Performance anxiety, or stage fright, affects all musicians at some point in their lives and can be devastating for us trumpet players. Trembling legs, shaking hands, shortness of breath and and a mouth like the Sahara Desert are not very helpful when you are trying to show the world what you can do with the trumpet. Months of preparation; years of expectation ruined in a heartbeat!
Before I continue, I would like you to watch the following video of yours truly some 30 years ago playing the Haydn on the telly. Not because it’s a great performance or anything special, but to understand what is going on in the trumpet mind and to fully understand how we can tackle the scourge of performance anxiety.
Ask yourself whilst watching: Does this young man have ice water in his veins or is there something deeper going on here? To put in context, Saturday night prime time television on BBC 1 and it’s live. No internet and most people only have 4 TV channels. Studio audience of around 200 and the viewing figures were approximately 11 million.
Firstly, I would like to introduce you to your friend and mine, The Trumpet Mind, the driving force behind our performance anxiety. Let’s face it, us trumpet players are not the sharpest tools in the box otherwise we would be playing the violin. Therefore, we are by nature, slaves to our emotions. We’ve all experienced it, playing a piece with a high note at the end and all we can think about during the performance is that note. The Trumpet Mind says to you, “You know that high note at the end? Well, you are really going to screw it up and look stupid in front of all these people!” Thanks Trumpet Mind, that’s really helpful, not!
Now, I would like to share with you my top 2 worst performance anxiety/stage fright experiences. They came early on in my playing journey and interestingly, it was only when the stakes were higher than playing a tune for my mum that they occurred.
Aged 17. Audition for the Guildhall School of Music, London. Interview panel was the late and great Philip Jones and Rod Franks, both former principal trumpet players of the LSO and legends in their own right. I was shaking before I walked in the room, I had a plastic lemon juice container hanging from my wrist in a vain attempt to combat dry mouth syndrome. I dropped my music whilst trying to put it on the stand because I was trembling so much. When Philip Jones reached down to pick it up for me, I shook his hand by mistake. The performance was a non-performance which took me months to get over and needless to say, I was not offered a place. BOOM! Round one goes to Trumpet Mind.
Aged 18. Shell LSO Scholarship audition. Interview panel: Jack Brymer, principal clarinet LSO. Maurice Murphy, principal trumpet LSO. Hugh Seanan, principal horn LSO. Denis Wick, principal trombone LSO. Programme: Arutunian Concerto and Hindemith Sonata.
The exposition of the Arutunian went well however, I had not rehearsed with the or any other pianist prior to the gig (Problem 1). I had ignored my teacher’s advice not to do it in the first place (problem 2). I arrogantly thought it would be ok to wing it (problem 3). As a result, I began shaking so much that my trousers started to fall down and all moisture left my mouth with no hope of return. Burned into my memory is the sight of Maurice Murphy approaching me and saying, “I think we had better leave it there, don’t you?” BOOM! Round two goes to Trumpet Mind.
Now, we can all share war stories but how does that help the still suffering player? It is good to know that you are not alone but it is better to equip yourself with some strategies to avoid this ever happening again.
Huge doses of adrenaline released in order to kill a tiger or run like hell don’t help the performing musician, so what can we do to prevent this primitive response?
- The motto of the Parachute Regiment is ‘Knowledge Conquers Fear’. Prepare, prepare and, oh yeah, prepare. You wouldn’t jump out of a plane unless you had treble checked your chute would you. Don’t put yourself in front of an audience until you have done all the necessary spade work. Nuff said on that one.
- Keep it in perspective. Let’s face it, we are not splitting the atom or performing heart surgery here. The audience are sitting there to be entertained with some music, you are there because you are good at it. Tell yourself that you have done it before therefore, you can do it again.
- Give yourself a chance. Think of this one as the escape lane on a dangerous road where you can pull over if things don’t go to plan. The high bit at the end? Prepare an alternative that is easy in case you need it. If all is well, go for the big finish. No one will know or even care as long as it is done with conviction.
- A boxer will spar many rounds prior to a big fight. Look for opportunities to put yourself under pressure as part of your preparation. It doesn’t even need to be playing as it is the same emotional and physiological response. Public speaking, presentations or better still, the warm up gig are all excellent in heading off an attack. This feeds the ‘I’ve done it before, I can do it again’ strategy.
- Meet and greet your audience as they arrive. Hmm.. weird concept huh? Not really, part of the problem is that your audience are strangers and not necessarily your mum. Get to know them first if you can.
These are my top five which I use in conjunction with each other on a regular basis. Think back to that young man playing the Haydn on the telly. It was not ice water but a well thought out, prepared and rehearsed strategy that was cursing through my veins on that gig. When your Trumpet Mind starts its BS, you are ready with an answer and response to shut it up and get on with the job in hand.
Much love to you all,