Horn Matters on Anxiety

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.

Conclusion

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.

 

 

 

 

Value Yourself

Throughout my life, I have dealt with anxiety on a daily basis. Even as a small child, I remember having anxiety attacks and being afraid of social interaction. Finally in 2011, I was diagnosed with both Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Social Anxiety Disorder and subsequently prescribed medication. I have had my ups-and-downs over the past several years, but in general, I can say that my life is a lot more livable and enjoyable on medication (my wife can attest to this as well). It took my doctors and I a few tries to find the right medication and dosage, but the trial-and-error process was definitely worth it.

The un-medicated years were tough, but I was typically able to conquer my demons. I have always suffered from performance anxiety, and it was definitely very bad at the beginning of my musical career. As a young student in middle school, I would play so softly, because I didn’t want anyone to hear me make a mistake. I really didn’t want anyone to hear me at all. No one really believed that I would be good at music back then, but I worked at it, practiced, didn’t give up, and I gained some confidence along the way. By the time I was in 8th grade and transitioning into high school, I was a decent musician. I wasn’t great, but I had potential, and my teachers began to notice it and started to treat me in a different way. I started to feel like I belonged in band, in the music world, and during high school, I began to break out of my shell. I started playing more confidently, I didn’t shy away from exposed parts or solos, and I let my personality show through my music.

I began to love and enjoy music so much that I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing it, whether that meant playing or teaching. So, I went to college, and faced a whole new array of obstacles. I’m an anxious person, and college brought a new set of people to face, a new set of rules, a new level of commitment, so I had to adjust. Through hard-work and putting myself out there, I overcame my performance and general anxiety once again. Even though it might have been helpful, I never utilized any psychological tricks during my formative years. If I had a bad performance, I picked myself up and tried again. A combination of practice, a relentless work ethic, and stubbornness helped me achieve my musical goals: getting into grad school, earning my DMA, playing in numerous professional orchestras, winning an orchestral audition, etc.

Needless to say, I have put so much effort into my musical career that it is a part of me, and a very big part of my identity. Music is not only my career, but it is my main interest/hobby. I love it so much that I can’t stop thinking about what I’m going to do next. I have gained a lot of confidence through my musical pursuits, and it really transformed me from a shy introvert, to someone that finally felt comfortable in his own skin. My achievements in music became a huge part of my self-worth, the primary part, and I was really happy, because I was succeeding.

This, unfortunately, is never a good thing and turned out to be my fatal flaw. To judge one’s self-worth through achievements is a slippery slope, because these things are so fickle and fleeting. Yes, I should be happy and celebrate my achievements, but this should never solely determine how I or anyone else values themselves as a person, which is what happened with me. Unfortunately, when my injury occurred, and I started to notice issues with my playing that wouldn’t go away, I panicked. Over the course of three years, I tried weird things, constantly changed my embouchure, changed mouthpiece placement, and eventually, I lost the ability to play for a while. When this happened, my life came crashing down. I literally didn’t know what to do with myself, because playing the horn was my world. It’s what I wanted to do with my life, and I had this goal of becoming a college horn professor, and now that I couldn’t play, I didn’t know how to adjust. I put too much value into the wrong things, and I was unable to put my life into the correct perspective when things started to take a turn for the worse.

At first, when the playing injury happened, I was in denial. For a long time, I did not want to confront the fact that I had a problem (several problems), and I kept brushing it/them off to the side. I didn’t think that this could happen to me, so I wouldn’t allow myself to believe that it was that serious. I decided to keep going about my business, and I told myself that things would get better over time. I was also under the impression that I didn’t have time to deal with this injury. There are all of these unwritten rules, and if I wanted to make it, I needed to audition more and win an orchestral job. I didn’t have time to wait and let myself heal properly, because I needed to do all of this stuff to get a job, and if I didn’t get a job in a certain amount of time or before a certain age, I would be deemed a failure, and since my personal identity and self-worth was involved, I felt like a horrible person as well.

This lack of perspective didn’t allow me to listen to my body and ignore outside (and inside) influences or pressures. My embouchure was not ready, but I pushed myself too far, and put too much emphasis on career outcome/goals, which in the end, severely altered my career trajectory. It has taken me 7 years to fully overcome these problems. Just think about that…if  I had done the smart thing, maybe just take a few months away from playing, I could have saved myself 7 years of grief, and I probably wouldn’t be writing this blog right now.

