Excellence

Finding physical remedies to my stage fright symptoms was not much more than a “work-around”. By doing certain things, I was able to continue performing without degenerating to the “crash and burn” stage of the performance anxiety process. With these work-arounds, my career sprung forward and I began working with better bands and better musicians. That was good. That’s what I wanted – to move forward in my career. But with these better gigs came a higher standard. The people who hired me expected excellence. I did too, but I was still plagued with the same performance anxiety which was crippling me in the past. The only difference at that time was that I could at least get through the gig without crashing. But I needed to be able to perform at the level of excellence that I knew I was capable of or I wasn’t going to be able to keep those gigs.

Searching for Solutions

When I first began looking for solutions to this excellence problem, I reasoned that this is a trumpet problem and I should be looking for trumpet related resources. My reading and research lead me to a variety of books on the topic. I read a lot of them but I’ll only mention three here, for the sake of brevity.

The Inner Game of Tennis

The Inner Game books were the very first I read, so I don’t remember as much about them as I do the others. What I do remember is that they dealt a lot with mental imagery. This is not such a bad thing. In fact, one of the reasons this book didn’t do much for me was because I was already doing most of that.

Mental imagery isn’t necessarily a cure for stage fright and the only reason I’m listing it here is because these books are often recommended as ways to cope with stage fright.

I don’t have anything against reading the Inner Game books. They are not anti-Christain or anything like that. I just don’t think they do much for stage fright. I see this book more as an approach to learning how to play. In many ways, it’s very similar to a book I have by Madeline Bruser called The Art of Practicing. These are all excellent books.

I should also acknowledge that there are different sources of performance anxiety. If the source of your anxiety is that you don’t properly prepare the music, then of course books of this nature are going to help you deal with that anxiety.

But my experience (not only as a player who had to cope with stage fright, but also as a teacher who has worked with many students with the same problems) is that under-preparation is not typically the source of most people’s performance anxiety. That is usually the first thing anyone will tell you when you say you have performance anxiety. They will tell you to practice more and that anxiety is rooted in your inability to perform. Any of you who have experienced what I have experienced with performance anxiety KNOW it’s not true. I’ve met a great number of people, online and in actual reality, who have prepared their music perfectly but still crash and burn when they perform.

Another proof for what I’m saying is that these same people also crash and burn on the easiest of performances. Playing taps at funerals comes to mind. As professional trumpeters, most of us have been playing taps since our first year in the school band. When we have stage fright playing taps, it’s certainly NOT because we didn’t practice it enough.

Zen In The Art of Archery

After I read this book, I was astonished that ANYONE would recommend it as a trumpet related resource. It makes me wonder if the people who recommend the book ever read it.

The man who wrote Zen in the Art of Archery, Eugen Herrigel, was not seeking a better way to practice archery. He hadn’t even been an archer before he approached the “mystics”, asking them to teach him their “mysticism”. You cannot learn Zen without choosing an art.  Herrigel chose archery from a list which also included swordsmanship and flower arranging.

I find it interesting and worth noting that Zen in the Art of Archery begins with the mystics rejecting him as a student on the basis of not wanting to trivialize their mysticism. Then it ends with a warning from those same mystics not to let this information get into the hands of people who wouldn’t understand it or respect it. The people who recommend this book as a trumpet related method must have skipped that part.

Zen is a kind of Buddhism. Zen in the Art of Archery is a book about Zen, NOT a book about archery.

So no, this did not connect with me either. I’m a Christian and don’t want nor need to change religions just to be a better trumpet player.

But this is the essence of new-age thought. The new-agers will look at a book like Zen in the Art of Archery, strip it of it’s religious content (against the wishes of those who practice that religion) and add it to their watered down soup mixture of religious short cuts.

Effortless Mastery

Today, Effortless Mastery is heralded as the top book on this topic. Kenny Werner is a jazz pianist in New York and even though the book has a lot of very good practical advice, the underlying concepts go against what I believe as a Christian.

I think some would be shocked to hear me say so. I mean, in the book, Werner talks about God and love and all that stuff. That’s Christian isn’t it?

No!

In order for something to be called Christian, it must acknowledge the fact that Jesus died for our sins. When this fact is central to our belief system, then the rest of what we believe will fall into place. There are some beliefs which seem to be Christian but do not line up with this one fact.

For example, pantheists do not believe there is such a thing as sin. You cannot be a Christian if you don’t believe there is sin. Jesus hung on the cross for our sins. That is the corner stone of our faith. To deny the existence of sin is to deny His sacrifice for us.

