Fearless Performance by Jeff Nelsen

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April 15, 2015


This is Happening

We often fear because we're lacking control.  When we're standing backstage, just about to enter our performance arena, we don't know what will happen.  This is scary!

What we can control is being right about things.  Unfortunately, being right is where we dig ourselves into a hole of fear.  If we've spent most of our preparation time focused on what we did wrong, we will stand backstage and slide into being right about what has gone wrong in the past...and then be right about how it obviously might go wrong again.  Gulp!

I remember a time I was standing back stage before playingthis solo and I thought to myself, "Well Jeff, there's only 3 places you could totally screw up!"  ...like that was a good thing!? Luckily my students didn't hear my hypocritical choice of thought!

 Do you ever stand backstage and think, "Well, you could totally nail this performance"?  In that moment, I realized I definitely hadn't thought that constructively before.  I grabbed my inspirational sheet and quickly wrote, "GreatPossibility!" like there was a great possibility for greatness.

In the moments right before we enter our performance arena, a place I call "On Deck", there are certain rules that help us do the best we can while we're there.  Certain choices of thoughts serve us better than others during this final pre-performance moment.  We need to embrace what serves us well, and let go of the rest. (One of the things I do is read an inspirational sheet.) Doing this well can be learned through experiencing a ton of pre-performance moments...in other words, perform a ton with learning as one of your goals, and you'll learn how you choose fear...and how to choose better.


One of my favorite TV shows from the last century is called Cheers. 

Each episode began with a 1-minute joke. I'm reminded of the following opening piece when I see people holding on too tightly.  Please forgive the character references you might not know. The story will still make sense, even if you haven't seen the TV show.
Carla complains about something, and says, "I don't know why this and that happened. Now I'm upset!" Woody the bartender goes over to Cliff, Norm, and Frasier (bar regulars) and says, "Hey guys, when I have a problem I just take it inside and put it in my special place.  Something else bothers me, I take that in too...put it on top of the first thing. Anything else bad, I just pile it on...and I just keep pushing the problems down into this place, and it works great! Push down, push, push...ahhh yeah, no more problems." Woody smiles and walks away, nodding.
Frasier slowly looks over to Norm and says, "...tick....tick......tick...."

Task for the Day - Practice Letting Go

Once you are about to enter your performance, when you're "on deck", it's too late to worry. Sorry, but this is happening.It's too late to regret having not done enough quantity or quality of practicing when you're standing back stage.  If you should have practiced more better, tooooooooo late.  Let go of that right now! Do more better after this performance.  Why? Because this is happening.  Right now.

If you're worrying in this pre-performance moment, you can become a ticking time bomb, growing closer and closer to a destructive explosion of stress.  Even a small burst of built up stress here will have you giving a performance way below your best.

Your only goal in this moment is to embrace what you have, and focus on sharing the best version of you. Let go of everything that doesn't serve this. When you do this, you have the highest potential to perform at your best ability level.  When you let go of destructive thoughts, you are clear to at least do the best with what you CAN do.


Build.  Be.  Share.

It's in that middle space between prepare and perform, in the "Be" space, that it's important to let go. Simply thinking, "Let Go" can help a great deal.  At this point, you're finished building/preparing and you're about to walk out and share/perform.  This part "between" is for being present in healthy anticipation.  This presence can have you playing each note, saying each word, smiling, bowing...everything like it's the only thing you're there to do.

Whether in music, business, sports, or on a date, we have plenty of pre-performance moments.  In these moments today, let go and focus on what serves you and your ability to share what you've brought for us today...because this is happening either way.  How it happens is truly up to you.

You can do this. Today.


April 08, 2015



It was last Friday morning, the day of my studio recital. All 18 of my students here at IU Jacobs School of Music would stand up in front of both peers and strangers to speak and perform (by memory) a piece of their choosing.  It's a big deal to perform for one's colleagues.  The performance serves as both a goal toward which to work, and also a way to measure one's growth over the semester. Basically, they have to execute.  It comes down to their one performance this night.  Da dah DAAAAAA!!!!

