What do Horn Playing and Training to be a Navy SEAL have in Common?

While watching a bit of the History Channel the other day I caught a few minutes of an interesting program titled The Brain. When I tuned in, the show was in the middle of a segment on the Navy’s SEAL training program.  In brief, the Navy had found that it wasn’t necessarily the incredible physical requirements of the program which caused many of the trainees to fail, but rather the intense mental strain of one particular test.  In this test the trainees were required to remain underwater for twenty minutes, while breathing through scuba gear.  During the test instructors would at random times tie their air hoses, remove their masks, and otherwise wreak havoc on them.  The difficulty for the trainees was overcoming their panic and remaining calm enough to sort out the problem.  The high failure rate in this test prompted the Navy to consult with psychologists for ways to increase the mental toughness of their SEAL recruits, which would hopefully increase the pass rate on this test.  The four areas the Navy focused on for mental toughness training were 1) Goal Setting, 2) Mental Rehearsal, 3) Self Talk, and 4) Arousal Control.  Looking at this blog post by Bakari Akil II, Ph.D. on Psychology Today’s website, Dr. Akil provides some more specific information on how these SEALs in training applied these four tactics, and ultimately improved their passage rate significantly.

With goal setting the recruits were taught to set goals in extremely short chunks. For instance, one former Navy Seal discussed how he set goals such as making it to lunch, then dinner. With mental rehearsal they were taught to visualize themselves succeeding in their activities and going through the motions. As far as self talk is concerned, the experts in The Brain documentary made the claim that we say 300 to 1000 words to ourselves a minute. By instructing the recruits to speak positively to themselves they could learn how to “override fears” resulting from the amygdala, a primal part of the brain that helps us deal with anxiety. And finally, with arousal control the recruits were taught how to breathe to help mitigate the crippling emotions and fears that some of their tasks encouraged.

This very simple four step process increased their passing rates from 25 percent to 33 percent, which is excellent in a rigorous program as theirs. It demonstrates that achieving success doesn’t always have to be a complex process. A few minor additions and tweaks may be all that is needed.

Obviously we don’t need to spend too much time discussing how these tactics can be applied to performing artists.  We sometimes encounter these same feelings of stress and negative self-talk in our own careers. Even though the actual scenarios for musicians are vastly different from those of Navy SEALS in training, our responses to mental and emotional strain certainly feel the same.  And besides, if it works for Navy SEALs (and it does), it might just be beneficial for horn players!  If you are interested in finding out more about mental toughness training, check out the numerous books, articles, and websites out there. Chances are you will find some great tips and strategies to apply to your own discipline.

I’ll be taking the next few days off from blogging for the Thanksgiving Holiday, and I wish everyone safe travels and an enjoyable time with their families, friends, etc.

Some Notes on Performance Anxiety

Here is another brief excerpt from my upcoming Louisiana Music Educators’ Association presentation on solo performances.  This time, the topic is performance anxiety.

Dealing with Performance Anxiety
Nervousness or performance anxiety affects anyone who cares deeply about what he or she is doing, but rather than becoming a barrier to successful performances, the added adrenalin this excitement brings can add energy and focus to our playing.

Prepare to the utmost of your ability.
The most confident players are those who are the most prepared.  Make sure that you can tell yourself before a performance that you have put in the necessary time and done everything possible to work a piece of music up to a high level.  There will always be sections of music that you worry about more than others, but make it your goal to practice those sections until they become old friends.

Put things in perspective.
Remember why you perform – to share music with others!  A less than perfect performance (or rating) does not mean that you are a failure, simply that there were elements of your performance which needed improvement.  It is also helpful to remember that there are no mistakes, only pieces of information.  Every performance is an opportunity for improvement.

Take your time.
Our sense of time tends to speed up in performance situations.  What seems like an endless stretch of time is usually only a few seconds.  Before beginning to play, make sure that you are comfortable (sitting or standing), and that your music is arranged properly (open pages if necessary).  Empty your horn completely of all condensation, and make eye contact with your accompanist.

