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.

More Thoughts on Dealing with Playing Injuries and the Stigma of Talking About It

We (musicians) have a lot more people coming out and talking about their injuries and issues these days, which is a good thing. Unfortunately, there is still a stigma that keeps many musicians from talking. I totally understand it. I lied and kept gigging until I just physically couldn’t play anymore. It was tough, because I didn’t have a full-time job, and these gigs comprised most of my income. I didn’t want to lose the gigs, so I just kept taking them. After each gig, my playing got worse, because I wasn’t focusing on good habits. I was just trying to figure out a quick fix to get me through the performance. I’d work on fixing the real problem later….except that the real problem ended up being too big to fix, because I kept putting it off.

I really wonder if things would be different if our society of musicians were more open about injuries (and dealing with illness). Would orchestras have a “Disabled List” and allow musicians the proper time to heal without worrying about pay? I don’t think it’s fair that athletes are allowed to go on the DL and receive high-quality medical attention, while musicians just have to figure it out on our own. We perform at a high level, get less time off, and we have to be way more accurate. Could you imagine a principal horn player of a major symphony only hitting 60% of the notes on the concert? Or having an accuracy rate of .250 out of 1.000? Our batting average has to be in the .900 range or we might lose our job. Some conductors won’t accept less than .999. It’s unreasonable, yet this is part of the reason why the orchestral profession is consistently ranked as one of the most stressful jobs. It also makes sense that a lot of orchestral musicians suffer from anxiety and health-related issues that stem from work. So many principal horn players have suffered heart attacks that it makes me never want to play principal in a professional orchestra.

I mean, if you’re a tenured member of a full-time orchestra and a member of the union, then you probably do get some benefits and paid-leave, but the majority of us do not have one of those full-time gigs. Most of us piece together a “full-time” salary by playing in several different regional orchestras and teaching. These jobs, unfortunately, do not offer paid-leave nor benefits, which leads to the big question: how would most of us afford to get help if something happened?

Sure, you probably qualify for Obamacare, but the insurance available through the Marketplace isn’t what it was when the program began, especially if you make a “livable wage.” The deductibles and premiums are so high that it’s almost not worth having insurance. Even the insurance that I have through my public school teaching job is awful. Each individual on my plan (me and my two kids) has to meet a $500 deductible on “sick” visits before the insurance even starts paying anything, and when it does start paying, it only covers 80%. This is why we’re switching back to my wife’s plan, even though it costs more, it’s better insurance.

Even if you could get help, where would you go? Are there doctors that specialize in helping musicians? Are there treatment options for focal dystonia? Is treatment available for those musicians that suffer from work-related anxiety and depression? Does each professional orchestra provide a medical staff to treat work-related injuries or illnesses? Does the orchestra pay the bill for any medical procedure required by its members? Does the orchestra employ massage therapists and chiropractors specialized in treating musicians?

Again, if we were professional athletes, the answer would be yes to all of these questions, but we’re just musicians. There’s all of this interest and money being thrown at sports medicine programs, but we don’t have a need for arts medicine. There isn’t a realistic need for people to help musicians with injuries, because there’s no money to be made in that venture. Musicians only bring sound to life, and aid in the effort to keep our culture alive. Music only makes people smarter and more equipped to handle all types of situations. Work ethic, problem solving, teamwork, listening skills, etc.

It just doesn’t make sense.

Although, even if we had help, would musicians talk and take advantage of it? Everyone is just so afraid to admit that something is wrong. We don’t want to fall further down the “call list,” because we have an injury or suffer from an illness, whether it be mental or physical. I finally started talking about my issues, because things really couldn’t get much worse. I had to hit rock-bottom…so, is that what it takes? Do musicians have to lose all hope before they will start talking about things? It shouldn’t be that way, and I hope that we can change it. We need to be more open and talk, because how are we going to find people that can help us? How are we going to warn and/or help younger musicians struggling with some of the same issues? We need open dialogue and a safe environment in which to express our needs and concerns.

I’m glad that people like Dr. Peter Iltis are working to understand more about focal task-specific dystonia. Dystonia in general seems to be more prevalent nowadays, not just with musicians, and if we have the technology and resources to solve the problem, then it needs to happen. Another society that I just discovered today is the Performing Arts Medicine Association. It was formed in 1989, and holds a yearly symposium in Colorado every summer. Obviously, there are people out there working to make things better for musicians, but it definitely isn’t common knowledge. I think we really need to make a lot of this information more readily available, and we also need to help musicians feel more comfortable about coming forward. We need to get rid of the stigma and start helping people, because we’re all in this together.

I definitely don’t have the answers, but I do have lots of questions. Hopefully, some of these questions will lead to answers…I’ll let you know if that happens.

Musicians Dealing with Depression in the UK

An article posted by Classic fM (and other sites) that has been making its rounds throughout social media the past month is giving us a little more insight into the number of working musicians that suffer with anxiety and/or depression. This study was conducted by the University of Westminster in conjunction with Help Musicians UK, a charity based in London, surveying over 2,000 musicians concerning mental health. According to the findings, over 70% of the musicians surveyed at some point suffered from anxiety or panic attacks, and roughly 68% stated that they had dealt with depression. These are staggering numbers that should not surprise anyone in the business, especially on the academic or orchestral side. We know first-hand how difficult it is to find any job that pays a livable wage, let alone one within the field of music.

