Fearless Performance by Jeff Nelsen

DIVE IN ...to this week's newsletter!

August 06, 2014


You are allowed.

I ask a lot of questions while I teach.  An answer of, "I don't know" is a response I hear on a regular basis.  "I don't know" is a common sound, weaved through the tapestry of our society.

Don't get me wrong...I'm very comfortable not knowing the answer.  But as an invested (and maybe obsessive) teacher, I see a vast different between when people quickly say, "I don't know," and those who take in the question, sit in consideration for a while, and then say, "I don't know."

You are allowed to sit in silent thought.  Your teacher, your parents, your friends...most caring people around you would LOVE you to do this.  Taking some time for thought while in the "throws of conversation" or in a lesson does a couple positive things.  It ends up showing the questioner that you take their question seriously and you also get to think about something to which you'd otherwise either rattle off an answer, or just throw out another, "I don't know."  

In addition to missing out on the positive results from thinking before saying, "I don't know." there are manydestructive reasons for having a knee-jerk "I don't know" reaction/response:

- a stalling tactic
- a fear of taking responsibility for what we're doing
- we're scared of appearing too intelligent
- a fear of saying something wrong
- we fear the question is a trick question
- we fear what someone might say
I used to throw the "I don't know" around too easily too.  Then I had a friend who did something for me that I didn't catch until the third time she did it.  I'd say, "Yeah, I don't know..." and she said, "Well, if you did know, what would it be?" I'd share some pretty thoughtful and useful stuff and then the third time, half-way through my answer, I said, "ahhhh ok yeah I see what you did there! Nice!" 
When we give ourselves permission to think, sit in silence, ponder, and respond with thoughtful answers or questions ourselves, we are able to become great.

Here's something for you to try this week:

Instead of right away saying "I'm not sure," or "I don't know" try pausing for a minute. Think about what you really could say or want to say.  Take some time to listen to and acknowledge what the person with whom you're communicating is saying and asking. Don't just listen to reply with an easy answer. 

Challenge yourself to truly listen. Challenge yourself to consider your thoughts on this new idea that you're facing.  Learn to be comfortable in silence.  If you do this, you get to learn how to be okay with "not knowing." Best of all...when you do this, you're going to follow "not knowing" with some pretty insightful thinking, and maybe even some of your own wonderful questions of your question-asking colleagues!

July 30, 2014


I'm Better Than You

This is one of my favorite stories.

Dale Clevenger is a living legend in the music world.  He played principal horn in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for over 48 years.  I often ask him why he never decided to take it seriously.  We're colleagues now, teaching at Indiana University Jacobs School of Music together, and we're having a blast.  One of his quotes I share all the time is, "Warm up!?  I never cool down."

The story goes that Dale was teaching a young horn player in a public master class. He asked the student to play the beginning of the solo piece he'd diligently prepared. The hornist played well, smiled, and looked to Dale for commentary.

He looked at the student and asked, "Have you every heard me play before?" The boy excitedly smiled and giggled out a, "Yeah, I listen to you a lot."  Dale replied, "Ok play it again, and this time play it like you're ME playing this piece."

The kid went at it again, and leaned into every musical mark, and swooned and slurred his way through what may have been an out-of-body experience.  He'd never played it better his whole life.  The audience reacted in kind, cheering full out.

Dale waited and said, "Yeah, just what I thought.  I'm a much better horn player than you are."

Genius.  Thanks Dale.
Sometime today, pretend to be your absolute favorite performer...and then play better than that.

I remember a powerful moment when I was a student.  I played my excerpts for a professional, all the while trying to show what I could do on the horn.  I played my louds as loud as I could play, my fasts as fast as possible.  He looked at me and asked, "You're really young, aren't you?"  I nodded.  He said, "Well, you need the illusion of maturity."

I won my first professional audition 2 months later. 

Be your greatest today.  Sometimes your greatest includes parts of someone else, but that's you too.
...and that's ok if it works!!!
(Still using my illusion of maturity at times...)
July 23, 2014


Deserve and Demand the Best of Yourself

A conductor once asked me what I think about some students (and some professionals) who choose to play with their legs crossed, ignore him while he gives commentary, or outwardly show displeasure during rehearsals and concerts.  We've all seen these players, but rarely in the great orchestras in the world.

