- Nick Drozdoff
How I Healed MY Stage Fright
This week's blog is a difficult one for me to write. I had not considered doing this, but I mentioned this in a post of some of my music elsewhere and I got a request from a friend to tell this story. I am uncomfortable about sharing challenges for personal reasons, but if I can help someone in some way, then I can be grateful for the risk involved.
When I first quit my job as an electrical engineer and went into music full time I was struggling to establish myself as a virtuoso soloist. My heroes were Rafael Mendez, Timofey Dokschitser, Maurice Andre, and little later, Al Vizzutti and Wynton Marsailis. Of course, there are many more I could name at this point, but these were my target models. I had a mentor and teacher in the late Neal Dunlap. He had great faith in me and put a lot of effort into helping me try to "brand myself" (an expression not used in the late 70's and early 80's). I had a lot of technique and developed some good chops, too, but alas, the whole project was doomed from the outset. I was suffering from a challenge that can be ruinous in this line of work. I was suffering from near paralyzing stage fright.
Now I begin to broach the uncomfortable part of this post: outlining what my experience was like then. I could play in big bands. If I was playing in a section or even playing lead trumpet, I was just fine. There was no hint of the problem. Where it showed up was whenever I had to play a solo - jazz or classical. It didn't matter. If I was exposed in any way, I was terrified. My hands would shake. My jaw would quiver uncontrollably sometimes. I couldn't eat before performances. I would often feel like I was in another alternate dimension. It was awful. The problem became worse if I had a loved one in the crowd - a family member. That was unbearable.
Of course the condition is called stage fright for a reason. It is based in a borderline irrational fear. What was I afraid of? Missing notes. Making mistakes. I was afraid of embarrassing myself or worse yet, my wife or my mom or my teacher. Of course I missed notes. That is what fear does to you. This was Job's lament: "For the thing which I greatly feared is come upon me, and that which I was afraid of is come unto me." Making matters worse is the fact that if you react to one missed note, you'll miss more.
When I did solo recitals in an effort to develop a soloists career, I was overwhelmed with this. I rarely delivered a performance that was worthy of the title "virtuoso". I could record things in the safety of my basement or a recording studio, but a concert career was not going to happen.
I ended up opting into developing as a commercial studio musician. If you read some of the rest of my blogs and my bio, you'll know that I managed to end up on Maynard Ferguson's band and then actually begin a workable career as a free lance trumpeter. However, I had NOT healed the situation by a long shot. I was simply managing it and often hiding it. At the Rolling Meadows High School concert in March of 1981, Maynard invited me to trade solos with him. Not only was I exposed from the section (I played the second book to Stan Mark) my wife of only 7 months was sitting in the front row (the boss did this as a treat for her!)! I was terrified. I got through it and had to endure a considerable amount of hatred, though I played OK (I do have a ragged bootleg recording - I did not embarrass anyone).
The few recording sessions I was doing were unnerving because I didn't want to cause retakes. If you do this too often, the producers quit calling you back. On jobbing dates, it wasn't quite as bad. We were usually playing weddings or bar/bat mitzvahs so the musicians were not the center of attention. Trade shows challenged me. These were sometimes called industrials. If a big name act, like the Temptations or Gladys Knight and the Pips hired a local contractor and the contractor hired me, I couldn't be missing notes on those shows and gigs. So, the challenges of stage fright, though partially buried, were still there.
Factor into this that other trumpeters were just waiting for a chance to get in, and this meant someone else's downfall, at least by the reckoning of musicians back then. This meant that I lived my life as a professional musician in a near perpetual state of fear. The only time this element wasn't there was during practice.
So this is what I was dealing with, in a nutshell. I had NO CHOICE, but to heal the situation. Before I outline how I changed my thinking I need to add a piece of Chicago music history as it impacted on me (see my other blogs for more specific details).