On Facebook that morning, some powerful words by David Ackert published by the LA Times in 2013 caught my attention.  As you'll see below, he starts with, "Singers and Musicians are..."  I laughed out loud when I read that.  Having had singers for parents, and having married a singer, his accidental separation of singers from musicians connects to the fun I've had doing the same.  When people ask me if my wife is a musician, I often say, "No, she's a singer." 

I usually get a nice, "Ouch! Issues, have you, Jeff!?" from the person I'm joking with, and then I explain how I revere singers and try to sound as close as possible to them when I play my horn.

I have the utmost respect for singers, but also enjoy teasing people.

I was so moved by David's piece of writing that I read it to everyone as an opening to my students' recital on Friday night. I was surprised when I first began to get choked up while reading to them, and then my surprise turned to deep focus so I could just get through my reading.  This is heavy stuff David Ackert wrote.  And I believe this goes to the heart of humanity, not only for musicians but for everyone in all our pursuits.  

Whether you're a musician or not, please indulge in reading this like it's speaking to you.  It is.  Especially if you're open and interested in touching someone's heart with your performance of your day's opportunities...

"Singers and Musicians are some of the most driven, courageous people on the face of the earth. They deal with more day-to-day rejection in one year than most people do in a lifetime. 

Every day, they face the financial challenge of living a freelance lifestyle, the disrespect of people who think they should get real jobs, and their own fear that they'll never work again. 

Every day, they have to ignore the possibility that the vision they have dedicated their lives to is a pipe dream. 
With every note, they stretch themselves, emotionally and physically, risking criticism and judgment.

With every passing year, many of them watch as the other people their age achieve the predictable milestones of normal life - the car, the family, the house, the nest egg. 


Because musicians and singers are willing to give their entire lives to a moment - to that melody, that lyric, that chord, or that interpretation that will stir the audience's soul.

Singers and Musicians are beings who have tasted life's nectar in that crystal moment when they poured out their creative spirit and touched another's heart.

In that instant, they were as close to magic, God, nature, and perfection as anyone could ever be. And in their own hearts, they know that to dedicate oneself to that moment is worth a thousand lifetimes." 

 - David Ackert, LA Times   

Task for the Day - Touch someone's heart.

That's it.  Please do this today.  Drop your protection, your right-ness, your being sure...and touch someone's heart in a way you otherwise wouldn't have.

Dedicate yourself to that moment.

Yay you.


P.S. Thank you David Ackert.

March 25, 2015


The Arrogance of Feeling "Less Than"

I'm excited to share with you a dear friend.  Many of you already know Saral Burdette through listening to our Fearless Practice audio tracksI'm happy to tell you that there are more tracks in the works....coming soon!

In these audio tracks (and the text below) she shares wise words about topics we have discussed to great length. I have found myself discussing the topic of harsh self criticism a lot this week, so here are a few ideas to help you with this all-too-common lack of Loving Well.

Just fyi, I make the quote-graphics in my newsletters so you can use them on your phone screen, or put them in your instrument case, your desktop, your locker, or your bathroom wall...and your Facebook wall. 

Please enjoy this transcription of our audio track titled, "Self-Criticism".  

Here's Saral!

Not too long ago I did a fearless performance workshop for musicians with Jeff and I was honestly shocked at the level of criticism, really harsh self-criticism, that almost every musician in the group had. I just couldn't understand, when they got up and played so beautifully, that they struggled, so many of them just struggled, to say one good thing about some part of what they had played. They couldn't hear the beauty they had created. It was heartbreaking.

 ...and how many of them had parents or teachers who had told them they just didn't measure up, that they just weren't good enough, and how that had become a sort of mantra in their brain. That nothing they played was good enough.

Once a teacher of mine told me that the depths of my own self-criticism, the extent to which I saw myself as so much less than others, made me one of the most arrogant people he had ever met. My jaw dropped. Huh? Me? Arrogant? I feel like a toad. But what he eventually got me to see was that feeling "less than" others, ends up being just as separating, just as arrogant, as feeling "better than" others. 


When YOU feel less than others, when you think: "I am the worst. I am less than the others," you are being arrogant. You are not better than or less than...unless you decide you are. 


Oh...what you just played on your horn may be of a lesser quality, but that just means you need to attend to it, to make it better for next time. Being kindly critical, unemotionally realistically critical of a product, is entirely different than being harshly self-critical. One is constructive and one and is a giant waste of time and energy.

