Fearless Performance by Jeff Nelsen

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September 24, 2014

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Frustration is denial. You know better.

Strong newsletter title, I know.  I want to make a strong case. I realize this newsletter could show me to be a very irritating type of person, so in hopes of avoiding that, I'd like to defensively state before you read on that I don't mean to preach, but rather:
WARNING -  This is an optimal theory you can use to think through and replace the emotional choice of frustration.
How often do you hear someone talk about how frustrated they are with something? How often do you say you're frustrated? I know many people who like frustration, cause it feels good to be right about whatever they're frustrated with.  But there are many who live in a state of almost constant sharing of their frustration with traffic, their instrument, their colleagues, their job, and/or their children. That's not fun to be around, and it doesn't contribute well to anyone's day.
Wouldn't it be great if we vanished the word "Frustration" from our vocabulary?  I've pretty much done so for myself...pretty much.  :)  Read on, and I bet you'll rethink the next time you decide to be frustrated with something or someone.
The Idea - Being frustrated with something is basically ignoring reality.  Every time we're frustrated, we are frustrated with something because it isn't what we think it should be.
The Logic - If I have a friend and they show up late to meet me one day, maybe something happened or maybe they can't manage their time very well.  Either way, I can get frustrated or I can stay calm and continue having a good day regardless of whether or not they are on time to meet me. I prefer the second option.
I like hanging out with this friend, so I make another time to meet with them the next day. If they are late again, I learn that they have some sort of time-management problem.  I don't need to know the complexities of it, I only need to learn about this friend. But for me to be frustrated with them is to think that they should be good at time management.  They're not. 
This is my way out of the frustration cycle. When I get close to feeling it, I remind myself that being frustrated is ignoring reality.  It's like moving to Canada and being frustrated with cold weather. 
Frustration is denial. You know better.
I can be disappointed or sad about this friend not getting there on time, but frustrated?  I'm speaking very specifically to 'Frustration'.  Let that one go!
To go a bit deeper, if it is a colleague or a boss you're trying to let go of your frustration with, it's the SAME THING!  Probably tons harder to deal with, but your solution lies on the other side of the same logic.  Frustration is thinking they should be something else.  
If they make you late, find another way to get to where you have to be, and if you can't, then let go and take what you can get.  If they are a jerk, can you change them?  If you can, then do that.  If you can't, let go of thinking, and getting frustrated with the fact that they should be who they aren't. You can still be angry with them, or sad about the situation...just let go of choosing to be frustrated with them. 
Embrace the reality, and then either
let go or change it.
The Music and You - To your instrument and your practice sessions - Every time someone grunts angrily while playing, I see a glimpse of how badly they might (probably?) treat themselves when they' re alone in the practice room. That grunt usually is saying, "Grrr, I should be playing amazingly right now, but I'm not!"  This massively impedes their progress. The way out of that is to embrace reality.  Regardless of how they think they should be playing, what they just did, is what they just did! 
If you're frustrated while practicing, you are ignoring the reality of where your playing is, at that moment.  
An approach to your practicing that is based in 
the reality of what is coming out your instrument 
is the fastest way to optimal learning 
and to the quickest possible reaching of your goal.
I'm not saying never be upset, or to never ever get frustrated.  I only want to share the theory that helps me live with very little frustration in my life. 
To Do Today - Next time you catch yourself thinking or about to say, "I'm frustrated with..." take a moment and think about the reality of what you're frustrated with.  See if there is some room for you to see clearly what is really happening around the whole situation.  Then try with all your might, maybe even kicking and screaming the whole way, to:
Let Go -  of what you usually would have felt, said, and done
Learn - about what is a better choice, and see things in a more objective reality
Love Well - yourself and whatever you can in the situation
Then act a bit more constructively in the new situation you just made...
...or at least vanish your frustration, and replace it with a bit more constructive objectivity. 
Who knows?  Maybe some of that new objectivity could turn into something crazy, like hope.
September 17, 2014