In the early to mid 90's the music business underwent an irreversible shift. For a variety of reasons the jingle scene died along with the industrials. Theaters orchestras were cut down due to tech. While I wasn't a theater musician, the issue was that the market was now flooded with musicians scrambling for the work that was left, which was jobbing. The problem there was that DJ's were impacting things greatly. It was a though time.
The upshot for me was that, when my son was born in 1990, I decided to get a day gig (we call this a side hustle these days). Again, you can read more about this in my other blogs, but this did have a positive effect on my playing. I was no longer attaching the fear of feeding my family to my music. This took a lot of pressure off the stage fright issue. That was step number one in the healing.
I still had a long way to go. In spite of having a great day gig that I participated in for 25 years, I was still working to do solos and clinics. That darn stage fright was still lingering and still wreaking havoc on my classical playing in particular and to a lesser extent to my jazz improvisation. So, now I'll outline the things I did to change my thinking about my music. What healing was and is for me in this situation: a correction of my thinking.
I did some research and reading and I will list a few things I did to get my head in the game of fixing this. First there were some books I read: "Zen and the Art of Archery;" "The Inner Game of Tennis;" "Effortless Mastery (by pianist Kenny Werner)." These books got me to thinking about ways to calm my thought when I played. The meditation was a start, and this might be all you need to heal your situation. If that is the case, stop here and dig into this literature.
Personally I did not end up persisting with all the techniques these books outlined, though hey were a start.
Next, is the Alexander Technique. I did communicate with some Alexander teachers and considered going to them. Again, this might very well be the thing YOU might want to try. Many people have addressed their stage fright using this system. As before, as I finished my research, for personal reasons, I wasn't on board with the Alexander technique.
What I ended up dong was hybridizing some of the ideas in the books mentioned with some religious thinking I was brought up with. This is the only time I will even mention religion or prayer. As a former public school teacher, I respect the fact that not everyone will see things the same way. I do know that my way of thinking can be explained independently. So here is how I now think about things.
I am a perfectionist. I practice hard long hours and love doing so. Whenever I pick a concert gig up as a sideman in a big band, I try to find out what the setlist is so that I can study the music before I get there. Of course I am a decent reader. I just like to strive to do my best. However, the first thing I developed in my approach was an utter indifference to missed notes. If I miss a note I just don't care anymore. In fact, I'll laugh it off. It doesn't matter if it is jazz or classical. I'm not going to let a missed note bother me. It took a conscious effort on my part to do this, but once I got comfortable with it, that was a huge part of the healing process.
I do NOT mean to imply that I suddenly didn't care about doing well or striving for virtuosity. I simply don't react to missed notes any more. It is just that simple. I was so happily surprised when I figured this out. Part of the trick is not worrying about how some people my react to your missed notes. My own mom used to visibly wince when I missed a note in front of her. She was loving and supportive, but that was a weakness for her. It used to cut me to pieces until I realized that I could just blow the missed note off and her reactions didn't touch me in any way.
The new-found lack of fear of missed notes brought an unplanned side benefit. If I didn't care about missing A note I was far less likely to miss any more.
I'll never forget the first time I was really able to apply this. I performed the Haydn Trumpet concerto with a school orchestra at one of the high schools at which I taught physics. Previous to step one this would have been a musical minefield of misery: family, friends, peers and students all sitting there, staring at me. The new feeling I had cultivated eliminated the fear. I was able to apply it directly, too. On the third movement in two sequential packages of 16th notes, I mentally transposed the notes and played 8 notes of gibberish (I was playing an Eb trumpet instead of a Bb, hence the goof up). My only reaction was to chuckle out loud, though quietly. The rest of the performance was flawless.
There was a time when that little flub would have brought the whole thing down in flames. My wife said that, save for the little goof, it was beautiful and the crowd loved it.
The obvious practical fix to that little flub is more time with the horn and that solo, but that is easy.
Step two is easily summarized into one word, and this is a big one. LOVE.
