5 Strategies for Managing Fear

I meet countless musicians who are interested in musical improvisation, but are paralyzed by fear and anxiety.

Fear of sounding bad
Fear of being criticized
Fear of making a mistake
Fear of being laughed at
Fear of being called a fraud
Fear of not having the talent to be successful
Fear of failure

When confronting this multitude of fears, the path of least resistance is to hide, avoid risk, and never create original music.

Courtesy of Flickr/Justin S. Campbell

We can manage our fear, but it will never go away. But once you experience the profound benefits of creating your own music, collaborating with your friends, and resonating with an audience, hiding may no longer be a viable option.

Managing fear is not a Jedi mind trick. It involves broadening your musical practice and making connections with other people

1. Expand Your Practice

There is a time to experiment without fear of consequences, to have a play space safe from fear of criticism, so that we can bring out our unconscious material without censoring it first. . .we can try things and throw them away. Brahms once remarked that the mark of an artist is how much he throws away.

If you are bored playing a scale, play the same eight tones but change the order. Then change the rhythm. Then change the tone color. Presto, you have just improvised. If you don’t think the result is very good, you have the power to change it.

Stephen Nachmanovitch, Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art (68-69)

Efficient, goal-oriented practice is effective for building skills and learning repertoire. But we need to bust the myth that playful and experimental practice is a waste of time. It is essential work for creative artists.

Scientists learn as much from a false hypothesis as they do from a true one. Take note of a musical experiments that work, and set aside those that don’t. Let them fail without making personal judgments about yourself. Understand the critical difference between “this experiment failed” and “I am a failure.” Brahms is looking for your pile of discarded work.

See this article for some approaches to get started.

2. Connection

Our fear of being put on the spot comes from the amygdala, the prehistoric part of our brain responsible for fear, revenge, and reproduction. For early humans, rejection from a social group meant the risk of starving to death or being eaten by predators. Although it’s irrational, our brains are still wired this way. This is why solo performances can feel like life or death even though our physical safety isn’t at risk. (When surveyed, most adults fear public speaking more than death!)

The most effective way to sooth our prehistoric brains is to approach improvisation as a community-building activity. When I lead workshops for new improvisers, I always begin with collective improvised games to build confidence and trust. The palpable anxiety in the room melts into playful attitudes when musicians associate improvisation with belonging to a group.

When we transition to playing solo improvisations, working with a supportive group of musicians is essential. The camaraderie and shared experiences help us manage the fear of being put on the spot.

3. Preparation

Thorough preparation is one of the most effective strategies for managing performance anxiety of all types. If you are used to learning repertoire from notation, playing without a predetermined score can amplify anxiety if you don’t know how to prepare.

Although master improvisers don’t know what notes they will play at a given performance, they have spent years preparing. I hope the Creative Music Blog equips you the the tools and strategy you need to begin your journey as a creative musician.

3. Low-Stakes Performances

Some musicians are terrified of solo performances (improvised or not) because their only experiences performing unaccompanied are for high-stakes auditions, solo adjudications, chair placement tests, or recitals.

Seek out low-pressure and low-stakes performances. Find an audience who will be delighted by your music. Perform for a friend, at a family gathering, food bank, retirement home, community event, or place of worship. When you know your music will resonate with an appreciative audience, the fear transforms into nervous excitement.

One of my most memorable performances was playing for a preschool class. The children squealed with delight as I played “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” and “Old McDonald.” My favorite moment was when a kid exclaimed, “The music is vibrating my bottom!”

4. Anticipate criticism

Do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing, and you’ll never be criticized.
– Elbert Hubbard, (often misattributed to Aristotle)

Criticism can be enlightening, uncomfortable, or humiliating. But it means people are paying attention. The only way to avoid criticism is to hide and never share your art with the world.

Constructive criticism from supportive mentors, peers, and fans is indispensable. However, ignore destructive criticism and trolling. These people aren’t your audience, so don’t spend emotional energy trying to please them.

Whenever I perform, teach a clinic, or write, I assume some folks in the audience will connect with my work, and others won’t like it. By accepting the fact that I won’t please everyone, I can focus on those who find value in my work.

5. Focus on your vision

The most successful musicians are obsessed with a greater vision, and enjoy the journey along the way. Focusing on long-term projects you are passionate about and listening to inspiring music will give you courage to take risks when they serve a greater purpose.

Eliminating fear isn’t an option. Rather than fighting it, we can learn how to soothe, overwhelm, and partner with fear as we share our work with the world.

– ST

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