Hard is Hard

How we choose our words decides immeasurable details about our day.  I often wonder how many people really dislike clouds and rain, or are they maybe just stuck in a habit of saying so because that's what they have always said.  Oh, the small-talk habits of our day.
Rain is amazing! Clouds can give the horizon depth and color our landscape for wider palettes of emotion that influence art, writing, and music...and our conversations...and our cuddling at the fire!  I very happily lit the fireplace yesterday because it was cold and rainy...and then we all got our slippers out!  It was awesome!
The song "Both Sides Now" is a deep look at how clouds maybe get in our way until...well...please give yourself a beautiful 5-minute gift and bask in this music and lyric.
"...well something's lost and somethings gained in living every day."
So I choose my words carefully...definitely not perfectly, but thoughtfully.  Sometimes when I try to discuss word-choice with someone, they push back a bit by saying, "Well, that's just semantics."  To this, I say that you can call them semantics...I call them details. Your future conductors and audition panels are very interested if you are detailed about the difference between a dynamic marking of mezzo-forte and mezzo-piano.
Another example of word-choice is when I hear someone saying, "Oh, that's hard!" or "That's difficult for me. I have a hard time with that."
Why decide it's hard?
I'm sure we all can play something that was hard for us at some point. The simplest melody in the world was hard for us at first, right?  But through study and practice, we got better at it...and playing it got easier.  We spent some time on it, and it got easier.  The more technical or musical the challenge, the more time it took to make it easy.  But we can all play things that used to be hard for us.
Regardless of whether we ever get this passage we have difficulty with to a place of ease, there is a much better name for its current state than "Hard".  Deciding something is hard brings untold potential to tighten up, fear, and force things.
When one student of mine pointed at a bar and said, "That's really hard for me!" I asked him, "Why call it hard?  It's no harder than some other things I've heard you play well.  It's just that you haven't put in the time on this passage yet to make it easy.  Why not call it "New"?"
He pondered for a moment, smiled, and pointed at the bar on the page again with a laugh, saying, "Yeah ok...well, that bar is reeeeeeeally NEW!!!!"
It's become a joke with my students now...a really constructive joke!  It's wonderful to watch them downplay the 'hard-ness' of things, and just call the passage "new" instead.  I believe that rather than trouble-shooting their difficult passage, they go about their work with a much more solution-based approach of making something 'new' into something familiar.
Deciding something is hard is potentially emotional, and not in a constructive direction. Simply calling it new leaves the path ahead to be full of discovery, learning, habit-forming, and ohhhhh, awesome-ness!
Your fearless game for the week: When you catch yourself about to use the word "hard" or "difficult", replace it with "new".
This could be difficult at first, but at some point it'll just be new...depending on how good you are at playing this game!
"It's life's illusions that I recall.  I really don't know life at all."
Hard is just hard, but new is new.  Life really can be a new game.
September 10, 2014


Being Wrong

I'm very excited to share with you a story I heard today at while at brunch. It's from Kathryn Schulz's TED Talk "On Being Wrong".
She asks audience members what it feels like to be wrong.  They say obvious things like embarrassing, devastating, and dreadful.  But actually, those are things we feel when we find out we're wrong.
"Being wrong doesn't feel like anything."
She talks about the Road Runner and the Coyote in creative ways, and then hits it home.
"Actually, feeling wrong does feel like something.  It feels like being right."
Wow, what an exciting approach to so many things, the largest I believe, is our fear of being wrong.  
Since we don't know if we're wrong until we find out, we can let go of the fear. We're either right or wrong or somewhere between...AND we might find out and we might not!
Weeeeeee!!  The earth was quite recently flat.  We were sure of it.
Please make some efforts to bask in the chaos that we might be wrong/we might be right. It feels good to be alive and have the opportunity to wonder about things. We are so lucky to be able to have our own unique opinions. Be thankful for this.
We are rich.  Share your opinions with the modesty that you might be wrong. Let go of your fear of failure. You can do this with conviction as well as with room to be wrong...both at the same time.
I strongly believe this...
...but I could be wrong.
September 03, 2014


