various settings. This means performing in big and small ensembles, and I plan on trying to perform some short solo pieces along the way as well. The goal is to work my way towards performing a 30-40 minute solo recital in May or June. I just have to remember to be positive and to not fret over mistakes or failures. Nothing truly worth doing has ever been easy, and I’ve already experienced some humiliating failures over the last few years, so it can’t get much worse…..right?

My Personal Experience with Embouchure Overuse Syndrome

As with any musician who has been in a similar situation, I never thought, never dreamed that this would happen to me. About five years ago, I suffered a playing injury that lingered for far too long. For roughly six months, I couldn’t play without feeling pain or a sense of mild discomfort in my upper lip. The injury happened during the second year of my DMA studies at West Virginia University, and I didn’t have time to wait around for it to heal. Now, I could still play at a very high level even though I was constantly feeling pain or discomfort. I performed principal on Mahler 1 and even won an orchestral audition while this was going on. Unfortunately, it lasted so long that I decided to start tinkering with my embouchure in order to attempt to relieve the discomfort. However, when the discomfort finally disappeared, the damage had already been done. My embouchure felt weak, and I didn’t have the same strength and endurance that I had enjoyed before, which led to even more tinkering. Thankfully, I was able to perform my final recital and finish my degree before my playing really started to deteriorate.

Due to my tinkering, I have endured a tumultuous relationship with the horn over the past few years. After finishing my DMA, I could still play pretty well, but I started having to work harder to keep things in check. My playing was no longer effortless, and this was due to my embouchure setup being completely wrong due to all of the changes that I had tried to make. I am one of those rare people that actually enjoys practicing, but for a while, I just didn’t even want to look at my horn. I began to practice less and my embouchure finally broke, which was not a fun experience. I even sold two of my previous instruments, because I just felt so depressed, and I didn’t believe that I would ever play again. It was rough, but for some reason, I couldn’t get away from it. I don’t think I ever had Focal Dystonia, but I do think that I changed my embouchure so frequently that I developed a severe case of Embouchure Overuse Syndrome. It was so bad that at one point I struggled to even produce a sound. I am pleased to say that my embouchure is currently back in its natural setting, but I’m still trying to gain back range and endurance.

This whole ordeal has created mental scars that have produced a level of performance anxiety that I have never felt before. I will admit that I struggled with anxiety for many years, even during my doctoral studies, but the level of anxiety that I have felt during performances over the last two years has truly left me handicapped. I think we all have dealt with the adverse effects of “dry mouth” and adrenaline, but this has been much worse. I don’t think I even suffer from dry mouth anymore. On the contrary, my body just completely shuts down. I’ll try to attack a note and nothing will happen. Loud stuff accompanied by other brass instruments is usually fine, but heaven forbid I have to play an exposed passage at piano.

These are issues that I will continue to work through, and I hope that I will be able to share thoughts and insights that might be of value to others along the way. I just have to keep practicing and remember that even the smallest steps forward equal progress.

Dr. J