Hornmasters on Performance Anxiety, Part IV: Kaslow


David Kaslow has as arguably the central chapter of Living Dangerously with the Horn a chapter on “Fearlessness.” His discussion is substantial and should be read in the original context by advanced students of the horn, but a few topics should be briefly highlighted here, as he introduces several essential topics that were not addressed in the older horn texts that have been the focus of the Hornmasters series.

The first topic is “Fear.”

Some hornists fearlessly jump into the dangers and difficulties that the horn has in store. Others persevere despite fears. While I do not completely understand motivation–my name is Kaslow not Maslow*–I nevertheless believe it useful to ponder “fearlessness,’ which is a stance held by the most successful horn players.

[Kaslow offers this footnote, which I found useful: “*Abraham H. Maslow (1908-1970), American psychologist and philosopher best known for his self-actualization theory of psychology.”]

He notes that it is easy for teachers to pass on their fears to students.

Many fears are common types, and may be acquired early in life, in adolescence, and in adulthood. They often are intentionally or unintentionally conveyed by parents, teachers, and other authority figures. A horn player’s scenario of a common early-acquired fear might be an authority figure (perhaps a teacher) communicating his or her fear of a passage, and the horn player’s subsequent fear of the passage—even before attempting to play it. Fear-provoking situations are, of course, individually defined.

This is absolutely correct and something we have to be very careful not to do as teachers, and it is a trap to be aware of as students. Kaslow describes three kinds of acquired fear and keys to conquering them.

The first is an acquired fear of a concrete difficulty. An example is the fear—learned either through experience or through others—of playing a large, exposed slur, or of making a soft, high entrance. As a short hand I will call this “concrete fear.”

The second kind is an acquired response to an imagined danger or difficulty…. Such fear often arises from responses that were useful at one time but are now outdated, such as the fear of parental abandonment. This kind of fear is often more devastating than concrete fear. I will name this “imagined fear.”

Imagined fear and concrete fear may be present together in a single circumstance, producing a third kind of fear. For example, in playing the “long call” from Wagner’s Siegfried we may fear both its concrete difficulties and the possibility of failure. I will call these combined fears simply “fear.”…

Whatever its basis, fear is unnecessary. Despite concrete fear’s basis in real danger, it 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.

The next large topic for Kaslow is that of “Courage”

A composite dictionary definition of “courage” would surely include the ideas of acting in spite of fear, and of using courage to overpower fear. On the surface, courage seems to be a positive trait; it is, however, a waste of energy. Because fear is also unnecessary, so, too, is courage. At best, courage is only temporarily useful as we work toward fearlessness.

He notes that “courage and fearlessness are different traits” and gives this example.

Players using “courage” (in itself undesirable) to enable them to perform the Siegfried “long call,” for instance, follow cumbersome paths, paved with the misused or inappropriate behaviors, including the achievement of “courage” through will power. While will power is a positive trait, it is misused when employed to overcome fears which it would be more advantageous to eliminate altogether.

In this discussion Kaslow addresses the important topic of beta-blockers and alcohol.

Another, and controversial, effort to gain courage is through the use of drugs such as anti-depressants, relaxants, beta-blockers, and alcohol. Many players have strong opinions about the propriety of taking drugs, and although it is open to question, most of us agree that some of them (for instance, propranolol, a commonly used beta-blocker which temporarily suppresses feelings of fear) can be, in a limited sense, effective. I believe that decisions about whether to resort to taking drugs ought to be individual, but that they must be reached within contexts of self- and other-awarenesses: awareness of our bodies and minds, and of the drugs’ possible side effects, including their possible abilities to produce physical or psychological addictions. When drugs are deemed appropriate, they should be used with caution, under medical supervision, for as short a period as possible, and they must not be considered substitutes for attempts to solve underlying problems. In the end, we should remember that the courage produced by these drugs is itself of limited value.

His final, central topic is “Fearlessness.”

Fearlessness is composed of a high degree of awareness, an understanding of “control,” and the belief in the benevolence of both ourselves and of the universe, of which we are a part. These three attributes take us beyond mere courage and increasingly into the area of fearlessness.

One general point he makes about fearlessness is that

A small number of people seem to have been born fearless. Most people who become fearless do so in stages. The first stage is fearfulness, the second courageousness, and the final stage is fearlessness. Fearlessness is not the same as ignorance. Fearlessness is a mature stance gained by study, thought, and applied spiritual underpinnings. Ignorance is an elementary state retained due to unawareness, thoughtlessness, and a paucity of spirituality.

From there this discussion goes much deeper, with subsections titled “Control,” “Paths Toward Fearlessness,” and “Taking Orchestral Auditions.” The full publication may be purchased from the publisher Birdalone Books.  Kaslow concludes the chapter by noting,

Bringing newly-achieved fearlessness to an audition, we have already realized considerable inner success, whether or not the results are those for which we had hoped. When we bring long-standing fearlessness, we often also enjoy outer success: we “get the job.”

With that thought we end this look at the topic of performance anxiety and, for now, the entire Hornmasters series. In a few months actually there will be a tail end of two more articles, be watching for that as well. And thank you for following along in this substantial series! If you read all of these articles, explore the original publications, and apply a bit of critical thought you will not only improve substantially as a player but also likely know more than your teachers.

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