Starting Over

In the wonderful audio program titled "How The Best Get Better"  author Dan Sullivan speaks about those moments when we realize we've stopped learning or seeing improved results.  He says when this happens, we've hit what he calls, "The ceiling of complexity" and all we can do is break everything down and start again.
For the complexity moment, I picture a floor covered in papers or a black-board (that thing schools used to have at the front of the classroom that people would draw on with chalk) covered in writing.  Or of course, what we've all experienced - that long practice session or day or week where we've hit the wall.  
Seriously, all we can do is LET GO...and start again as soon as possible.
...as possible! Not before that, ok?  So maybe you don't get back to it right away.  That depends on how surgically constructive we can be at letting go of the right things.  I leave that to you.  But the letting go can take care of how good we get at starting over.
For me and my horn, I start over well with my morning routine.  My optimal routine (often with my students) starts at 7am with five minutes of sitting in silence...so we can recover from getting up so stupid early! Then I hit play on one of my Fearless Practice audio tracks  and Saral talks us into an amazing place of intention and attention.  Then we go from there...optimal posture, some breathing, and some beautiful musically-drenched notes...all within good reasons why we're doing our work.
This crazy approach of breaking it all down, and starting again really works.  And remember:
Don't give up...that's destructively emotional.  But do see starting over in a healthy way. Today, look at starting over as more of a fresh start!  Give yourself that gift.
Have a fresh week.  :)
August 27, 2014


You're good...now what?

I had a big performance this weekend.  I held a 2-day Fearless Performance Workshop here in Bloomington Indiana.  It was the fifth 2-day I've done this year, and participants seemed fulfilled during the final discussion about what we all learned.  I'm very happy with the results. I still want to do better.

So now what?  Continuing on last week's "You're right...now what?" theme...my question now is "You're good...now what?"

One of the fears many people admitted this weekend was their fear that their best wasn't going to be good enough. To address this fear and inspire their work on replacing the fear I shared a recent Seth Godin Blog:

"Doing the best I can

...is actually not the same as, "doing everything I can."

When we tell people we're doing the best we can, we're actually saying, "I'm doing the best I'm comfortable doing."

As you've probably discovered, great work makes us uncomfortable."

I believe when people walk out of their performance without what they wanted...without "success" by whatever definition...two things are to blame.  Either:

1.  What they wanted (their definition of success) was unrealistic.
2.  They didn't do the work they could have to make manifesting a successful performance possible.

or both!

An important learning concept at Fearless Camp is embracing "I am enough." This is huge, and essential to preparing and performing ones best.  We have to love ourselves before we can prepare our best, and reach out to an audience and perform our best.  

"Being enough" is a very different concept from being the most hirable.  When I think "I am enough" I get the gift of belief in myself, and I can let go of destructive doubt.  This helps me in performance.  On the other hand, my fears of being "good enough to be hired" helps me in preparation. Healthy fear of performing great, at anytime but in performance, can help get me off my couch and practicing well! These are discussed in detail in Fearless Performance lectures and events.  I hope this is enough clarity for now.

Having said all that, my idea for this week is, in our work, we too often stop short of our best.  We might get really good, but then maybe we hope that's good enough or that this "good enough" might manifest itself a bit better in performance.  Nope.  Not gonna happen.  Here's why:

"Good enough is the enemy of great."

To look at taking our "good enough" to great, let's look at the 2 inhibitors of performance success I listed above.  For #1, when we have unrealistic goals, most often it's because we've chosen a goal like convincing someone to hire us, date us, or think something of us. To these silly goals, I share something from an unexpected source of wisdom...Fashion Television.  There was a model who didn't win a prize she wanted and she was crying and her friend gave her a piece of genius advice.

"You can't control perception.  You can only control presentation."

It is completely unrealistic to walk into a performance with a goal of controlling the audience.  You can't do this...ever!!  Let go of that riiiight now!  (see quote above again if you need further convincing) A much more realistic, and more importantly, attainable goal is to play your Mozart the way you imagine, or do the things you've rehearsed so diligently. When you aim at those performance goals, you have a greater chance of doing so, and THE BONUS is that you end up convincing people of hiring you or thinking whatever things that serve you reaching your goals, etc...

Ok, on to #2.

