A few weeks ago I gave my final recital for my master’s degree (Woodwind Performance and Pedagogy) and it has really forced me to think deeply about my playing. I was pretty unhappy with my playing, and was actually kind of surprised I didn’t play better, especially considering how long and hard I’ve been working on the music.

But it was not just this recital. Generally speaking, I haven’t been very happy with many of my public performances during this degree program. Although my latest recital had some very good moments, I would have to say that overall, it was somewhere around the 30 to 40 percentile of what I was capable of doing – as evidenced in my own practicing and rehearsals. And thinking back about my other degree recital (and even my candidacy audition) I would say this is about how good they were too. So lately I’ve been asking myself “Why am I not playing up to my potential?” Especially since I’ve played in plenty of high-pressure situations and acquitted myself well.

Let me take a step back and give you some history about me. When I was a teenager, performing used to really freak me out. I never played solos back then. I was just another member of the band, sitting there with dozens of other people around me. But before a concert, I would get really nervous. I would get jittery, and sick to my stomach, and I usually would even got diarrhea before the concert. (Sorry to be so gross, but it’s the truth.) I hated that feeling, but I loved being in band and playing my instrument, so I soldiered through it, every time. One time, when I was a junior in high school, I tried out for an honor band. It was my first time to ever really audition for anything. I was supposed to play the first movement of the Creston. Wow, what a bad move! I could not possibly have understood the emotional content of that kind of music back then, much less executed the technical passages of it. I was scared out of my mind, and I completely fell apart in that audition. It was terrible. I was a basket case, and I went home really downtrodden that day.

In fact, thinking back on that day, I can say that my terrible performance that day led directly to me choosing a career outside of music, and of all the dumb things I ever did in my life, perhaps the biggest one was going to the Air Force Academy (but don’t worry – I’m not gonna bore you with all that stuff.) Suffice it to say that for the next 11 years, I pursued my musical passion outside of my job. Jazz was my favorite kind of music, so I bought books and practiced it on my own, and took every opportunity I could to play jazz with others. I would still get nervous, but I was determined to conquer it, and I gradually lost my nervousness as I became a better and better player. As I lost the nervousness, I found that my public performances stopped being in the 30th percentile, and started to average more like 50th or 60th percentile regularly, with the occasional really good performance.

I was playing well enough that I decided I might actually be able to make a career playing music, so I got out of the Air Force and went to the University of North Florida, where I got a Bachelor’s in Jazz Studies in 1999. During my time there, my jazz got a lot better, my comfort/confidence level really shot up, and I started playing in real professional situations. Although I was feeling very confident in my jazz/commercial playing, it also became quite clear to me that I was not going to be the next Coltrane, and I didn’t have a career as a jazz soloist waiting for me. There were plenty of younger players who were much better than me, but they were really scuffling. So I took a short time to study jazz composition, and shortly after that, an opportunity came up for me to start working in computers and technology, so I took it. I continued to play jazz and commercial music though, and had some great experiences with groups like The Four Tops.

When I divorced in 2008, I moved back to Mississippi just to take some time off and push the reset button on my life. (I’d been married for 16 years.) But a funny thing happened. My passion for music was really reignited. Within a week of getting back here, I was in the pit with a little theatre, trying to remember how to play clarinet and flute! I was having such fun, and the computer thing had gotten pretty dull. I decided I would get a master’s degree in theory and hopefully teach in a Mississippi community college. Once I started school, it became clear that I really enjoyed the playing so much, it only made sense for me to follow my passion all the way, so I switched into the woodwind degree that I’m just now finishing.

So it really was kind of a shock for me to find myself nervous and anxious before my performances here. The first few times I assumed it was just nerves due to the new type of challenge I was facing with classical music. But now, three years later, after yet another disappointing recital, it’s really clear to me that this issue of performance anxiety is still with me after all these years and plenty of successful, perfectly good performances.

So what is really going on here? I’ve read plenty of material about performance anxiety over the years, been to clinics, read books and web sites on this, but none of these things has ever done more than give me a marginal bit of help. According to some of these people, I should be able to just take a few deep breaths and fix this, or maybe do some yoga, or meditate or contemplate my navel. Not that these things aren’t useful – they can be very helpful – but how could I have defeated this problem only to have it come back? If I truly defeated it, then how could it come back, and why now? Or maybe I never really defeated it at all, and there is something deeper going on.

These are the kinds of questions I’ll be addressing in the upcoming posts in this series. I believe I have some answers to these questions, and some prescriptions of what I need to do to work out these problems. I hope you will join me on this journey, and I think you may find it worthwhile, even if you think you’ve already conquered this problem.

You can click here to jump to the next installment in the Fear Series.

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