Pantheism, I believe, is the root of the new age philosophies. It is a watering-down of all religions and stirring them into one extremely vague belief system. They deny Christ, they deny God as our heavenly father. They think of god (lower case) as something very much like “the force” in Star Wars. They deny the need for forgiveness for sins – based on their own belief that all things work as part of the whole and are therefore all “good”.

Effortless Mastery has a lot of these new-age, pantheist statements. Werner has us saying affirmations to ourselves; “I am a master. I am perfect.” When I read that, an alarm went off in my mind and I knew this wasn’t what I needed in my life. It was at this moment when I understood An Expression of Grace.

My First Expression of Grace Performance

I was reading Effortless Mastery on the road. My family had taken a trip to my home town and to the city where my parents live (they had moved about ten years after I did). The difference between this “trip home” and others was that I was going to be a featured guest soloist with my university’s jazz ensemble and another band made up of pros who I went to college with. We were performing three of my original compositions with me as the soloist. I had been gone for about fifteen years by this time and I wanted to make a good impression.

This type of performance was a recipe for disaster for me. I hardly ever got nervous in front of the types of audiences you might expect. Big audiences never bothered me. The biggest audiences I ever performed for were sports stadiums with standing room only. No, that’s not the stuff that makes me nervous. But put me in a small room with my parents and/or a few friends, and I’ll lose it completely.

It’s interesting how that works. I remember one time playing lead in a jazz ensemble concert. I also had about three improvised solos. The hall was full and I was enjoying myself. I was playing pretty well. Between the last two tunes, the director turned to the audience to acknowledge Randy Brecker in the audience. YIKES!!!!!! My heart jumped and I did what I could  to not look into the audience to see Brecker looking back at me. I was nervous.

And if you think that famous people make me nervous, that’s not it either. I’ve played for lots and lots of famous people who never make me nervous. I’ve played for presidents, celebrities and other famous musicians. Pete Fountain didn’t make me nervous. George Bush didn’t make me nervous. Shelly Long didn’t make me nervous. These are all people (and many others) who have been in my audiences in the past and none of them made me nervous. But Randy Brecker did. You’ll learn more about why he made me nervous as you read more of this story.

But no, it’s not the size of the crowd that gets me, it’s the people in it. This college reunion thing had more of the right people (or wrong people, depending on how you look at it) than any performance I had ever done. Not only was my stern and serious teacher there (read page one of this story), who always made me nervous by himself in the past, but so were many of my family members and close friends who I hadn’t seen in so long.

It was on that very day that I had read the chapter in Effortless Mastery which tells us to repeat the affirmation, “I am perfect, I am a master”. It was at that moment, only hours before the performance, when I understood what God wants for me and from me as a musician, in the context of my performance anxiety.

Epiphany

Am I a master? Am I perfect?

No! I am a Christian and I believe that my weaknesses are what give God the opportunity to use His strength through me. I am not a master but am ruled by the Lord of Lords and King of Kings. Christ Jesus is my master. To say that I am the master of my own life is to deny Christ in my life.

What, then, does this mean in the context of my performances? Am I cursed to perform beneath my capabilities for the rest of my life? Is excellence something that is beyond my reach?

Well, yes, the bottom line is that, as a Christian, I do believe that the kind of excellence I was searching for is and always will be beyond MY capabilities. I have learned, after so many hard years of practicing for so many hours each day, that I could never build or fashion my playing in a way that would ever come close to what I had hoped to accomplish. It cannot be about what I can do. It must be about what the Holy Spirit can do through me.

I mentioned Andrew Murray in the introduction. I said that all of the practice we do is good, but only in that it leads us to Christ (Gal. 3.24). That is exactly what happened with me. At the end of twenty five years of practicing, I finally realized that I couldn’t possibly accomplish what I had set out to do. It was this practice time that lead me to understand how much I need Christ in THIS part of my life. Without that practice time and the disappointments which followed, I may have never understood my “imperfection” the way I do now.

No, I’m not perfect and I praise God that Christ is my master!

The Formula

That afternoon, God gave me a message in the shape of a formula that clearly outlines Christ’s leadership in my musical life. This formula is the Expression of Grace formula and I often say it in my head as sort of a scientific prayer…everything I now believe about my performances boiled down to its most simple essence:

  1. I am not perfect

  2. I live each day by God’s grace

  3. Music should be an expression of who I am

  4. Therefore, my music should express God’s grace in my life

Concert Preparation – Facing Imperfection

This college reunion performance was only a few hours after I had finished reading Effortless Mastery, only a few hours after God had shown me how my music can be an Expression of His Grace in my life. In the time between reading the book and my first note on stage, I was challenged with certain setbacks, all of which would have started a downward trend towards another crash and burn scenario in the past. It would have been, perhaps, one of the worst crash and burns of my life. What kept that from happening was the new message God had given me.