This one's a biggie...too long for a newsletter.  I remember watching the TV show "So You Think You Can Dance" (LOVE that show!!) and one of the dancers was sent off the show, and they were crying and yelling, "I just don't know what else I can do!!!".  In my cold-yet-caring mind, I thought, "Aaaactually, I bet you do."
I would bet a ton of money that most of us have been supplied with (or been near) massive amounts of learning that we could have picked up better, and more importantly, worked with deeper.  I know I have.  And the fact that I believe I could be doing better with what I already have heard, read, and seen keeps me modest about deciding I have problems, obstacles, or that I'm a victim to things "happening to me". Wow oh wow do I know I could be doing better work tomorrow.  
"I just performed.  Was I perfect?  No.  Ok, what else can I do?"
Instead of wondering which imperfections were bad enough to be heard by the audience, which musical opinion is best, which technical idea will work, or which recording is the ultimate version, take all your potential learning with you and go forward into embracing YOUR favorite and constructive things you've heard this week.  Study, practice, work and make it yours!  Take all that into your next performance or lesson.  Share that, and then invite commentary.  Filter the commentary and keep what you think will get you to your goals.  Then do all that again.  ...and again.
...and again.
You are doing this whether you realize it or not.
When you're upset or frustrated with the process, you are choosing to get in your own way. This IS the process, whether you're upset about it, or embracing it and leveraging it well to get what you want.
Set goals well, and do great work so you can get what you want this week.  So many people are!  And remember...
"Good enough is the enemy of great."
Set great goals, do great work, and be great at constructive self-criticism.
You can do this.
August 20, 2014

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You're right...now what?

Being right feels great.  Unfortunately, there is too often a big difference between what we think is right and what is actually right.  Not too long ago we confidently thought we were right about the earth being flat, for example.

I believe one of the biggest problems in society is our obsession with being right.  Often when a conversation becomes destructive it is because one or both people are holding on too tightly to being right about something.  Road rage is always about someone being so right about the other person that they yell at them, or worse...  

- They cut me off!
- I'm not good enough to win
- I'm only sight-reading
- They didn't hire me
- I don't have enough schooling yet
- I didn't practice my 6 hours today

Yup, you're right...now what?  They didn't hire you.  Ok fine...now what?  Being angry or hurt by it will only slow you down.  Talking about the problem will take time out of the work you might need to do to be irresistibly hirable next time.  Asking them what else they think you could do better is a more solution-based "now what?" For me, my solution has mainly been getting to work on what can be better.  Every time I didn't get the job I was pursuing, I asked myself if I was perfect, always answered "no!" and got to work on what remained.

"Make the decision easy for them."
J. Nelsen

This might sound cold and uncaring, but it's not.  I care a ton!  I also have a ton of potential things I could feel guilty or sad about in my life...but what helps me get constructive is thinking, "You're right...now what?"  It helps me stay solution-based.  We spend too much time thinking and talking about the problems.  The next time you hear someone else talking about their problems for longer than they need to, say, "You're right...now what?"
"Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off your goal."
- H. Ford
I'm only sight-reading.  You're right...now what?  Do I just try to get the notes and wait to add the musical aspects on my second time through? NO! I'm sight-reading and I'll miss whatever is coming up that is too advanced for my current level.  Regardless of what's coming in the next bar, I'm going to lean into this and give it everything I've got right here, right now...one note at a time, one long beautiful phrase at a time!
What is right and what isn't?  

This is a wonderful purpose for discussions and for our work in the practice room.  But getting it right is a potentially low goal compared to getting it great.  Computers can get the notes really right, but it's just a regurgitation.  If "right" is why we're making music, we will be quickly replaced by computers, because they nail it every time... zzzzzzzzz ...borrrrrrinnnnng!

There's another approach to music, and to life...an approach that could be called comfortable chaos.  I recently heard a great word:

Chaordic - simultaneously chaotic and orderly

Let go of being right.
It is a powerful state in which to be where you are comfortable enough in the chaos of other people's ideas that you can hear anyone's ideas and consider them...just consider them.  You don't even have to try to decide if the idea (or this person's performance onstage) is right, or whether you agree with the ideas.