Of course, if I’m trying to blame the system or the “rules” for my problems, then I’m lying to myself. Even though things need to change, we can’t make excuses for ourselves. We are the ones that have to take action, and I was unable to be truthful to myself and others. When my injury happened, I was afraid, so I didn’t accept it. When my career wasn’t going in the right direction, I was afraid, so I became more of an introvert and stopped trying. Instead of being happy for others and trying to emulate them in order to find similar success, I was angry. Angry at them for succeeding, angry at the system for not giving me a chance, and angry at myself for a multitude of things. Like I’ve stated in other posts, I was severely depressed, and for those of you that have dealt with depression, it is a mental disorder that is very difficult to overcome, and I suffered with it (as well as my family) for approximately 4 to 5 years.

In the end, I had to make the decision to overcome my depression. It took a while, but one thing that really helped was learning how to develop a positive image of myself. I needed to understand that even though my life had not gone the way I expected, I wasn’t any less of a person because of it. At the time, my self-worth/confidence was basically non-existent, and I had pretty much spent the past five years just continually tearing myself down. I also didn’t listen to others that were trying to support me. My perception of myself was so awful that I couldn’t take any positive comment the correct way. I would twist it in my own mind until it became completely negative and only added to my torment. Of course, my mind still tries to do this on occasion, but I value myself now, so I’m able to brush these negative feelings aside and know that they are untrue.

This is the key: learning how to value yourself as a person. Don’t judge yourself based on career success and/or failure. Careers change, goals change, and life changes constantly. Learn to be comfortable with who you are as a human being and don’t base your self-worth on merits. These things don’t last long, and just like the old adage, “money can’t buy you happiness.” It can buy you a lot of things, but it can’t fill that void. It’s the reason why people with bi-polar disorder will go on shopping sprees and buy lots of things during “high” periods. Everyone gets excited with a new gadget or toy, but what happens when that “newness” fades? There’s no substance within the relationship, which is why I had to make changes in my life.

First, I needed to change my relationship with music. For so long, I had judged myself based on my musical accomplishments that I had lost the joy of making music. I needed to find that happiness again, so I decided to make enjoyment the main reason for continuing to play. I love playing horn, and there is no reason why I should stop. During my struggles, I seriously considered giving it up, because things were just so unpleasant; however, I just couldn’t imagine my life without music, so it took some time, but I figured it out. I’m still practicing a lot and playing at a high level, but I’m not doing it just to make money or to get a job anymore. If I don’t want to play a gig or teach something/someone, I’m not going to do it. Earlier in my career, I wasted too much time worrying about what other people thought, and I took every single job or gig thrown my way. Now, I’m focusing a lot more on what fits best for me and my family, which led to the other big change that I had to make.

If music wan’t going to be the most important thing in my life, then something had to take its place. Thankfully, I had something that could and should take its place. The one thing that helped me successfully overcome my depression was my family. At first, when my depression began, I felt like a failure, because I was unable to provide for my family. I had spent 10 years in college, and I had just graduated, so I was supposed to start making the big bucks. Unfortunately, this did not happen, and I was extremely hard on myself. After wallowing in my own self-pity for a while, I finally realized that these individuals, my wife and kids, didn’t care about these things that I was constantly worrying about. They loved me and valued me for who I was as a person, and they didn’t care what job I had as long as I was present. This really helped me to develop a new sense of self-worth, and I began to realize myself that my job nor my career mattered as much as I thought it did. I had a great deal to be happy about. I was able to spend a lot of time with my kids and enjoy watching them grow up, and I was still able to teach and make a difference in people’s lives.

Even though I’m still searching for break in my career, I’m not discouraged, because now I have the proper mindset. I have a job that allows me to help provide for my family, but it stills gives me the time and opportunity to pursue my real interests. I’m still teaching my college students and private students, and I’m also trying to create my own opportunities by composing and forming groups to perform my music. It’s tough and a lot of work, but I enjoy it. I’m also still able to spend time with my family, which is super important.

In the end, I think it really is just about having the right mindset and keeping the important things in perspective. Hopefully, I can continue to keep my life in the correct perspective and not let my career pursuits dictate all aspects of my life as it once did.