My first thought was of another conductor friend's inspirational rehearsal comment, "There are no great musical careers for anyone who plays with their legs crossed."  I love that.  It's not really about how well they might be able to play with their legs crossed, it's more about their approach to collaboration, contribution, and doing their best all the time.  Since those people almost never cross their legs in concert, the legs crossed in rehearsal unfortunately tells many people watching, "I have a moving quality of standards. I'll do my absolute best when I decide to, or when it matters most...but not all the time." That's less hirable and marry-able to many people watching.

I told the querying maestro the quote and he smiled and nodded.  Then in an effort to be as constructive as possible about these caring, hard-working, committed, well intending, maybe-not-realizing-what-they're-outwardly-showing musicians, I was very happy to have come up with this thought:

"Well, I think that they are not used to deserving and demanding the best of themselves." 

Too often, we might not feel like we deserve to be our best, or it's too hard today. Maybe we hope no one will notice if we fudge the lines here and there. Probably no one will notice, most of the times.  But how often do we do this in music and in life? It can hold us back in countless ways. I like making a littering analogy.  We won't throw the hamburger wrapper on the ground but we will drop the gum wrapper.  Sure, it probably doesn't matter, but then what?  What's next?  I often think of the saying, "Good enough is the enemy of great." What if we demand the best out of ourselves more often? Where would we be? What would we be getting to do for a living, for fun, and for love?
"We are what we repeatedly do.  Therefore, excellence is not an act.  It is a habit."
- Aristotle
You can do this! How much do you want it? Right now, take ten minutes, dig deep and think about what you really deserve.  Then call a dear friend or family member and ask them in a serious manner to tell you what they think you deserve. If they make a joke, laugh at the joke, and then follow up with, "...but seriously. What do you think I deserve to be doing 5 years from now?"
Write down what they say.  If they aimed low for you, cross it out and write a glorious dream for yourself!  If they aimed high for you, circle it.  Circle it again! Write some details around it if you think of some exciting additions.  Stare at it.  Let it soak in.  Sit in it.
Fearlessly embrace deserving and demanding the best from your choices of thought and action today.  You will attract more of what you want. You'll see it when you believe it.  I am amazed at how often, when I take a moment to open myself up to deserving it, that "it" appears.  Sometimes it's something small, like a drum-set instructor.  Sometimes it's life changing.  But, I strongly believe that, 
Ya gotta wake up and do stuff tomorrow anyway.  So you might as well wake up deserving an awesome day, and then...demand that it is one.  Then go to sleep.  Repeat until you get "it".
You deserve this.
July 16, 2014


Even if I Fail

We all question ourselves...daily, weekly, monthly...minute-ly.  It's part of being human. One of the questions we most often ask of ourselves is, "Did I fail?"  Our olympic-medal-winning internal doubter is amazingly well trained at doing this!  We constantly ask, "How bad was that?"
What if instead of 'keeping it real' in a problem-based focus, we set our sights on success? When we miss the mark what if we simply get back up and do it again?  It's not about who fails the least, but rather who tries again and again, faster and better. Balancing quantity and quality of getting up and going again is a powerful ability.
"Why do we fall down, sir? So that we can learn to get back up."
- Batman's butler Alfred in Batman Begins
I asked my student Julie Gerhardt to write about her experiences with fear, and she wrote an inspirational story:

"What's worth doing even if you fail?

- Brené Brown, Daring Greatly



I was watching Ellen interview Selena Gomez a while ago, and they started to talk about Taylor Swift. Taylor Swift apparently gets into relationships and falls hard, but eventually the relationship fails. Fortunately, it seems to be working out for her career. After all, "we are never, ever, EVER getting back together..."

But it was Ellen's take on Taylor's outlook that really made me think. Taylor, Ellen said, has got to be an amazing optimist. No matter how badly a relationship fails, she always throws herself into the next one with everything that she has, convinced that this is going to be THE ONE.

Sounds a lot to me like the audition process.

Here's how it goes for me. I see the audition ad, so I ask myself, should I take this audition? If I should get the job, would I want it?

At some point, I drift from the practical, productive questions to the "Am I good enough to win this job?" questions. And then I hem and haw for anywhere from a day to two weeks or more before I either put it out of my mind or quit sniveling and send in my résumé already. Yet, once it's time to commit, it's time to commit. 



