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."
"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.
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.
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:
- Fixed thinking
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.
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.