As someone who has dealt with this issue (and really is still dealing with it…), I can honestly say that the combination of the guilt that you feel for not being able to provide for your family coupled with the anxiety of not having a steady paycheck is a suffocating feeling. You’ve done everything that you were supposed to do. You practiced a lot, played all of the recitals, wrote all of the papers, worked yourself to death trying to finish that dissertation….and you still can’t catch a break. Plus, now that you need help, you don’t have the financial means to do so, especially if therapy is involved. For a while, I had a hard enough time trying to keep my anxiety medication filled, because we didn’t have insurance or the money to see a doctor.

The good thing about this study, even though people still don’t realize just how tough it is to make it in music, is the fact that Help Musicians UK is dedicated to help change the industry and provide free assistance to those who need it in the UK through Musicians Minds Matter. This is a 24/7 mental health service that will hopefully provide the proper care to suffering musicians. The only problem is that this is only happening in the UK and not throughout the world. Like I stated, I’m grateful that this issue is receiving attention, but we desperately need this type of service in the states.

I also wonder if the study focused equally upon artists working within the art music and popular music genres. I have a feeling that this study was aimed more towards the actual “industry,” rather than those of us struggling to make it as an instrumental performer or teacher. It would make sense, because those within the “industry” are generally high profile, but that doesn’t make those of us on the classical side any less important. If anything, I feel that the art music and academic side is even more “cut-throat” than the pop culture side. Now, I’m not trying to say that one side is better than the other or needs more attention, but I do want to make sure that all musicians get the proper respect and treatment.

I really hope that more and more people realize that the music field is broken. We have too many highly-qualified individuals and not enough jobs to go around. There are so many very talented musicians that I have met through my journeys that completely gave up on music, because of the high-risk, low-reward nature of our industry. I’m grateful that I have a teaching job and that I can teach at a couple of universities, but my salary doesn’t even come close to off-setting the amount of time and debt that went into obtaining my training and degrees. I also was not trained or prepared to deal with many of the hardships that I have had to go through over the past few years. The field is definitely changing and evolving, but I don’t know if it is changing fast enough. There’s also a big culture divide that has severely lessened the support and appreciation that the arts receive throughout this country, which is a travesty. It’s getting to the point that if you don’t live in certain parts of the country, then you may not have the same opportunities as a person living somewhere else that is more supportive of the arts. I’ll leave it at that because this is definitely yet another issue that also needs attention.

If I had access to the resources and/or the time, I would take on a similar type of research/study here in the states. My focus would probably be on academics and classical artists, but I could also devote some attention to industry artists as well. Unfortunately, adjunct professors are not allocated researching funds and most outside (non-university) grants are given to full-time professors anyway. I will have to do some investigating to see if a study like this can be done here. Maybe it already is being done and I just don’t know about it. I’m just glad that musicians with depression and anxiety are finally being acknowledged. Music Minds Matter, having just gone live this month, is in its fledgling stage right now, so it will be interesting to monitor its success (or shortcomings) over the next few years.

Here’s the url for Music Minds Matter:

https://www.musicmindsmatter.org.uk/

Playing Gigs Again

A year or two ago, I would have been hesitant to say that I would be playing paid gigs again. I was once one of the first people contacted in my area when someone needed a horn player, but after all of my troubles, I stopped getting calls. I think I have played maybe three paid gigs over the past two years. I was asked to do more, but I had to turn them down. At the time, I wasn’t playing well at all, and I was tired of the humiliation, or rather, feeling humiliated.

This past Sunday, I played in an orchestra at one of the big churches in Augusta, GA. It’s a church that I played for quite regularly before, and I was actually surprised when they asked me to play again. The music was typical of church music for brass, high and loud, but it was a lot of fun to play. I felt confident, and I also received quite a few compliments from the other musicians. After struggling for so long, it felt really good to receive sincere affirmation. Not the typical, “Well, you sound like you’re getting better, but…(you still suck),” type compliments.

No matter how humble, I think at some point we all need that recognition of our hard work. I don’t enjoy being in the spotlight, but it does feel good when someone gives me a compliment. I’ve been very dedicated, and I’m not planning on giving up if I have a disastrous performance or anything, but I needed those compliments this past weekend. It not only gave me a push to keep working, but it also gave me a little more confidence in myself, which is something that I haven’t felt in a long time. After hearing some of the compliments, I noticed that my anxiety levels lessened, and I even started to play better and more confidently. It was just a very good feeling.

I’m not trying to get ahead of myself, because I know that I haven’t been miraculously cured, but I can feel that I’m making strides in the correct direction. Things are getting easier, and I’m also enjoying myself a lot more, which is the ultimate goal. Music has to become fun again. I don’t want to just get paid, I want to enjoy myself and be able to appreciate this gift. If playing gigs becomes too much again, then maybe I’ll have to back off some, but for now, I feel comfortable taking gigs.

