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 more negative?

It clearly depends on how accustomed you are to the energy experience.

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 help.

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 unplugged.

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 experience.

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.