 

An Efficient Embouchure, Confidence, and Air Support/Control

These three qualities/aspects of playing may not seem to have anything in common, but in actuality, they are very similar and all equally as important. In order to be a good musician, one must master each of these concepts. When we are learning to become a musician, we always seem to tackle these issues individually and hardly ever tend to see the association between them. Since suffering my injury and going through the subsequent rehabilitation, I have noticed a striking similarity between these three ideas. From my perspective, I have come to realize that these three qualities CANNOT exist without the other.

Once I began suffering from Embouchure Overuse Syndrome, I began to notice a drastic decline in both my confidence and the ability to use my air efficiently while performing. This was primarily due to the fact that I was utilizing an inefficient embouchure. I know that there were a multitude of problems created by my inefficient embouchure, but these are two areas in my playing that I struggled with the most during my rehab. I actually began to regain my technical facility and flexibility first after fixing my embouchure, and I believe that this helped me to begin to feel more confident in my playing, which in turn, continued to elevate my playing ability in general.

My loss of air support seemed to be directly derived from both maladies, my loss of embouchure and confidence. It didn’t happen at once, but over a period of 6 months, I began to notice a drastic decline in my ability to play long phrases, and my sound went from being very colorful to just mediocre. Personally, I know that these side effects were mostly due to my lack of confidence. Normally, when an anxious person suffers from an anxiety attack, you sweat, shake, lose the ability to concentrate, and suffer from shortness of breath. I didn’t realize this at the time, but I had been scarred so badly that I began to suffer an anxiety attack every time I picked up the horn. I was so afraid of playing and messing up that I was unable to take in enough air to produce a quality sound, and sometimes, I was unable to produce a sound at all. Initially, I thought that something else was wrong. I began to wonder if I had lost my air control and support due to my weight gain and lack of exercise (Thanks, Depression!). Maybe it was due to the fact that I wasn’t practicing enough. Yes, I’m sure these things had an affect, but my anxiety was the root of the problem. Once my condition began to improve, my air support and control came back. I still need to exercise and lose weight, but my anxiety had to be conquered first.

The funny thing is that even though my embouchure was back to normal, and I was beginning to regain some confidence, I still suffered from issues with my air when performing in front of others. My anxiety was so advanced that even though I knew that I was improving, I was still scared to play for others. Nonetheless, I still put myself out there and subsequently gained more confidence through these experiences. I’ve noticed that as I become more confident, my anxiety is more controllable, and I don’t have to think so much while I’m playing. This means that I’ve also been able to utilize my air more efficiently, which solidifies the fact that my air support not only depends upon an efficient embouchure, but also relies heavily upon my confidence level.

I have always suffered from anxiety, so it comes as no surprise that I would need to face my nemesis once again to regain control of my life. This whole ordeal affected pretty much every aspect of my life in a negative way, so I’m glad that it’s over, but I can honestly say that it has made me stronger. I think it has also forced me to re-evaluate my teaching, and I do feel that I have become a better teacher throughout this process as well.

Some more thoughts about air. I wish that I could give everyone some magical tip that will fix all of your problems, but I can’t. However, I will say that most, if not all, problems can be solved through hard work and determination, which is what it took for me to overcome my issues. One thing that I have noticed is the fact that as I have become more efficient with my air, I am thinking less and less about the process and more about the result. I’m not thinking about how to create the sound. I have a clear concept of the sound that I want, and then I just do it, no extraneous thoughts involved. When I’m teaching younger students, I do give them specific instructions, “Use more air,” “Faster air,” “Energize the air,” etc., but I also explain that I’m trying to teach them how to intuitively use their air in order to become more efficient. I constantly point things out in the music, especially whenever slurred leaps are involved. I try to remind them that every time they see a leap, they should begin to “energize” or “churn” the air more quickly on the bottom note to prepare and support the shift to the upper note. If you take worrying about air out of the equation, then you can just focus on the note, which ultimately gives you a better chance to be accurate.

It all really boils down to efficiency and confidence. If you’re efficient, you’ll be more confident, and with confidence, you can achieve a great deal. Efficiency is the key factor, but for someone that suffers from sever anxiety, confidence plays a major role in how I perform and how I sound. Even if I’m playing efficiently, I will not sound good unless I am confident in my abilities. Confidence takes to time to develop, but I promise that it is worth it. I’ve felt the difference twice (lack of confidence vs highly confident), and it is really a life altering experience. Remember that everyone will progress at a different rate. For me, it took longer due to my anxiety, and I also had to surround myself with the right people. Just don’t give up, because like I mentioned earlier, if you put in the work, it will happen.