Like Taylor Swift, the relationship that I need to have with that particular audition makes it THE relationship that's going to work.

You see, I won a job. I auditioned for and won a position in an orchestra. But because there was quite a lot of time between when I auditioned for the job and when I was given the results, and because it's in a small regional orchestra, and because this somehow added up in my brain to diminish my achievement into no achievement at all, I hadn't called Jeff Nelsen (my primary horn professor from my time earning a Performer Diploma at Indiana University, mentor, positive-self-talk guru, and friend) to tell him...and I'd known for awhile. 

It took a phone conversation with the inimitable Ashley Cumming to remind me that, professionally, things had been going really well for me. So much had been going right with my work, and I'd only just hit my one-year anniversary for my graduation from IU. I mean, I knew that things had been going well - but since my initial emotional charge had faded, I truly appreciated the reminder that excitement is still warranted. I mean, GET EXCITED ALREADY, JULIE!



That evening, I texted Jeff.

"So, I won a job."

And pretty quickly, he called to congratulate me. And I did my darndest to remember that I should be excited, that I am excited, that things are going really well, and to tell that voice that diminishes all of that, "Hey, I don't need you. I've got better thoughts to think."

What I wanted to do was explain to Jeff that it really wasn't such a big deal. I wanted to give an outlet to that fear, that acceptance, that insistence of failure, to say that the job was "just" this or "only" that. But I didn't. And it was hard. And before I texted Jeff, I knew it that would be hard. Which is why I did it. Because I needed to remember how to replace that voice. And that I could.

Hey, Jeff. You taught me how to do that. That failure is not failure; rather, it's a lesson. 


And that replacing that fear, that voice, is important - and way easier with practice. My voice...my musical voice...is valuable, worthy of being heard, and that, given the chance, people WANT to hear it. And that when I forget, I have fantastic people in my life holding me accountable to remembering.



So, what's worth doing even if I fail? Being heard. Connecting meaningfully with people through music. Sharing my voice, my musical voice.

Because, fear, we are never getting back together. Ever.  

Fear is persistent. But, you see, so am I. 

July 10, 2014


Play Like Me.

When we decide to "make sure" of something in performance, we might be making a destructive choice. Making sure takes extra control that might actually get in the way. 
Keeping my approaches to preparation and performance the same is one of my important goals.  I always train to play my best regardless of whether no one or thousands of people are listening.  
Through training like this, it's simply me and my music every time.  In theory, now I never have to "make sure" to play my best.  I make it a habit to always play my best, both technically and musically.
My best can always be better (and I work on this too!), but mastering my mental game is about training myself to consistently perform to the best of my abilities. 
This concept was best summed up during a lunch with New York Philharmonic's principal hornist Phil Myers.  He said,
July 01, 2014


Fearless Practice

We practice our instruments.  

Sometimes we even practice our music!

Hands down, the words most-often heard in the company of musicians is, "I gotta go practice."  

Yup, we should practice a ton.  Unfortunately, so many times we approach practicing like doing our homework.  This is a horrible hold-over from high school; we go into the practice room to get our practice done. When we start to do something and our inspiration to do so is cluttered with wanting to just finish doing it, immeasurable amounts of learning are missed.  I remember reading a book, "Wherever you go, there you are" and I loved the revolutionary part about, "washing the dishes to wash the dishes."  

This was a wild concept I hadn't considered before.  Was the author telling me not to do the dishes so I could get to the TV, to the party, to bed, or to my homework, but instead to be present in my actions?  I tried this crazy presence thing with simple acts like walking to the kitchen, chewing my food, annnnd washing those dishes.  I enjoyed it.  From there I went extra crazy and tried doing other things while being present...reading a wonderful book, writing an email, or talking with a friend.  It was awesome, to say the least!

I took presence and clear intent into the practice room.  Soon afterward, I solved some long-time problems in my playing and won 2 professional auditions in a row. My many-times-a-day decision to focus on where I was, and why I was there, kept inspiring my work. Now I am VERY excited to share something with you that can be a powerful mind-opener and constant reminder of how amazing you deserve to be RIGHT NOW.

This week, we release 7 new audio tracks in our series "Fearless Practice - 10 Minutes to Unlock Your Creative Potential." Saral, the beautiful narrator of "Fearless Practice", shares some thoughts with you now...thank you for letting us inspire you.

