As a horn player, I feel like my biggest set back is confidence. In ensemble playing, even in solo or soli passages, I'm usually fine. Adrenaline kicks in, but I can focus and successfully play the part. In auditions and small solo performances, however, the nerves kill me. I lose my focus and don't perform even close to my potential. I don't understand what makes me so self-conscious in that situation and lose all confidence. It has gotten better over the past year or two, but I still need some serious work.
Did you ever have a problem with nerves? How did you overcome this? Other than years of experience, what can one do to "kick the habit?"
Michael Thompson's answer:
I think you have asked what is probably the biggest question we have to deal with. It has been said that horn playing is two percent embouchure, eight percent air and ninety percent psychology. I pretty much go along with that. I have certainly experienced performance anxiety; sometimes at uncomfortable levels. I think our aim should be to live with, deal with and even use these feelings rather than trying to get rid of them entirely. When I was starting out in my playing career there was very little literature on performance anxiety in relation to music but there were some books on sport psychology. Nowadays that has completely changed and an entire industry has sprung up. I still consider "The Inner Game of Tennis" by Timothy Gallwey to be one of the most helpful books but there are plenty of more specific to music out there. In addition, there are plenty of teachers with excellent ideas who run courses dealing with this. I have seen Jeff Nelsen (to name one good friend of mine) achieve great results.
In your question you use the word "focus" and I think this is a very good and important concept. We need to focus on what we are doing when we play music. I would suggest that we are trying to communicate to our audience. What we are trying to communicate is in the music and cannot be translated into any other form. You can't experience a piece of music except by hearing it. What we are not trying to do is compete with other players or impress people. This is difficult to remember in a world of auditions and competitions but we must hold on to the truth that music is about communication and is nearly always something we do with other people; other musicians. Competition exists in the way we organize our music; we compete for positions in orchestras, from High School to the dizzy heights of professional orchestras, but this is not the fault of the music. When we compare ourselves to other players we have great possibilities. We can learn from them and try to emulate the things we most admire in their playing. I grew up trying to emulate great players like Brain, Civil, Tuckwell, Baumann and my own teacher, Ifor James. Nowadays, I find myself trying to emulate other players in addition, most of whom are younger than me. If I tried to be better than them in some measurable way, I fear I would be doomed to failure in all sorts of ways. What I can do better than anyone else is to play like me. You can do the same.
I played a concert some years ago in a small hall in Wales. After the concert, an elderly lady came backstage to talk to me. She said that she had never really heard a horn before and that she thought the horn made a lovely sound. She also said that she thought the Mozart was a wonderful piece. I felt that my mission was accomplished. That lady, or someone like her, is who I like to think I am playing for whenever I play.