I Played a Recital Recently

I can’t believe that I didn’t write about this earlier, but I actually performed a recital back on April 9th. It wasn’t a very long recital compared to what I’ve done in the past, but it was great to get back on stage. This was my first solo recital since my injury, so there was a lot of pressure. Over the past few years, I’ve had some horrible experiences, and it was important to me to finally create a positive experience from which to build and grow. Thankfully, it went pretty well. Granted, I could have played better on some things, but I played well, and I also enjoyed myself. I mean, of course, I was nervous, but I did actually enjoy myself and fought through the nerves, which was a big step for me. I’ve been crippled by my own mind for so long that it was liberating to finally have a real break through. I already feel more confident, and I finally feel like I’m close to getting my swagger back. I’m also starting to plan my next recital, which is even more exciting.

I was talking with my wife after the recital, and I asked her if she thought I was getting close to playing like I did back in Grad school. Her response was great. She said that I’m playing pretty well, but that my sound lacks the cockiness that I had before my injury. I definitely had to laugh at this, but I understood what she meant. I don’t fully trust myself yet, so I’m not laying it all on the line when I play. I’m holding back a little, which is also holding me back from taking the next step in my career. I hope to work on this issue over the summer break.

Back to the recital, I was really excited to play some pretty cool pieces. I performed three movements from Paul Basler’s Songs and Dances, which were “Tanguito,” “Soaring,” and “Moonlight.” I wanted to perform all of the movements, but I was worried about my endurance, so I programmed lightly. The next piece was my favorite, Reveries by James Naigus, which is for two horns and piano. It is a wonderfully crafted piece that I was able to perform with a good friend, which made it even more fun. After that came an unaccompanied piece by James Black titled Soliloquy. It’s written in the style of Mahler, so I was obviously drawn to it. The last piece was a transcription of a Mozart Divertimento written for three horns. Very well written, available through The Hornist’s Nest, and I would highly recommend it. Lots of fun to play!

Again, I wasn’t completely happy with my playing, but I was very proud of myself for putting in the work and making it happen. Sure, I made some stupid mistakes that I never made during rehearsal, but I got through it. A year ago, I would have cancelled the recital, so I’m just happy that I’m feeling comfortable again, and I’m also excited that I can start to think about all of the wonderful pieces that I have yet to perform. I feel like I need to schedule a recital every month just get through all of the pieces that I want to play. Oh well, after what I’ve been through, this is definitely a good problem to have.

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.

Breath Attacks

As a younger horn player, I struggled with attacking first notes. I felt so much anxiety over missing the note that I would be unable to make a sound for a few seconds, then it would finally come out. Sometimes it would sputter, kind of like when you try to crank your car on a cold morning, and other times I would need to consciously relax myself and allow the air to move freely in order to produce a sound. I would blow, but my upper body was so tense that I wasn’t blowing enough air to make a sound. Unfortunately, this “hesitation” in my attacks resurfaced after my injury.

This problem seems to always prey on me when I have lost all confidence in myself and my abilities as a horn player. When the hesitations first started to occur, it was because I hadn’t built up enough confidence through positive experiences. I was also very afraid of putting myself out there (Remember that I am an introvert and that drawing attention to myself isn’t something that excites me). After the injury, I didn’t think that I would be able to play anymore, and my my embouchure setup felt foreign, which didn’t help my confidence. I didn’t know what note would come out, so I was afraid to play. I was also afraid, because I was really embarrassed of how I sounded. I knew how well I could play, and I didn’t want anyone else to know how bad things were, because I didn’t want anyone to think less of me. Again, I was linking my self worth to my current abilities as a player, which was not a healthy situation.

The way that I overcame both situations was a combination of diligent practice and the fortification/reparation of my mental state. I have already talked about how I’ve been working to change my mental fortitude, and I will continue to do so, but this particular post is meant to focus on a particular type of exercise that helped me along the way to overcome the hesitation, and anxiety, I felt before attacking a note. This particular exercise, or group of exercises, involved the use of breath attacks on a daily basis.