Once, a young woman asked the mystical poet Hafiz, "What is a sign of someone knowing God?" Hafiz remained silent for a few moments and he looked deeply into the young person's eyes, then he said, "My dear, they have dropped the knife. The cruel knife so often used against their tender selves and others."


I love that quote because it give you a tool. If you catch yourself thinking 'I'm not getting better, I'm getting worse...I'll never be good enough...

"Drop the knife." 

Task for the Day - Drop the Knife.

Develop the habit of noticing harsh self-critique, pausing, and dropping the knife.

Jeff told me in the practice room one of his strengths is that he rarely says, "Ohhh that was bad." But rather he says "Ohhh wow... that note sure was off!!" It sounded to me like he was almost delighting in playing badly. That he almost relished it. I asked him about this, and he said, "Yes! I need to, because that's how I improve, by noticing what I can make better, what I can make more beautiful. That's how we get to where we want to be!"

I think Jeff's playful approach serves him well. You're not there to be perfect, but rather to experiment, discover, and grow. There's a reason they call it "playing music".

James Joyce said; "Man makes no mistakes. His errs are volitional and are portals to discovery." 

What are you going to discover today?

Thank you Saral. 


March 18, 2015


But Not Fearless Preparation

"Performance happens when what you are doing matters.
To make your performance a fearless performance, 
 make what you are doing the only thing that matters."
My quote above is about presence.  And it's a theoretical statement!  An ideal.  In performance, when one is fully present and completely focused on whatever each performance moment needs, they can perform at their best ability level. Choosing to make what you are doing be the only thing that matters takes a ton of practice. That's why meditation is called your "Practice".  When you can get present, you know what to do, and when to do it.  There's also a bonus result that your focus ends up NOT being on what we might get if we perform well (a thought always followed by "Oh crap, what if I don't perform well!?) or who is in the audience, or wondering, "How does the audience think I'm doing right now?! Am I impressing them?"
In performance, when you make what you are doing the only thing that matters, you can be present.  When you are present, you are fearless.  
Ok, I think that covers the performance stage of Fearless Performance. 
A quick Fearless Performance structure chat:
There are three phases that we repeat over and over.  The best word I can think of to call performance is Sharing.  There is also a rather large section of our day where we are preparing to perform.  This preparation stage I call the Build phase. Then in the middle, when we can't Build any more but we're not quite Sharing yet, we BE.  This is when we're what I call, "On Deck".  It's when we're standing back stage, waiting for our meeting to start, or getting ready to climb the diving board ladder.

Fearless Performance

Magic Line Performance Method 

Much more on all this structure in subsequent newsletters, and at workshops, etc.  

Fearful Preparation  

Though Fearless Performance is our goal, this does not mean that fear is completely bad.  I often say that I don't do anything without a goal.  After long concert weeks, if I have some time without a concert, I don't practice very much.  But at some point, the next concert is drawing near, so I begin to practice.  I just magically feel compelled to pick up my horn and make some time to practice. ...and more and more time is spent on the horn with each day running up to the next concerts.

Why does this happen?

Why do I need urgency to practice?  I love the horn and music, so it should just happen. Well, I also love my family, my students, writing my Fearless Performance book, watching House of Cards, and much more.  

It's because I need a goal in order to do the work.  Yes, altruistically I should practice for the joy of practicing and improvement.  But my wife and son are amazing, and at 45 years old now, I don't want to miss hanging with them! Hmmmm...playing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with my son Rhys or playing scales on my horn.  Sorry, I'm a Ninja today!  So to stay balanced, and oh yeah, to stay hirable, I need some fear of not doing, getting, and/or contributing what I want professionally in order to do my work. 

Am I saying that fear can motivate quantity and inspire quality of your work?!

NO!  Absolutely not.  Well...no.  Maybe?  Hmmmm...ok, yes.

Fear in the preparation phase can be a good thing!

That fear of the upcoming concert, or meeting, or audition, or race, or test, or date, can inspire you to get off of the couch and go better yourself in some way.

As I said, I don't do anything without a goal.  Call me lazy!  But that's just the system that has worked for me.  I set goals, and I go for them. Often my fears help guide me and tell me when my break is over, and when to take a break, and more.  Fear helps balance my work.