I needed to start consciously start seeing my audiences with love and recognize that they are fundamentally loving people who are there to enjoy the sharing of music (an act of love on my part). They are not antagonists lurking in wait for every missed note to seize in them in some sort of "aha" "gotcha" moment. Doing this really helped me eliminate most of the fear.
In short, I trained myself to cherish my audiences rather than dread them. They were doing me a lot of good - supporting my existence as a musician. So what if, in this human condition, a small handful of folks focus on flaws rather than the spirit and beauty of the whole product. Their hatred couldn't touch me unless I LET IT IN. All I had to do was to stop letting it in.
Another aspect of this was loving myself and my music. I love playing trumpet. I love the sound it makes, the way it feels in my hands, the sense that I am breathing life into an otherwise inanimate object. I love sharing all of this with those who would listen. This piece was the final aspect of my healing stage fright in myself.
There is a phrase I was brought up with that means a lot to me: "Clad in the panoply of Love, human hatred cannot reach you..." This, is in essence, the underpinning of step two in my healing process.
I can honestly say that I have no problem with stage fright anymore. Most of my audiences, these days, are bar and night club crowds with occasional church audiences and park concert audiences. I no longer see anything to be afraid of when I step out in front of them. I now relish and am grateful for the opportunity. I doubt I'll ever have the chance to perform in front of tens of thousands of people or on a nationally broadcast TV show, but I am 100% certain that, if I did, I could do it joyfully and without fear.
FDR famously used a paraphrased remark: "There is nothing to fear but fear itself." He was paraphrasing H.D. Thoreau who wrote, "Nothing is so much to be feared as fear," from an 1851 journal entry (FDR read Thoreau regularly). The history of these words brings out their importance. If we can eliminate the fear of being afraid, we can handle any situation. This is powerful stuff.
My career as a virtuoso trumpet soloist never materialized. I am 100% certain I could have done it had I been awakened sooner. That's OK. My current personal plan for "trumpeting self actualization" includes "performing" most of the works I was seeking to make a living with back then, but doing little recordings and videos from my home studio and on the little performance sites I frequent. So, in a sense, I will see it materialize, but not necessarily for much of an audience. My father (Paul V. Drozdoff, a concert pianist and teacher) once said to my mom (she shared it this with me as he passed away when I was five) that if he played a concert and only one person showed up he'd still give them his all. So, I'm grateful for even one or two views on my videos. If only a couple of people are uplifted by what I have shared, then I have lived up to my purpose.
He too struggled with stage fright and never came to grips with it. He opted into less than healthy means to deal with it. Had he hit on the ideas I shared above, I am certain he would have been with me long enough for me to remember him.
In the 90's I decided to become a jazz improvisationalist. This is a lifelong pursuit - a study without end. This is what makes it so much fun. There is an element of risk into doing this, though. When you are improvising a solo you are essentially creating a melody line from scratch on the spot IN FRONT OF EVERYONE. If you subscribe the the negative notion about an audience, this is daunting. Yeah, there will be some who will denigrate you if a solo goes sideways - you miss some changes or get your chops in the wrong position for an idea that pops into your head, etc. Playing jazz can exacerbate the issues of stage fright.
However, the ideas I shared above work even better for jazz than they do for classical. The solo you are improvising has never been heard before, so any negative types in the audience have little to compare it to. You are starting with a clean slate. Fold that in with the love based vision of who they rally are, and fear of improv simply melts away.
In summary, the main points of the healing process of stage fright for me are thus: stop worrying about missed notes and surround myself and my music with love. As per the details outlined above, this is what WORKED FOR ME. You might feel the need for a more physical or psychological approach as opposed to my more philosophical (and somewhat religious) approach. If that is the case, dig into the three books mentioned earlier.
I sincerely hope this piece can offer some ideas to help anyone else who might be struggling with this. You most certainly can beat it. It might just that fact alone is all you need!
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