David Kaslow on Fear

This post is meant to accompany an earlier one on worry, and this time we’ll look at some passages from David M. Kaslow’s book Living Dangerously with the Horn: Thoughts on Life and Art. Kaslow is Horn Professor Emeritus at the University of Denver, and also a gifted author.  His explanations of physical and metaphysical concepts are clear and down-to-earth.  I highly recommend this book for any musician or performing artist. After a foreword and introduction, Living Dangerously with the Horn is divided into five chapters: “Artistry”, “Fearlessness”, “Health”, “Relationships”, and “Perfection and Perfectionism.”  Each chapter tackles a different facet of musical performance, although certain threads run throughout the entire book. Kaslow discusses fear in much the same way Wally Johnston discusses worry (fear and worry may be semantically different, but they basically amount to the same thing), but with more specifically horn-related examples.

Whatever its basis, fear is unnecessary. Despite concrete fear’s basis in real danger, in can be eliminated by solving-through study and practice-the problem that is causing it. Imagined fear is also unnecessary, and can be eliminated by removing-through study or psychotherapy-the problem that is causing it. I do not wish to seem callous or flippant about the difficulties surrounding the discarding of fear. I acknowledge that this is one of the most difficult tasks we can face.

It is difficult to learn to play a soft, high note or a large slur; it is difficult to overcome a psychological problem such as poor self-image. But these and other difficulties can be overcome. We need not be resigned to fearfulness provided that we are willing to apply ourselves to problems and to obtain the aid of others when necessary. (pp. 45-46)

I also think fear and worry creep into our playing out of a need for control. We spend tremendous amounts of mental energy worrying about situations over which we have no influence, rather than spending that time finding solutions to problems in our own playing. A classic tale of this kind of situation is an orchestral audition.  Group warm-up rooms at auditions are often filled with dozens (or more) players, each trying to carve out a space amidst the cacophony.  Successfully blocking out all the noise and distractions is incredibly difficult, but it can be done, and results in a much more focused audition – assuming that the proper preparation has been done beforehand.  By contrast, players who let all those myriad excerpt interpretations disrupt their own focus (creating fear and worry) often set themselves up for failure before they ever enter the hall.

I’ll close with one more quote from Kaslow.  He makes the point that although we should strive to be fearless, we must acknowledge the reality of fear – in ourselves and in our students.

Although fear is unnecessary, fearless respect for a difficult task is appropriate: we cannot play well if we are lackadaisical. Indeed, every action we perform must be given the energy, focus, and high level of awareness that are its due. We must acknowledge that fear produces real feelings and real physical responses. Fear should be taken seriously, even as we work to rid ourselves of it. Fear felt by our students also should be acknowledged, even while we help them to overcome it. (p. 46)

For further reading and information on this subject, here is a small sampling of other resources.

David M. Kaslow, With Aspirations High: Discussions and Exercises for Musicians

Fearless Performance for Musicians with Jeff Nelson

University of Iowa Horn Studio: Resources on Peak Performance

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This and the previous post on worry both reminded me of an oft repeated saying of Shantideva, an early and enormously respected figure in Buddhism. Don’t know the exact language, but it’s something like – “There’s no point in worrying. If there’s something you can do to fix the situation, do it. If there’s nothing to do, worrying won’t help.” In my experience it’s easier said than done, but it can help you analyze the situation.

(Thought I’d come to the wrong place at first! But this seems easier on the eye after being here a bit.)


Good point Lyle. I know that Kaslow has been influenced by Eastern philosophy, and I catch threads of it in Wally Johnston’s writing as well.

Glad you like the new look!


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