Fear and anxiety are the biggest roadblocks to creative music making. The good news is the right strategies can ease the most profound phobias.
The fears of being put on the spot, making a mistake, embarrassing ourselves, not knowing what to play, and being judged are variations on a common theme: not wanting to look like a fool in front of other people.
The fear of social rejection runs deep in our biology—it actually activates the same neural alarm system as a physical threat. This is why any type of public speaking or performance can so terrifying even when there is no physical danger. The typical jazz education model amplifies these fears when students are asked to take turns playing solos in front of their peers (often with inadequate preparation).
Actors have been using games to build trust and generate new material for decades, but musicians are late to the party. For new improvisers of all ages, community games and activities solve the anxiety problem in two important ways:
Attainable and novel challenges drive our focus into the present moment. Too little stimulation leads to boredom, and too much challenge instils anxiety. Choosing the right game or activity can hit the sweet spot of “flow.” This is why sports, video games, music, crafts, and hobbies can absorb our attention for hours at a time. The latest research shows this level of focus shuts off the brain’s inner-critic. 1
Earlier this month, a friend of mine was teaching blues improvisation in a low brass sectional and asked for my help. Immediately a little tuba player huffed “I am NOT improvising,” to which I replied, “That’s fine, we’re not improvising. We’re playing the ‘Question Answer” game. You play a phrase that ends going up, and your buddy will answer with a phrase that goes down.” Suddenly everyone jumped in and had a good time playing call and response phrases. (Later, I had to break the news to tuba kid that I tricked him into improvising.)
These prompts, games, and exercises help build trust, camaraderie, and a culture of creativity. Nurturing this type of culture is my secret for launching successful middle school and high school jazz programs, and it forms the foundation for my Game Symphony Workshop for classically-trained musicians.