Task for the Day - Embrace your Fearful Preparation moments 

Watch how you think about your upcoming performances.  When you think of them, look at your feelings.  Use your fears to point you to where your work lies.  Fear can be a great gauge of this.

The next time you feel fear, note it with appreciation, and act accordingly. If you under-prepare, fear can get you working.  If you over-prepare, fear can force you to take a break, avoid injury, and stay connected to what's called frrrrrrriends andfaaaaaaaamily. :)

Leverage those fears to be balanced.

There's no magic formula though.  For auditions I won, for example, I'd tell my friends not to invite me to the movies, but they could ask me to play an excerpt for them anytime!  I'd make my life about the audition for 3 months, do the audition, and then for the week after the audition I'd watch a dozen movies.

Balance.  Fear is a part of that balance.

Remember you are the master of your mental game.

PLAY it well...find your balance.


March 11, 2015


Make Everyone Happy

Earlier today, a student mentioned to me that they had difficulty performing their best, but only in situations when they were being judged.  I responded with something like, "Yeah, you and me both...oh, and everyone else too!  This is why I obsess about Fearless Performance, eh!?"  But then I seriously asked, "What percentage of performance situations that involve someone else would have you being judged?"

He guessed 100%, and I agreed with his answer.  

Simplicity is a good thing.  Knowing that we're always being judged can reduce the "yikes" choice when judgement is more evident.  It helps me to remember I'm always being judged. Judgements come in different forms, and toward different ends, and all that...but keeping judgement a constant helps me let go of it.

Otherwise it gets complicated.  A similar complication is when people think, "I get nervous when I have to play my best.  Like...my verrrrry best!"  Uh huh...complicated.  Always go to play your best, and then you don't ever have to play better.




Pleasing people is complicated.  Fearless Performance is based around making the best version of yourself.  When you find that with each day, and go out and share that, the bonus is that people might choose to be pleased.  But you worked on an awesome version of you and what you want to share.  BOOM.  It can be that simple.

Not easy sometimes...but simple.

In the spirit of keeping things simple, and making everyone happy, here is a revisit of one of my absolute favorite stories of all time... 

Once upon a time, there was a wonderful woman named Sarah Willis.  She wanted to play horn, so she ran off and joined the Berlin Philharmonic.  She loved it, and soon enough she wanted to talk to other people about what they loved, so she started to hang out online with some pretty cool people.  Now she speaks with people all over the world about their passions and how they get to live their dream lives.  Thank you Sarah!!

Along came Dale Clevenger.  They had a wonderful chat online that you can watch here.

In this Horn Hangout Dale says, "When I play, I make everyone happy!" 

At first, I  thought, "Heh, careful Dale...but okaaaaay you can say that cause you've definitely earned it." But then he continued to explain the best way to choose to let go of judgement during performance!!
Dale said, "The people who love what I do, and come to bask in my playing?  Well they leave the concert really happy.  The people who hate what I do, and come to the concert looking to hate more of what I do...I make them reeeeeally happy too!"

Dale and my son Rhys, happily listening to some horns the other day...

Task for the Day - Make Everyone Happy 

But do it in your mind.  For today, find ways of making some people happier than you thought they were.  Yes, happy is a potentially quaint word, but it doesn't have to be.  Go deeper with it...happy, content, calm, satisfied?  

The idea here is to love yourself, and be so foolish that you think people around you are GENUINELY happy with themselves too. Wander around like that fool.  Imagine that world.  It'd be pretty cool.

We'd still be working on betterment, but we'd be...happy.

Hey, what's the worst that could happen?  The worst case scenario is that someone will be upset that you thought they were happy when they weren't.  We all know those people who just go along in life and seem happy.  Well today, it's your turn!  Do iiiiiiiit!  You know those people are often so clueless about what they're doing wrong...and they're still happy! Uhhhh...what the hell!?  I'm over here trying to nail everything and be right about this, and make sure I'm pleasing my boss and parents and teachers and students and children and audience and the driver in the car behind me...and that person over there is happy!?

