Discomfortable: A 30 Day Challenge

Discomfortable: A 30 Day Challenge

30 days to a better performance. A challenge you'll want to accept. 

Susan de Weger
Melbourne, Australia

Discomfortable: A 30 Day Challenge

30 days to a better performance. A challenge you'll want to accept. 

Editor's Note: We challenge you to play for someone, or document your practice/composition preparation in some way for 30 days. If you would like to get involved, show us pictures of you performing for your family and friends! Post them on our Facebook page or hashtag #myrehearsalroom on social media. We'll be doing it too - and we can't wait to see what you do with this challenge! 

30 People - 30 Consecutive Days - 30 Different Locations

Last year I embarked on a 30-day solo performing challenge to see what impact this fast track approach could have on my crippling performance anxiety. Performing for 30 people, on 30 consecutive days, in 30 different locations. This is the first time I have publicly shared this project, and I do so in the hope that this journey might inspire you to think creatively about strategies to make a different in your life if you are facing similar challenges. 

Performance anxiety has been a constant companion in my musical life. As a student, for years I avoided the discomfort and chose not to perform on my own, unaware that the cost of avoiding failure was that the thoughts of "I'm not a good enough player" easily spiraled into "I'm not a good musician", then onto "I'm not a good person". Attributing uncomfortable experiences to personal deficiencies comes at a high price. So, after completing my degree, I walked away from music. Broken and lost, musically, for 16 years. 

Having found my way back to music a few years ago, I was ready to see how this older and wiser version of my musician self could address the challenge. I approached this in the same way that we prepare large scale, challenging compositions; breaking it down into smaller, achievable sections. I chose to take a small step towards a big goal, every day, for 30 days.

I was keen to learn about the neuroscience of conscious self-monitoring to find out about how I could better manage those negative thoughts. This TED talk featuring Dr Charles Limb is a great introduction to how understanding your brain can improve your performance state of mind: 

"I think for art and for high-level flow states, the ability to suppress your own brain may be one of the real hallmarks for what makes somebody great, I think kind of the ability to get out of their own way - not just musically but neurologically" - Dr Charles Limb

I was also prepared to fail. I was failing at performing anyway, so what difference would it make if I fell flat on my face in front of someone, every day, for 30 days. 

Here is my unabridged journey, transcribed from handwritten notes every day: 

Day 1 - 16/04/14 Performed for Nicholas: Not nervous but hesitant. Good focus but needed great engagement. Second run much better. Need to work on making the second run the first run.

Day 2 - 17/04/14 Performed for Anne: Not nervous, just excited. Good focus, a little wandering. Great statements, musicianship really good. Anne says I gave her my fear, that I looked fearful as if I did not want to put the Horn to may face. I need to give joy and love, to share this!

Day 3 - 18/04/14 Performed for Sue: Tired, not nervous but very low energy. Energy focus on giving, not on fear. Some good playing, technique suffered from general fatigue. 

Day 4 - 19/04/14 Performed for Bruce: Felt very small. Small sound, small musical gestures. Not much performing happening, just playing I can work on this for tomorrow. Big sound, big gestures = big result. Mild physical discomfort which I noted but didn't affect the exercise. Playing in a range of acoustics is really valuable. Play a few more notes and hear it in the room before starting. No more playing today, just listening and singing. 

Day 5 - 20/04/14 Performed for Brandon: Watch facial expressions. Stay focused. Don't show the thinking on my face. Record and watch this. Staying centered should help as there is no space for self critique. Same for the assessment; keep it post performance, not during. Not nervous, no physical discomfort. Very tired, sloppy playing and not the sound required due to fatigue of mind and body. Practice centering every time, and drill the routine every time. 

Day 6 - 21/04/14 Performed for Elijah: No fear or hesitation coming across initially. Self critique happening through the pieces. This is a big challenge to break and replace with better thoughts under pressure. Bigger gestures needed so that in performance they are enough. Phrase marks helped, possibly the visual of the phrasing gives the mind a good focal point. Practice more extremes. Louder/Softer/Faster.

Day 7 - 22/04/14 Performed for Anthony: Bigger gestures but they could be bigger. Small sound, combination of fatigue and room acoustics. Felt very comfortable. Continue to work on the the biggest sound first then everything will build from there. Comfort level = high. Performance = not undermined by nerves. Practice needs to be bigger. 

Day 8 - 23/04/14 Performed for Kara: No physical discomfort. Excited about the challenge of BIG gestures. Worked on playing BIGGER and smoother in the practice room. Much bigger and better sound with a convincing delivery. ENJOYED some phrases! Little amount of critique through the piece, not really negative assessment but moments where focus was not on being bigger but where things had not gone as planned. Continue to be bigger, continue to play with trust and belief (not hope) and continue to make a statement. 