There's a wonderful moment in the movie "State and Main" when a car comes flying over a hill and rolls down the street.  When the crash finally ends and the care comes to a stop, an obviously drunk Alec Baldwin climbs out of the car.  He walks by the shocked onlookers, without looking at them.  As he passes them, he wipes a bit of blood off his face and just calmly exhales, "Well...that happened."
Thing to try this week:
The next time you feel yourself getting upset about something, try to celebrate that you've noticed, and then think, "Well, that happened."  Take a step back and objectively look at what you're choosing to get upset about.  See if you can find a new, more constructive approach to your situation.
In the practice room, let's say you're missing the same note over and over, or repeadedly  playing something out of tune.  You will make the most improvement when you can be objective and notice YOU'RE doing whatever is "happening".  This is not happening to you.  Now respond with a solution.  The greatest word for when we do this is "presence". No, you have not missed this note ten times in a row!  You've missed this note just now. Change your approach, and see if that helps.  Keep going...
"Your actions do not produce success or failure, they just produce results."
- W. Dyer
Would you rather be right or happy?
You are right about missing that note 9 out of 10 times just now.  Many people get inspired to work through it with that knowledge about the problem.  I'm much better served being right about getting that note once just now!  WooHOO! Now I look at what worked on that one time I got the note.  There's a lot of creative chaos through which we can work in order to be right about better things, and end up stumbling forward into a better version of ourself.  
You're right that this person played better than you, or won an award you wanted.  You're right to be upset about this, or angry.  You're right...unless we are here on this earth to be happy and get to be as great as possible.
"Holding on to anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die."
- Buddha
I'm not saying don't mourn your losses.  Being sad and eating ice-cream for a weekend or more might be the most constructive thing we can do...as long as we come out of that sad state at some point, eager to take on our next goal.  We need you out here, learning, growing, sharing...contributing to the planet.  
I'm just trying to equip us with some more ideas about how to get over hitches quickly and how to be doing constructive work as consistently as possible.  Be constructively creative this week with what you're right about.  Doing this will have you spending way less time on the problem, and way more time and energy on your solutions.
This week will happen either way.
August 13, 2014



Hello from London!


I am half-way through an incredible and inspiring week at the International Horn Society's annual symposium- this year being held in London, England.  As I was stepping on the plane, I realized that this is the first time in many years that I have attended a symposium without playing a concert (or several concerts). In fact, I didn't even bring my horn with me! It's such a different and wonderful experience to be at a symposium and be sitting in the audience, applauding my friends and colleagues. I'm able to be here and be fully present, not running in and out of things for rehearsals or concerts of my own.  I love being here every year, where I get to learn so much about the horn as well as support some incredible horn playing, and hear all the new pieces that are being written for the horn.  I am fulfilled.  

Yesterday, I presented a talk on Fearless Performance. I got to chatting with someone after the talk, and found myself telling that person something that I actually find myself explaining to many people. 

Fearlessness is not just a magic light-switch that one day clicks on. You're not all-of-a-sudden going to become fearless. It takes work. Lots of it.  In fact, I work at it all the time.  Day-in, day-out. And actually, I'm quite happy if I have an hour that goes by in which I don't have a "fearful thought." 


A lot of the fearless work we do both on and off the stage comes in the form of choices. When we are performing, do we choose to fear, or do we choose something more important than fear such as the love of beautiful music, an excitement for our audience, or the ability to give a precious gift to somebody else?


(Thank you Robin Williams for all of your incredible gifts you gave to our world.)

Wouldn't it be thrilling if we chose to pay attention to things other than our fears and the "bad times"?

At my week-long Fearless Performance for Musicians Seminar this past May, I met Johanna Nordhorn, mezzo-soprano.  She is an IU graduate, now living in St. Louis working as an opera singer and voice teacher.  Since May, we've been in contact a lot- talking about my different fearless tools as well as some of her breakthroughs and ideas.  I thought I'd ask her to sit down and write about an experience she'd recently had in one of her rehearsals.  I hope you enjoy reading about the choices she has made, and is making on a daily basis....and know that we are all making these choices all the time.  


What is the first step?  Choosing something more important than fear.

Here's Johanna:

Criticism, Peer-Pressure, and Other Gifts

How we receive criticism is crucial to our sanity as musicians and people. I recently discovered a really valuable lesson during a rehearsal process that brought up some of my toughest challenges. 
I saw that I had a choice: 
A) I could shut down at any sign of criticism, spiraling into a puddle of insecurity and becoming less productive overall (which I've done many times before)
B) I could view the entire process as a precious gift, and each remark as a helpful piece of guidance. 
I chose B. It wasn't an easy choice, but looking back, I'm so proud of myself for choosing to take remarks as guidance instead of criticism. 
I know that this can be a difficult choice when you're surrounded by peers you perceive to be better than you...but stop hiding under the covers! Learn instead.


Don't let your insecurity about something be the barrier that keeps you from working on it. Be brave. If you can shift your perception from fear of judgement to gratitude, you will always come out ahead.


-Johanna Nordhorn- Fearless convert and opera singer