A complete chapter from
"The Balanced Embouchure"
I stood outside the door listening to Jess (not his real name) play his
first Dallas all-city band audition. Jess, a seventh grader, had seemed
very quiet prior to walking in and facing those judges, not jumpy or
nervous like the other kids. But upon concluding his piece, the door
suddenly burst open and an openly tearful Jess sped down the hall,
ducking into a nearby bathroom.
I quickly followed after him, expecting to help "control the damage" by
putting a positive spin on things, even though I wasn't sure why he was
upset because he had played reasonally well.
Although I arrived only seconds after he did, the tears were already
gone, replaced by a puzzled look. "What's the matter?" I asked. "I don't
know," he answered.
And he really didn't.
What Jess experienced can best be described as an energy overload.
We tend to call it something else, using specific emotional qualities like
fear, anxiety, and nervousness. But when looking at the bigger picture,
only one thing is present - energy.
All performances generate energy. Whether you are playing a trumpet
audition, interviewing for a job, or speaking to a roomful of people,
energy is present on many levels. So there is never a question of
whether or not a performer will experience it. The real question is, can
the performer feed off the energy, or will the energy be too "high
voltage" to use effectively? In other words, will it feel more positive or
It clearly depends on how accustomed you are to the energy
For example, there are two people sitting in the front car of a roller
coaster, about to begin the final descent. As the car plunges downward
at gravity defying speed, one person stands up, arms upraised and
yelling with glee. The other person - and we've all seen it - crouches
down in terror and cries "I want my Mommie," or other similar call for
Here are two people, both having the exact same physical experience,
but interpreting it differently. One embraces it and the other rejects it.
One says give me more voltage, the other desperately wants to get
Jess' situation was unusual because he didn't have the common
overload experience of fear or nervousness. He simply felt like he was
ready to explode with ... something! In performance, this "something"
creates the opportunity to play at a higher level, a more inspired and
deeply felt sense of well-being. Such energy can alter the
consciousness of the performer, akin to a spiritual experience. It's what
keeps veteran performers on stage, often long past their prime. They
feel more alive, hooked on the energy.
Only a relatively few get to experience energy in this positive, uplifting
way. Most everyone else dreads it and does their best to avoid it for a
lifetime, as illustrated by this story:
At a different competition, two parents were outside the performance
room, proudly listening to their kids auditions. As the next student
entered, I heard one of the parents say "They should get a 'one' for just
walking in there!" (In Texas competition, one is the highest score, five
is the lowest). The other chimed in with "Yeah, I couldn't do it." Knowing
what they meant, I turned towards them and said that performing in front
of a judge is an energy experience similar to public speaking.
Immediately, both of the parents clutched their hearts and took a half
step back, as if struck. "Oh, that's my worst fear," one said.
Most adults carry these kind of performance fears around for a
lifetime. What happens with music students is, instead of burying the
fear of energy, they get to face it regularly - in a relatively safe and
supportive environment like an audition or chair test - and grow in the
Will the performer be nervous? Of course. In fact, I guarantee it! Prior
to an audition, I used to hear students say, "I hope I don't get nervous."
In other words, they were worrying about being worried! Now I tell them
to expect to be nervous and quit wasting time thinking about it. The real
question is, how well can you play when you are nervous? In this
process of self-discovery, you get to face yourself - step by step - and
find out how powerful you really are. When you find out that you can
play, even while feeling such a strong surge of energy, then confidence
begins to grow.
Over the years I had many conversations with Jess. He could see the
growth, and he marveled at how he was changing. He felt more at ease
when giving presentations in front of a classroom and more confident
when faced with pressure situations. In his final year of high school, he
participated in the "senior trumpet tradition" of performing the national
anthem as a solo before each football game.
Standing on the field before thousands of people, Jess again got to
face the energy. But by now the experience was strictly a
front-of-the-rollercoaster thrill, a ride he thoroughly enjoyed. He played
well, repeating the performance several times that year.
Music is ultimately about performance. Overcoming the fear of public
performance is a goal worth pursuing. It takes a certain amount of
courage, but the payoff is huge. You gain enormous self confidence,
as well as the admiration and respect of your peers.