Breath attacks were a daily part of my routine during undergrad and grad school. I was introduced to the Caruso Method while struggling to become a horn player, and I used many of the exercises to help build my strength and endurance. I guess that I should credit these exercises for turning me into a “high” horn player, even though there isn’t such a thing any more. When I practiced the Caruso exercises regularly, I was able to comfortably play above a written c”’. I never really went through the whole book, because I just felt that the first two exercises achieved the goal, and everything else felt like overkill. Here are the Caruso exercises:

Breath Attacks - Caruso Style

Breath Attacks - Caruso Style - High

The catch is that you have to keep the mouthpiece on the face the whole time. Caruso gives you breaks to breath, but you breathe through the nose, either in or out. Don’t loosen the corners of your embouchure to let out air, because even that small change will lessen the benefits of the exercises. The first exercise should be done twice, I forgot to add the repeat sign. The second one, which obviously focuses on the high range, start at your own pace. Go as high as you can, until you either can’t play the note or have trouble with the slur. At this point, take the mouthpiece off of the face, rest a minute, and then try again. If you still falter on the second attempt, then it’s time to stop. If you’re successful, then keep going. At my best, I was able to play up to a written f”’. It wasn’t the prettiest sounding note, but it helped my confidence, and made play a written c”’ feel a lot easier to play.

Another breath attack exercise that I used to improve both accuracy and stability in the high range, is a short exercise that I received from Bob Pruzin. Pruzin was the Professor of Horn at The University of South Carolina for many years. I studied with him for a time, and he had a very specific way of doing things. Some things were great, and others were a little on the gimmicky side. This particular exercise really helped, and I’ve used it off and on ever since:

Breath Attacks - Pruzin Style

Play with a metronome and take the mouthpiece off of the face between each note, because you want each breath attack to simulate a first attack. I love doing breath attacks in the high range, because there is no room for mistakes. Your embouchure has to be set correctly for each note, which really helps one to feel the note. We can sometimes get away with not being perfect with the help of the tongue through articulations, but that’s not so with breath attacks. They help with accuracy, because, like I just mentioned, you really feel the note and get a better understanding of what needs to take place to perfectly and efficiently play each note throughout the range.

During my undergrad, when I was first afflicted by hesitation attacks, I worked on breath attacks using the Singer – Tone and Control Studies – Ex. 1. I would breath attack the first note, and then attack the following two. I would use a metronome, set anywhere from quarter = 60-72, and I would also take the mouthpiece off of the face between each attack, simulating a first attack each time. Here is a portion of the exercise:

Breath Attacks - Singer Style

You would follow the same chromatic pattern up to a written f” or g”. Then, do the same with the mid-low range, starting on e’ and working down chromatically to a written c. This helped a lot, but I also developed a similar exercise that challenges your ear and accuracy a little bit more:

Breath Attacks - Singer Style - Johnson Version

This is only a portion of the exercise. I start it on a written g’, and then the exercise works chromatically, alternating up and down, from this note, ending on a written g and g” respectively. It’s a great way to work on accuracy, and it will hopefully rid one of hesitation attacks as well.

Another exercise that I have used recently to build and maintain consistency in the pedal range is a version of the Pruzin breath attacks. It takes the same concept, but shifts the focus to the extreme low range. The goal is to get a really good, loud blast for each pedal note. If you can play the notes really loud, then you’re doing the right thing. I never worked on breath attacks in the pedal range until working with Bill Caballero. He suggested it, and it helped, so I’ve used it myself and in my teaching.

Breath Attacks - Low Horn Blast

I wish I could say that breath attacks will fix all of your problems, but they won’t. These exercises will help you through the process, but perfecting your attacks takes time. Work with a metronome, record and/or video yourself, play in front of people as much as possible, and believe in yourself. A lack of confidence is normally the prime suspect when dealing with hesitation attacks. It’s also a good idea to observe the amount of tension present when trying to start notes. Any amount of excess tension in the upper body will negatively affect one’s ability to play with ease. I know from experience. I would feel a lot of tension in my shoulders and neck, and my throat would tighten when trying to start notes. This would also affect my breathing. When starting a phrase, I would always take shallower breaths and be unable to to play through long phrases.

Stay positive and trust the process.