I want to continue the series about Fear today, and as usual, I apologize for the delay in finishing this series. Life sometimes intervenes, and these deeper, more complicated posts take some dedicated thinking that is just not possible in a hectic environment. I’m happy to say things have slowed down for me somewhat lately, and I hope I can finish this series in the next 6-8 weeks. In this installment, we’re looking at fear – specifically, fear that can affect your performance – and talking about how to identify it. But before we go on, let me do a quick recap:

First, it’s easy to think you’ve overcome your fears because you already play really well, even in public. But I contend that it’s easy to fool yourself about this, because you can learn to compensate for fear with coping mechanisms. It’s even possible that you usually don’t fear playing badly, because you’ve simply practiced so much that it’s extremely unlikely that you would screw things up. But in this case, I think the fear is still present, beneath the surface, and if the right set of circumstances were to arise, those fears can come to the surface very quickly. For instance, let’s say you’ve got your Carnegie Hall debut tonight, and a few hours before the performance, you get a call saying that someone very important to you has suddenly, unexpectedly passed away. Now, realizing that you are having trouble concentrating, your fears could come roaring back. The better solution is to find and identify your fears, and eliminate them entirely. (If none of this makes any sense to you, you may want to go back and read the previous entries in this series, located here, here, and here. [Steve’s Note: these 3 links coming back soon]

Identifying fears is perhaps a little more complicated than one thinks. It’s pretty easy to say “yeah, I get scared every time I stand up to play in front of people.” But I think we have to get more specific than that if we’re ever going to be able to truly eliminate our fear. It’s easy to think of fear as something general – often called “anxiety” – but I believe anxiety is simply the result of many fears, and that we can, with thoughtful, dedicated work, identify and eliminate them. You may have noticed I don’t use the term “performance anxiety”. Why? Because using this term generalizes something specific (our fears) into a medical condition. Frequently this “anxiety” is then treated with drugs (beta blockers anybody?) but this just treats the symptoms and in fact encourages us to ignore the often difficult, unpleasant, gut-wrenching work required for us to identify and eliminate our fears. Knowing that you feel “anxious” when playing in public is not enough. What exactly are you afraid of?

Well this can be completely different for everyone, so I can only tell you about my own experience, and maybe this will help you see the kinds of fears I face, and the kinds of processes that have helped me identify them. I say this is a process because I am not done with this by any stretch of the imagination. As I said at the beginning of this series, I still have a lot of fears, and I don’t expect to get rid of them overnight! But let me go back in time again and tell you about my high school days…

I was actually very socially awkward and insecure for as far back as I can remember. I never felt like I knew the right things to say to people, and I never was able to “read between the lines” like most people. I was a very literal person, so half the time I never understood jokes. If I had an important conversation planned with someone, I would rehearse it over and over in my head, trying to think of all the ways the conversation might turn and what responses I might have. If I had to make a presentation in a school class or recite a poem, I would get so nervous that I would completely forget what I had to say, and would shake and sweat profusely. If something caught me off guard and I felt like I said something embarrassing or dumb, I would go back over it in my mind, over and over, trying to figure out what I should have done differently. In short, I was pretty miserable in social settings. The funny thing was, I never thought about why I was so miserable. I just thought I had to work harder so I wouldn’t embarrass myself. And although I did slowly get better at fitting into social situations as I got older, I was still a pretty uptight person. All the old fears and frantic mental processes were still there – I was just learning more about how to behave. 

It was only around my early 20’s before I realized what was going on. First, I realized (with the help of some great authors) my life was all about me. Almost all my thinking (other than studying/school work) was spent worrying about me and how I was going to accomplish all my goals. In terms of social settings, I was literally afraid of how others would perceive me. I was afraid. It was nothing more than plain, simple fear. It was embarrassing and difficult to own up to the fact that I was still cowering in fear from something that actually posed no threat to me whatsoever. It was a tough pill to swallow – to know that my misery and social discomfort up to that point was caused by none other than myself. 

