Hornmasters on Performance Anxiety, Part I: Farkas

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The final major topic touched upon in The Art of French Horn Playing is performance anxiety. Farkas kicks it off by noting

When a student has gained enough proficiency to play moderately difficult works, he is often shocked to find that performing these works in public is such a disconcerting experience that the performances go very badly. A few experiences of this sort and the new concert performer has a full-fledged case of stage-fright….

The question “How can I control nervousness while performing in public?” is such a common one that I would like to enumerate a few of the physical and mental processes which I (and others) have found useful in controlling this fear. First comes technical proficiency. Nothing will create more confidence than to know that “My lip is in fine condition—I know the composition thoroughly—and I can play it at home perfectly almost a hundred times over.” To practice so that you can honestly say this to yourself is most confidence-inspiring. Second, play in public as often as possible. Most stage-fright comes from the novelty of facing an audience too infrequently…. Third, remind yourself that your work comes under the heading of entertainment. You are not about to perform an operation in which someone’s life will be at stake! You are simply going to make some music and make it as beautifully as possible. Like the baseball player, you must try for a high batting average; but you must not be dismayed if you occasionally bat less than a thousand….

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Take several deep breaths…. Consciously relax the shoulder muscles….

Finally, remind yourself that your desire, ability, and hard work have all combined to put you on that particular stage at that particular moment. Whatever destiny is guiding you is certainly not going to let you down at such a moment—IF YOU KNOW IT AND BELIEVE IT.

Expanding on that thought, the final major topic addressed by Farkas in The Art of Musicianship is also that of stagefright. In particular he presents not only expanded advice on stagefright, similar in content to that just quoted, but also he presents a glimpse of his personal motivating philosophy.I have long thought this quotation to be a fascinating one, and have had a brief article on this quote online since 2005. People who achieve big things are motivated and driven by many different things, often including elements of a desire for fame, riches, love, and respect. Farkas relates about how as a young professional hornist he had often wondered why he was there, but gradually he had a change of thinking.

Formerly, I had assumed that all the events leading up to my engagement by the Chicago Symphony were completely haphazard–a bit of luck here, a chance encounter there, until I eventually ended up in the Chicago Symphony, as unpredictably as a seashell washes up on a beach. But, with my change in thinking came the realization that perhaps all these apparently haphazard events weren’t haphazard at all. Perhaps, back in high school, when I had had that fight with the gym teacher, and the supervisor had suggested that I could fill my physical education requirement by switching to the marching band, it was not just an aimless suggestion. Was it mere chance that the street-car conductor, after telling me I could no longer bring my beloved tuba on board the street-car because it blocked traffic, pointed to a French horn being carried by another bandsman that I would be allowed to bring “one of them” aboard? … The more I pondered these questions the more convinced I became that it wasn’t all just haphazard–that I wasn’t just a seashell washed up willy-nilly on the Chicago Symphony’s “shore.” So it wasn’t just a series of unrelated, random events which eventually put me on that stage. It was a series of incredibly interwoven and predestined events which put me there. … I was there because I had been led there by an amazing chain of events, not just mere coincidence, and, because I had been led there, certainly I could do the work assigned to me, and failure was not a part of that plan.

Farkas goes well beyond the topic of “stagefright” in this passage and into his motivations for all of what he did. It is a most interesting finale to all his publications. The section itself goes on a bit further, presenting a motivational quote based on a Psalm and making clear his faith in a Supreme Being. My 2005 article has a bit more on this for those interested in further insight into the man Philip Farkas and what made him tick as a player and teacher.

Of course there are a wide variety of tactics out there in relation to dealing with performance anxiety. Be watching for more on the topic next week.

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