Yup.  They are.  :)


Make yourself happy.
...and if that doesn't work, there was this feature on the TV show, "Saturday Night Live" called "Deep Thoughts with Jack Handey." I have the books...they're hilarious in my opinion!  Writing about being happy reminded me of this one:



Heh...it's a certain type of humour for sure...but it helps be laugh some things off at times because:
You don't have to be serious to take something seriously.


You being happy today might just make it easier for someone else to find a little bit of happiness too.

Thanks for your efforts, and thanks for reading!  I hope my efforts have helped you.  Please reply to this email with questions and suggestions on future topics.  



Stay fearless my friends, 


March 04, 2015


Everyone's a Magician

My first experience with magic was when I was 7 years old.  That's why I've always loved it! My family drove from the pig farm in northern Alberta, Canada, to my cousin's place in Los Angeles.  He did a magic show and I was his assistant.  He blew my mind!  The next day we were at Disneyland, and I bought my first magic kit.  I was forever hooked.

Magic is identical to music, and many other performance-based activities.  You practice the technique and put it all together and then you go out and share it with an audience.  You can work up the technique and do the trick - you know, make the coin disappear. Ooooo ahhh!  But way better that just a trick, you can weave a compelling story throughout the technical trickery.

Talk about sights, sounds, smells, and spookiness, and then have the scary ghost coin magically move from your hand into the ear of a child.  Then when we pull the coin out of their ear, we've freed the coin just in time to be used to start their college fund. Ta daaaaaa!

Technique is good and great technical combinations are impressive.  I'll listen for awhile. But what gets my time and attention (during and afterwards) is a great story dramatically well told.

My success and learning through Fearless Performance is based in what I call "The Magic Line Method".  


I explain its premise to be that there's a magic line between backstage and onstage.  Every time you approach any performance situation, you bring every choice you've made your whole lives with you up to, and across this magic line. 

That's either a source of immense fear or inspiration to clean up your choices for next time. If you should have prepared more before this moment, too bad too late. You're standing at the line about to enter into your performance so let go of guilt or regret, and just focus on what you can do for this time.

Putting that magic line between preparation and performance is a powerful source of clarity. I use the magic line to simulate performance as often as I can, so as to experiencewalking into potentially stressful situations.  If you experience a dip in quality between your practice room version of something and your on-stage version, you've given your magic line some magical powers!  I call the dip in quality "The Quality Gap".  If you have a quality gap, you've done real magic...it's just not the good kind. 

Everyone's a Magician

Today I was working with a dear friend, Frank Graves.  We were working on our new workbook for some upcoming Fearless workshops.  Exciting stuff!!  Stay tuned, you're going to love it.

I'm stuck thinking about what deeper clarity Frank and I shared in today.  Basically, when we cross into a performance situation, we've crossed a boundary from preparation to performance.  If we get destructively nervous and perform less than our best, we have done some destructive magic to ourselves.  Through working with crossing magic lines often, all I want to inspire in people abilities to have that line be a source of magic that elevates us and others.  

One of my students did a ho-hum performance to begin a lesson and I asked him if he used his magic line.  He ho-hum-edly said, "uhhhh yeah, sure...it's over there.  Walked right over it and yeah...uh huh..."  I asked him, "Well, did you give it some magic?  It's a frickin' MAGIC LINE!!!  The magic doesn't happen TO you.  You have to GIVE it magical properties!"  To which he want, "OH!?  Ahhh!  Cool...Ok, I get it now!!  HA!!"

He brought good magic to every magic line performance after that one.  I think one thing that helped was his scratching in huge letters, "It's a frickin' MAGIC LINE!!!!" on his inspirational sheet.

Task for the Day - Believe in Magic

I experience essentially two types of audience members when I perform magic.  Either they are childlike and just want to enjoy the show, or they want to figure the trick out, and tell you how you did it.  The second type of person is curious to me because I kinda know how I'm doing it?  If the person is overly aggressive (aka ruining the childlike people's experience) I say, "So when you go to the ballet do you try to trip the dancers?" 


Nina and me dancing on our magical honeymoon


I respect that they're being curious, but we can share in curiosity later.  Be curious, but please let magic happen. If not to yourself at first, at least near others.  Let people share in the magic around you...