But it was also quite liberating. At this point, I knew I had something tangible I could work on. I thought about this in depth, because at first, it can seem like a fear of this nature is really huge and multifaceted. I’m afraid I might wear clothes that are out of style. I’m afraid of being the skinniest guy in the room. I’m afraid of going to this party with a zit on my face. I’m afraid I might say a joke that no one finds funny or that offends someone. But actually, it all comes back to a fear of what other people think about me. To be completely truthful, all those previous worries are actually: 

  • “I’m afraid of what people will think of me if I wear clothes that are out of style.” 
  • “I’m afraid of what people will think of me if I’m the skinniest guy in the room.” 
  • “I’m afraid of what people will think of me if I go to this party with a zit on my face.” 
  • “I’m afraid of what people will think of me if I say a joke that no one finds funny.”

So this realization was the clincher for me. It really was, at its core, a simple problem. I immediately began a journey of trying to eliminate this fear, and it continues to this day. Am I better? Yes. A lot. And vastly happier too. 

But I can hear you thinking – “what does all this have to do with music performance?” Well the answer is that my experience with music was exactly analogous to my personal life. No – that’s not correct. It was exactly the same problem! Ultimately, I discovered that this fear of how others perceive me was also the same barrier to my really performing music well.  (There is more on this in my first post from this series.) [Steve’s Note: Gotta fix that link.]

So that’s my story on how I identified my own internal obstacle to playing really well. Yours may be different. I don’t know what keeps you from playing up to your potential. Maybe it’s fear of what some specific people think of you? (I had one student whose parents were especially demanding of him – he feared their disapproval so much that he was afraid of it even when they weren’t present at the performance.) I don’t know what fears you have about performing, but I would encourage you to be really honest with yourself, and ask yourself what your percentage usually is while performing. Are you happy with 30/50/60 percent of your playing ability? If not, what are the things that hold you back? What about the times you played your best – what were they like? How did you feel, what were you thinking about, and what was different compared to the times you didn’t play so well? 

While working on these questions, it’s easy to get distracted by smaller things which are really not the main problem. Take this theoretical example. Let’s say you show up to the gig and some of the band members are late and you’re pissed off about that. Your anger stays with you the whole gig, and you play poorly later that night. This is the kind of thing where you have to dig deeper. Why did you get angry in the first place? You have to be relentless, like the little kid who won’t stop asking “Why?” again and again. The “conversation” might go something like this: 

Kid: “Why are you mad about this?”

Mad Self: “Because the bass player was late and I hate people being late.”

K: “Why do you hate people being late?”

MS: “Because we don’t get to start on time.”

K: “Why do you hate not starting on time.”

MS: “Because I’m never late. I work hard to be on time and so should everybody else.”

K: “But that’s not a reason why you’re angry. I want to hear why you hate starting late.”

MS: “Well, look at all those people in the audience, wondering why we haven’t started?”

K: “Oh, so you’re worried they won’t come to your show next time because of the late start?”

MS: “Maybe.”

K: “Well there’s nothing you can do about this one starting late, so maybe the best way to get them to come to your next show is to get over this anger so you can play a great show once the show finally does get started?”

MS: “Yeah I suppose you’re right about that.”

K: “Yes I am. But you still haven’t told me why you hate being late.”

MS: “Okay fine. My Dad always hounded me about being late, and he really drilled that into me.”

K: “But your Dad’s not here tonight, is he?” 

MS: “No, but – I guess I can see where you’re going with this.”

K: “Good. But you still haven’t told me why you hate being late.” 

MS: “Well … I can’t stand seeing all those people looking at us while we set up. I know they’re angry at me and think I’m a slacker for not starting on time.” 

K: “Oh I see. So the real reason you’re angry is because you’re afraid of what all those people think of you.”

MS: “You know, you’re starting to get a little bit annoying, kid – but I guess you’re right.”  

There are reasons deep down why we do what we do and feel the way we feel – and this makes it really easy to be distracted by the surface/shallow answers. Be persistent, dig deep, and really ask yourself “why” until you’ve found the “final answer.” You might be surprised how often the answer lies within yourself (and not with all the external factors we so often blame). 

Thanks for joining me for another installment in this series about Fear. I hope this helps you identify some of your fears and see how deep down some of them can be. In future posts, we’ll get into some specific techniques for eliminating (not just compensating for) our fears. As always, I welcome your comments and insights.

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