None of this would be possible if not for my unwavering work ethic. I have put in a lot of hours and spent a lot of time practicing “boring” fundamentals, but it has paid off so far. It seems that deliberate and efficient practice is the best (maybe only) way to overcome anxiety or a playing issue, whether it be injury related or not. I feel more confident and a big reason for this change is the fact that I’m putting in the right kind of work during my practice sessions. I may not be practicing as much as I should, but I’m being more consistent about practicing every day. I’m also trying to incorporate the most beneficial exercises and etudes to match my current needs. Here is a short list of exercises that I will play through on a daily basis: Breath Attacks/Long Tones at soft dynamics, Lip Trill exercises for about 10 minutes, Lip Slurs both full-range and isolated ranges, SCALES in all different patterns (I’m even practicing stuff from the Arban and Pares Scales books), Low Horn with Melodious Etudes for Trombone by Rochut, plus many other etude books that I rotate through. If anyone wants or needs specifics, feel free to contact.

There is hope, but you definitely have to be willing to put forth the effort.

Update

Unfortunately, I’ve been extremely busy with life lately, and I just haven’t had much time to blog. Things have actually been going very well, so I also haven’t felt a need to write like I did just a few months ago. This doesn’t mean that I’m going to quit, but I do need to multi-task a little better and find time to devote to researching anxiety. I just have so many things that I want to do right now and not enough time to do it all.

Now, an update on how things have progressed concerning my performance anxiety. I can honestly say that it’s been a few years since I’ve had this much fun playing horn. I’m also playing almost as well as I was back then too. I knew it would take a while to regain my playing abilities, but I’m progressing, and I’m also enjoying myself for the first time in a long while. I actually want to practice, which is a drastic contrast to the past few years.

About a month ago, I re-joined a group that I had stopped performing with when things got really bad. The group is a semi-professional wind ensemble that performs 4-5 concerts throughout the year. It’s a pretty good group, and we’re actually performing a full concert at the Georgia Music Educator’s Conference in January of 2018. When I quit, I just wasn’t enjoying myself. I was working really hard to play stuff that should have been easy, and I was also extremely anxious about how I sounded. I didn’t want anyone to hear me play poorly. I needed some time away to re-assess things and try to fix some of my issues. Now that a lot of my issues have been solved, I’ve actually enjoyed the last two rehearsals. I even had to sight-read the first part today, playing several solos, and it actually went better than I expected. I’m even starting to regain some of my confidence. I know that I still have a lot of work to do, but today and especially the last few weeks have been very encouraging.

There are a few people playing in this group that do a lot of freelancing, and they sort of have control over many of the gigs around town. When I first moved back to Augusta, I got called for a lot of gigs, and it was great. When things started deteriorating, I stopped getting calls. It’s the way the system works. Over the past few years, I have been so self-conscious, especially when I play around people that “matter.” I know that I’m still holding back when I play around other people, because I’m afraid to mess up. Today was a huge eye opener, because I knew that I could play certain things, but I still felt nervous due to certain people being present. I played fine, but it wasn’t as good as it could have been. I normally play with a lot of expression and feeling, it just comes naturally, but I could tell that I was still holding back today.

If you’ve never experienced anxiety, then consider yourself lucky. Most people experience some form of anxiety if you have to do something in front of a group of people, but if you are a person that struggles with anxious feelings on a daily basis, then the fear of performing in front of others is greater than anything you’ve ever felt before. Those of us that suffer with anxiety are afraid to put ourselves out there, and we are also afraid of what others will think. Of course, most people are in your corner and want you to succeed, but anxious people don’t see things the same way. We see each person as the enemy, because we know without a doubt that they are thinking negative thoughts about us. We hear those negative thoughts playing in our heads. Even if someone comes up to you and gives a positive comment, we know what they are really thinking. They think less of us because we failed.

Failure to us doesn’t have any positive meaning or connotation. If an anxious or depressed person fails at something, then the world is over. We want to give up. We want to go and hide from the world. It’s easy to give up, and it also takes the spotlight away. Give up too many times, and people tend to forget about you, which is the goal at first…until you try to resurrect your career.

These are the demons that I have dealt with for far too long. It’s a lot easier to deal with them when you’re happy, which leads to the point of this rant. Playing horn makes me happy. I also enjoy performing with other people….so, why do I let my fears control my happiness? Why should I care what other people think? The answer, plain and simple is that I shouldn’t and neither should anyone else. Music is very personal, but I don’t really enjoy sharing personal things with others. I’m always afraid of what someone will think or say, but does that make what I have to share any less important? Should I hide my “voice” because someone may not like it?

No!

Don’t let anything control your life, whether it be a person, fear, money, whatever. It’s not that important. Do what you love and love what you do. It’s simple, but this is something that I haven’t been able to do because of fear. I was afraid, so I made myself suffer. I gave in to my anxiety and depression, let it rule my life, and I almost lost who I was as a person. Don’t give in to fear, because it’s not worth it. Failure doesn’t make you less of a person. Doing what you love without fear of what anyone thinks is what makes you a better person.