Any time you step out of your comfort zone you are forced to face your fears. Growth on a musical instrument is built on the notion of stretching beyond your current abilities and out into the unknown. Enter fear. Fear comes in all shapes and sizes and hits us for a variety of reasons. Three of the most common fears musicians face are fear of failure, fear of success and fear of the unknown (insert your own favorite spooky sound effect here). Just a quick side note, these concepts were originally developed in my book Music Practice Coach.
Fear of Failure
The fear of failure is tied to fears that others will laugh at you or make fun of you. In these instances, it’s often helpful to consider the source. Many of the people who laugh at you are the ones you’ll be passing on your way to a higher chair or a job they want. It’s much easier for them to try to push you down than pull themselves up. Other times, it is merely that you feel that how you play is directly tied to your worth as a person. Erase that notion from your mind. Without trying to sound too “Susie Sunshine” about it, each person is unique and each musician is unique. What you have to say is as valid as any musician who has gone before you. Take pride in the knowledge that if you don’t sound so hot today, it’s because you’re spending your time on the things you can’t do, in an effort to become better able to express yourself through your instrument tomorrow.
Fear of Success
Fear of failure and fear of success are two sides of the same coin. The fear of success may sound silly at first, since we practice to get better. However, we sometimes sabotage ourselves or fail to put in full effort because of fear. It could be that if we advance in band or orchestra, we may have to play a solo or we may have to make bowing decisions or we may have to take a leadership role in the ensemble. We find it easier to hit cruise control and stay comfortably in the back of the ensemble. Depending on your motivators, this can be a good thing or a bad thing. If the only reason you are in music is because it is fun and is a great social outlet for you, great!
Fear of the Unknown
Sometimes our fears come not knowing the outcome. When we play our instruments, we make ourselves vulnerable to whoever can hear us. “They” could judge us. “They” could make fun of us. “They” could think we’re better than we know we are and ask us to do other uncomfortable stuff, like playing harder music or play a solo. “They” are scary! Who knows what “they” might do next? “They” have no idea how I feel about this. That’s what we normally think. Until we realize that “they” are us. (HUH?) Yes, the “they” we often label with all this awful scary stuff, are just our nervous thoughts. There is no “they” out to get you. Check under your bed right now if you don’t believe me. Realize that fear is a part of growing and work through it. Most of the time, the things you were afraid “they” would do, never end up happening and we’ve lost a whole bunch of time and possibly some missed opportunities, just because we said “they” could have the power over us. DON’T GIVE IT TO “THEM!”
Fear Evaluation (ATW? – “And Then What?”)
Let’s evaluate how realistic your fears may be. Often, we blow things way out of proportion and assume the worst. What’s the worst thing that could happen if you succeed (or fail)? As musicians, I can think of no instances in which bodily harm will come to you or your loved ones, based on your ability to play a G scale (unless you get your finger caught in the spit valve).
What are your top three fears? For each fear, write out the worst possible outcome to the fear coming true.
Look at each outcome, and repeatedly ask yourself “And then what?” until you see how silly or unfounded the fear usually is.
For example, Cora’s best friend in the percussion section, Cy LaPhone, has a fear of dropping one of his sticks in a concert. Here’s how his “And then what? (ATW)” could go:
“I’m afraid I might drop a stick in a concert.
“And then everybody will laugh at me”
“I will be embarrassed.”
“I will blush.”
“I will pick up my stick.”
“I will go back to playing my part.”
“The concert will keep going.”
“Aliens will sweep down and suck my brain out through my belly button.”
You get the idea… (ATW?)
Hopefully, just shining a figurative light under your bed has flushed away those scary little monsters that have been in your way. A careful analysis of what is in your way and arming yourself with tools such as the “And then what?” exercise will help keep you calm, cool and collected.
It’s very important to remember that you musical voice is one that has never been heard before. What you have to say is as important as anyone else. We need to hear it! There is only ever going to be one of you and if you deprive the universe the opportunity to know your version of the standard repertoire or your contribution to the canon of compositions, we all lose.
Particularly when fear is the only thing stopping you. Stay calm. Make your music. Embrace your wins AND your losses. Leap into the unknown. It’s true. You might fail.
And Then What?