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

About Worrying

The topic of worry affects everyone, especially college students as they begin to make important and often first decisions about their lives and careers. For music majors (and every other college student, I imagine) beginnings of semesters are very charged times in terms of worrying because of the stress associated with beginning new courses, planning recitals and concerts, and organizing daily practice schedules, among many other things. As the semester continues, those worries transition into more worries about performing those recitals and concerts, and of course the usual end of semester juries and exams. Although I have heard some teachers and performers say that worry can be a positive element if it motivates you or your students to study or practice, I tend to think that rationale only creates a negative atmosphere. This type of negative stimulus can ultimately undermine the positive effects of hard work, creating the dreaded “head games” that students and professionals alike experience from time to time.  To help combat this cycle of worry, I recommend reading Take Charge: A Guide to Feeling Good, by W.W. (Wally) Johnston, Ed. D.  This little book is full of excellent, logical advice which can help your horn playing and lots of other things!  The following quotes are from the chapter “On Worry,” and I think students, teachers, and professionals can find ways to apply this positive philosophy.

Some people act as if worrying about something keeps it from happening. The opposite is more likely. The self-fulfilling prophecy and the placebo effect are evidence that what we expect, believe (faith?), and visualize tend to come true. The experts in tennis, golf, and the olympic athletes know all about visualization.

Sometimes we see worry as our civic duty or a parental responsibility. “Of course I worry about a nuclear holocaust, I’m a conscientious citizen.”  One mother told me, “Of course I worry about my daughter, I love her very much!” That seems to me like fear is masquerading as caring and love. It’s better to visualize what you want to move toward than to visualize what you fear and try to escape from it. Worrying is a powerful, self-defeating process. Besides, it doesn’t feel good.

So, while worrying about that audition or performance might motivate you to practice in the short term, in the long run it probably isn’t the healthiest approach.  Worrying is one of those activities which can occupy an incredible amount of our time, but in the end leave us with absolutely nothing to show for it.  The goal, then, is to stay positive, and visualize positive outcomes.  Be as prepared as possible, and let go of things which are out of your control, like other people, unforeseen situations, etc.  I’ll close with a few more choice quotations on worry from Take Charge.

Worry is a form of fear, and all forms of fear produce fatigue. A man who has learned not to feel fear will find the fatigue of daily life enormously diminished. [Bertrand Russell]

Worry affects the circulation, the heart, the glands, the whole nervous system, and profoundly affects the health.                [Charles Mayo, MD.]

Fear is an acid which is pumped into one’s atmosphere. It causes mental, moral and spiritual asphyxiation, and sometimes death; death to energy and growth. [Horace Fletcher]

Worrying is a fear-filled creative process which includes thinking about, talking about and visualizing loss, defeat, failure, trauma and chaos. It is a dangerous activity because it sets up scripts, programs and expectations which may be the beginning of a self-fulfilling prophecy. A bummer. [Wally Johnston]

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