Here's Saral-

Wake up now.

I have a quote above my desk that is taken from a Zen prayer:  

"Let me respectfully remind you, time passes swiftly and opportunity is lost. Each of us must strive to awaken. Wake up now! Do not squander your life."



Why do so many of us tend to squander this "one precious life"? What gets in the way of living, performing, and loving fully?  After studying many of the world's philosophical, religious and spiritual traditions, I've come to believe that the answer is four-fold: 

- Arrogance

- Self-absorption

- Fixed thinking

- Fear

For the purposes of this "Fearless Practice" writing, I want to focus on Fear. 

Fear of what?  Fear of failure, success, vulnerability, powerful emotions? It seems we humans can be afraid of nearly anything. So if it's fear that's partly responsible for holding us back from fulfilling our important life-goals, how is it possible for us to not feel it? Even when we have things in our life we want more than anything, fear sneaks in.

And so here's the paradox; fear turns out to be an inseparable part of fearlessness.

It seems we are destined to experience our fears, one or more at a time, so that one day we might be free of them. 

How do we get brave enough to do that? How do we walk out on stage when our knees are knocking, our mouth is dry, and we are about to throw up?

We do it, one small step at a time, with humor, passion and love, because it's worth it. Because fear is generally guarding something precious, something worthy of our efforts. 

Fears are dragons that need to be tamed into allies. This takes time, patience, diligence, skillfulness. The dragons don't just go away.


But it's not so bad. It can actually be fun! There are lots of tools (Jeff is full of them!) that can help us live our way into a more fearless life, both as people and as performers.  There are reflections and techniques that support our courage, provide solace, and inspire us to live and give ever more fully. 

DO THIS NOW! There is no time like the present to move towards your dragons of fear with curiosity, wondering: "What is behind that one?" and "How about that one?" This is the kind of bravery that is required if you want to live an ever-more fully expressed creative life.If you want to offer beauty of any kind to the world you'll need to untangle your gift from the fears that restrict its expression. This is simply the work of every artist, and you have countless beautiful resources from which to draw inspiration and instruction.

Jeff invited me to collaborate with him, and be one more resource for you. We've put together a series of audio tracks, each with a five minute talk followed by five minutes of meditation.  


These are designed to help you unpack fears that get in your way, both as a person and as a musician. Together we look at navigating self-criticism, creative discovery, vulnerability, spontaneity, passion, play, and much more. All sessions are designed to launch you into more present and fruitful practice sessions. 

To see how this would be helpful, you can try listening to the free download of "Diligence."

I wish you the very best on your journey towards fearlessness, toward the courage to feel fear and share anyway.


June 25, 2014


The Journey of a Thousand Miles

It can be daunting to begin down the path of authentic and permanent change, but let's let go of that emotional assessment.  It is what it is.  Do you want to do this, and are you willing to do the work?  If yes, then we have a potentially simple path ahead of ourselves!  Congrats!  Not easy...so get bored with easy, and bored with negative emotional assessments.  Just start walking down your exciting path!



Helpful, but you're still not totally there yet?  Ok, here's your first step:

Years ago I was in Japan with Canadian Brass and we were coaching the Japan National Honor Band.  The group performed their piece and then looked to us for guidance.  We delivered wonderful critique and creative solutions to our English/Japanese interpreter.  "Timpani could be louder there, with harder mallets.  Clarinets can play this passage a bit faster and move the melody along and pass it to the trumpets a bit more smoothly.  This moment is recalling a Gregorian chant style, so think you are in your favorite church for these bars."

We gave a ton of wonderful ideas to the translator, but when he spoke to the ensemble in Japanese, he said three words.  We all laughed at the brief summation of our nuanced commentary.  The ensemble played again, and we were amazed at how everything we mentioned leaped off the stage and into our ears.  We of course had to ask the man what he had said.  He smiled, and said, "I say, "Play it better."


When we're heading down the path of change, we tend to make it more complicated than in needs to be.  Peel back the layers, and keep it simple.  One simple step turns into the next and the next.  Pretty soon you will have walked a thousand miles!

As you keep making things simple, keep in mind where you want to go on YOUR exciting path.  Do this, and your thousand miles will take you where you want to go.