Please believe in magic.  If you experience a Quality Gap in performance, you are performing magic as you walk into your performance.  Why not believe in good magic?! 

Take some extra time during your day today, and find some magic.  Create some magic. There are things happening for your eyes and ears only.  There are moments that only you are seeing.  Bask in that.  Soak it in, because it's all you.  Walking?  Magic.  Hearing?  Wow Magic.  Talking to someone, or reading, or turning on the radio and hearing some music?!?! Total crazy sorcery.

And if you're usually one to wait to "believe it until you see it", if you want proof before you believe in your own incredible potential to see and create magic today, take Steve Buscemi's words to heart...




...and make a magical change sometime today.  Just something small to start. 

Smiles are magic. The next time you share an elevator or pass someone in the hallway, share a smile.  If they smile back, that's awesome.  You'll feel it.  

If they don't, they needed that smile more that you can know.



Stay fearless my friends, 


February 25, 2015


This is NOT a test.

My approach to teaching is to ask strategic questions in order to inspire thoughts about their intention and attention in their past, present, and future.




My purpose is to help others to understand how to understand themselves.  


This is not a test.




Regardless of what knowledge is being provided, learning is done through our own thoughts.



For you to learn the most, you must ponder things on your own.  You must consider other ideas.  You must trust your own thinking process enough to look for, and see progress, however minuscule the progress might seem in the moment.


...but this is not a test.



Once you've decided you're going to go for it, the test is over.  The only test is whether you're going to stick to it and figure it out.


If I thought I was being tested in my auditions that I won, I'd have played it very safe and definitely not won the auditions.  If I thought I was being tested during my audition for my professorship here at Indiana University, I'd not have felt worthy of the test.  I don't have my Bachelor's degree so by definition, I'd already "failed".  And then there's getting married and having a child...tests?  Well, ok...maybe these can feel like tests sometimes, ha!  ...but they're NOT!  A loving partner wants to be a team and thrive in love and in life...together! A child wants the same.  They're testing their own boundaries, sure, but our job...our opportunity is to guide them through it.


I was teaching a wonderful freshman student yesterday, and he played some Mozart for me. One of the moments could have sounded closer to that hirable version we both wanted to hear, and I thought that a certain exercise I've been obsessing about would solve the issue. I asked him if he'd been doing the exercise, and he looked like he felt a little guilty but he said yes.  Then I asked him to show me how he's been doing the exercise.


In that moment, I saw in his face a destructive choice I'd seen countless other students make.  I said the magical words:


"This is not a test."


He laughed, and with relief said, "Ahhhh, ok cool."


I explained that I wasn't checking into how he was doing what I told him to do.  I wasn't trying to catch him in a lie.  I wasn't testing him to see how well he followed my directions. I don't care about any of that.  Those are boring discoveries, and those would only serve me.  Mind games are juvenile and are only useful when they get us into our greater self.


I told him that all I want is to sit next to him, and work in the same direction together and get him to where he wants to go.  My intention and attention is aimed on being a team, blazing forward toward crazy awesome dreams.  


 I said, "Keep it simple. When you're asked things like this, try to hear the request as stated. Answer the question or perform the exercise as well as possible, and that's it. Then we can look at that, and find ways to improve on that."


Task for the Day - Don't Test Yourself


Just be your best.  See the BEST intent of every question today.  If you don't know the answer right away, sit in silence and think a bit longer than you would have yesterday. Give yourself the permission and self-respect to ponder...to sit comfortably in silence and think.  


If you're performing something for a friend or your teacher, just give it your best purely for the experience of performing your best.  It will be what it will be, because of the quality of your learning and training...but you might surprise yourself and perform closer to your best...


On way to your clear mind is to insist on believing:


This is not a test.


When you experience letting go of your decisions to test yourself, you can stay more present in your own special unique important intention and attention.  You can stand strong and share what ya got!  By doing this, you can EXPERIENCE a Fearless Performance by simply performing because you want to, and someone is listening.




You must do this for yourself.  You GET to do this for yourself...because it's not all about getting hired, impressing anyone, or making sure to pass the test.  


 Sometimes, we can experience performing for the sake of performing.




This is not a test.  It's an opportunity.


Enjoy today.




Stay fearless my friends,