Focus on the music, not the notes.
It is important to remember that we must go beyond playing individual notes and create real phrases in our performances. Quite often we deliver our most accurate performances when we are not focused on just getting the notes, but are instead going after each phrase with a definite goal in mind. Coming up with simple one or two-word phrases to get in character for a specific solo or passage is a fun and useful way to improve accuracy and overall musicality.

Practice getting in the zone.
This tip is one of the more elusive concepts to describe, let alone teach. Professional athletes, musicians, and many other people who perform consistently at a high level have described the sensation of losing themselves in the task at hand, to the point where everything else fades into the background. Although there is no one quick and easy way to find this state of mind and body, numerous authors have written brilliantly on the subject.  See below for a brief suggested reading list.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper Perennial, 1990.

Farkas, Philip. The Art of Musicianship. Rochester, NY: Wind Music Publications, 1976.

Gallwey, W. Timothy. The Inner Game of Tennis. Random House, 1974.

Philip Farkas Stories from Milan Yancich

In previous posts, I’ve mentioned Milan Yancich‘s memoir An Orchestra Musician’s Odyssey. It is a fantastic book, full of honest, thoughtful, and at times humorous recollections from Mr. Yancich’s long career as an orchestral horn player.  There are accounts of personal conversations and interactions with many of the world’s famous conductors, soloists, and orchestral players.  Needless to say, it’s a great read for anyone interested in orchestral playing, horn performance, or teaching.  Yancich mentions Philip Farkas several times during the course of his memoir: He studied with him, performed beside him in the Chicago Symphony, and eventually partnered with him to found Wind Music Publications.  As someone who knew Philip Farkas only through his former students, publications, and recorded performances and interviews, I was especially interested in Mr. Yancich’s stories of their time together in the Chicago Symphony.  One story in particular stands out to me because of its depiction of Mr. Farkas as a real life human being, with the same worries and fears as many other horn players.

Farkas was blessed with a strong physical constitution. Despite his asthmatic condition his endurance in playing was remarkable. Sitting next to him was both a learning and at the same time a nail-biting experience, for he sometimes became quite jittery during the course of a performance. However, it was not evident in his playing. There were times when his hands shook. He commented to me once after playing an important solo, “I almost blacked out.” It was my responsibility to constantly check the count of the rest bars. Nothing was ever taken for granted, nothing left to chance. He touched the first note of a solo time and time again before the actual entrance. Some might sneer at the tactic; for him the system worked. The results were highly successful. [p.111]

Yancich later goes on to relate one instance in which this technique didn’t quite work as planned.

Farkas’s technique of touching notes was not always a fool-proof system. One of the most ominous, portentous solos facing a horn player is Carl Maria von Weber’s Oberon Overture, with its opening horn solo. It is the bane of countless players over the years throughout its many performances. The Chicago Orchestra was on a concert tour, and we happened to be in Appleton, Wisconsin for one of our concerts. Farkas must have touched the opening note of the Oberon solo a hundred times. It is second space A in the staff. When Tauno Hannikanen’s baton downbeat stroked the air, Farkas missed the note completely. It was a newly born note that defied description and duplication. At that instant the thought rushed through my brain that I could not pursue a lifetime of nervous tension over the attack of a note – there must be another way. That solo entrance has challenged some of the greatest horn players in the world. [p. 111]

In my opinion, this anecdote in no way takes away from Farkas’s legendary status as a performer and teacher; rather it makes his accomplishments that much more incredible because of his struggle with performance anxiety.  As Yancich points out, these mental and physical symptoms didn’t manifest themselves in Farkas’s playing – in spite of them, he was still able to produce. And I would imagine that experiencing and dealing with those issues made him a more effective teacher as well. Towards the end of his story Yancich also mentions that facing those kinds of pressures as a performer can make for a difficult life, and that “there must be another way.” I agree completely with this statement.  Pressures and anxiety are realities of life, especially for performers, but we can always strive to find less stressful, more efficient, and easier ways of doing and being.

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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