The first thing that went wrong was that I had accidently left my suit in the garment bag. We had been traveling all week and I just hadn’t thought to take it out. It was wrinkled and there was little time to do anything about it. To make matters a little worse, I had also forgotten to pack colored socks. All I had were white tube socks, which I would never wear with a suit.

This was my first time ever thinking about my music as being an expression of grace and I thought about that as I prepared for the performance that day. I was always taught how important the dress was. Most performances, including this one, are formal occasions. It was in extremely poor taste to show up in a wrinkled suit and white socks. And yet, it was also the perfect setting for my first Expression of Grace performance.

The Performance

I arrived at the university, early as I almost always do, and had time to hang out with some old friends before the show began. Then the band played a few numbers without me and I waited back stage with a friend till it was our turn to play. Finally on stage, as if to emphasize His grace one last time, I completely missed the first note of the performance!

The time that passed between that first note and the next seemed like hours to me. It was a moment when everything became clear and it seemed like I had time to soak it all in.  First I laughed and said, “OK, God, I get it.” I smiled. In reality, this all happened in a fraction of a second.

I was at peace when I played the next note, but I normally wouldn’t have been. Without God’s grace in my life, this missed note would have been totally unacceptable. Typically, I would have had great trouble performing after that, but this performance was different from all the rest. In that fraction of a second, I saw the world through lighter eyes as  God lifted that burden from my shoulders. Then I acknowledged God’s presence in my life with a “Thank you Lord”, took a step forward (as if stepping into the music) and finished the concert.

The rest of the performance went extremely well. There were no more missed notes. My improvised solos were very relaxed and creative (some of the best improvising I had done up to that day of my life). The music was exciting when it needed to be and expressively simple when that was more appropriate. It was definitely the first of many performances at that “level” of playing. The excellence I had desired so much was a gift of grace from my Heavenly Father.

Surrender

Mat. 11:27-29
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

It’s ironic, isn’t it? As Christians, it is important for us to surrender our needs, worries and concerns to God and let Him carry those burdens for us. That’s part of what An Expression of Grace is all about. We are surrendering our own desire to be “the best” and letting God’s strength work through us instead. It’s not until we release our own desires and concerns that we finally reach the goals we had struggled so long to achieve (as long as those goals and desires are in alignment with His will for us).

When we first learn this truth, we have fear that releasing our desires and surrendering to Him will mean that we will never amount to anything. The world is always trying to tell us that if we don’t put ourselves at the center of everything, then we won’t get anything for ourselves. It’s like a pack of dogs fighting over food.

It’s a “dog eat dog” world, right?

Not at all! Not for Christians.

God knows our wants and our needs. His desire is to give us His best. And I have to tell you something – He’s a LOT better at giving us those things than we are at getting them for ourselves. But when we act out of selfishness, the way the world wants us to, we turn our backs on Him and make it impossible for Him to bless us.

In the context of music, this doesn’t mean we don’t need to practice. We have a responsibility to God to nurture the gifts he has given us. But what it comes down to is “who are we serving when we do the work?” Are we driven by “self” or are we driven by the Holy Spirit when we practice?

We will discuss this more on other “pages” of this story. For now, I just felt it was important to acknowledge the surrender of self which had to happen before I could experience what happened at this concert.

Summary
Acknowledgement From a Friend

The difference “An Expression of Grace” made in me on that first night was not only musical. A good friend of mine approached me after the concert and said, “you seem different tonight.” He went on to explain that, in the past (when I lived there fifteen years earlier), I always seemed unhappy about something. But on that night, I was different. I didn’t look so tormented and bitter.

I know the torment he was referring to. It wasn’t what most of them probably thought back then. I wasn’t unhappy. I was unsatisfied. My desire to be a better musician consumed me and that anxiety spilled over into my every day life sometimes.

I have always been a happy person since the day I was saved. Jesus has been with me all along. But it’s interesting how we tend to keep God out of certain areas of our lives. I was keeping God out of the “stage fright” area of my life.

That all changed with An Expression of Grace. When I let God’s grace into my music and began expressing it in every performance, that dissatisfaction went away and people began to notice.

Not the End of the Story

I wish I could say this is the end of the story. I wish I could have stopped here and written, “And they lived happily ever after.” But no, there’s more. After I discuss “An Expression of Grace” in more detail on the next four pages, we will continue with the story.


Questions for you to consider:

1) Do you strive for excellence in your music? In your life? Does it continually evade you? 

2) Have you ever turned to non-Christian, new-age books for answers to your performance problems?

3) Did you know that God wants to be involved in every aspect of your life? Nothing is too small for Him. 


To read the next page of this story, please click here. >>

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Dealing with performance anxiety as a Christian musician.