Rest Day - 24/04/14: Well earned! 

Day 9 - 25/04/14 Performed for Roman and Ryan: No physical discomfort. Excited to practice the great feeling of control and to make a musical statement. Very minimal negative judgement of thought and facial expressions. Need to work on passage so as to play with trust and not hope. Be even bigger in the practice room. There only needs to be trust. I understand how to prepare. 

Day 10 - 26/04/14 Performed for Dave: Great warm up at home. Couldn't quite get to this level of comfort and control. A little nervous, but great focus and presence. No judgement, no learning, just playing. Work on bigger gestures - more time in the practice room. And not just playing to the acoustics of the room. Play to the back row of the hall. Think only of this - not technique or judgments. 

Day 11 - 27/04/14 Performed for Phoebe: Well THAT happened. Performance did not go according to plan. Couldn't get beyond the fact that the sound was not what I wanted. Lots of stops and starts even with trying to stay centered. I chose to interrupt rather than continue. Perhaps my intent to impress Phoebe rather than practice my performance was a higher value. Allowing my attention to be on the judgement of others completely derailed the performance. Be mindful of this and make more conscious choices. Attention and intention, especially if circumstances are challenging. I cannot avoid failure, but i can work to improve consistency. Better at failing means better at performing fearlessly. I am proud to have taken this, in the moment and now, with an interested detachment. No judgment of critique. Just a curiosity of what to learn from this. Failure to try is failure to learn. This level of thinking and trust is a victory beyond anything I could have played through the Horn. 

Day 12 - 28/04/14 Performed for Rob: Good chat beforehand. Lips feeling sore and not the sound I want but felt ready to play with heart and mind. Played with good focus and intent, no judgment, kept looking forward and thinking forward. Felt very comfortable, happy to be performing. Work on attention to the in breath, this drives all else.

Day 13 - 29/04/14 Performed for Don and the Horn Class: Played without warming up after a long chat. Focus was coming and going but felt committed to the music and spirit of performance. Played only to the small room, need to work on this. Playing to the best of my ability is playing to the back of the hall. Feedback was not to close my eyes, it pulls everything inside. Work to keep my eyes open especially when things are not going as planned. 

Day 14 - 30/04/14 Performed for Saul: Take the concept of the insolent old school Russian teacher, it should be so easy, do I really need to demonstrate it to you! Experiment with levels of laziness, let everything drop forward - no pushing emotionally or physically. Try an extreme relaxation of attitude, of the need to control. Try a lack of sensitivity, of emotion, of physicality. How far can I take this relaxation? 

Day 15 0 01/05.14 Performed for Jess and Grad Class: Not nervous, good focus, some expansive playing. Enjoyed filling the room with great sound. Thoughts of "this is too easy!". Physically very comfortable, enjoyed filling the hall, not the ideal musically but confidence with great dynamic contrast. Very focused on the moment, concentration in a good place. I enjoyed this!! 

Day 16 - 02/05/14 Performed for Megan: Felt comfortable, good musicality coming from this place of enjoyment. 

Day 17 - 03/05/14 Performed for Kevin: Felt physically great. Easy to stay in good focus. No inner judgment, no facial contortion, but also no performance. Need to work on not just the Horn, maybe caring about the Horn a little less and a bit more about the showbiz. 

Day 18 - 04/05/14 Performed for Katrina: A great performance! Felt a little nervous but retained only what was important in the present. To care a little less and relax into the sound and the music. Played beyond the room (cats computers, boyfriend) with confidence, calm and belief. A great strong softness of mind and body! 

Day 19 - 05/05/14 Performed for Stuart: Great Mozart! Felt excited, relaxed and happy. Thoughts were to stay loose physically - shoulders, torso and embouchure. Great musicality and sound. Clear mind and great clear focus before starting. Happy Happy Happy Days!!

Day 20 - 06/05/14 Performed for Monica and Anthony: Felt a bit bored. Delivery was ok, satisfied with sound but not excited or enthused to perform. Sleep related? Not nervous, just detached from the audience and not in the mind space to perform. So a respectable effort but not much of a performance. Physically weary. Need to work on thinking excitedly before the performance about making a statement. Music is the first principle and most important, NOT the circumstances or situation. 

Day 21 - 07/05/14 Performed for Anton: Wow. Eyes open!! Take the personality from the performance and leave only the music, a beautiful statement. This is the way ahead. To be of the music and transcend the self. So easy, so peaceful, so powerful. 

Day 22 - 08/05/14 Performed for Sarah: Great sound, great phrasing and mood. A little nervous but the physical distraction (not discomfort) could be harnessed to use the hormonal balance to good effect. No eye closing or shutting out or shutting down. Detached observation when not going to plan, but no pull through of thoughts to future notes. 

Day 23 - 09/05/14 Performed for Ella: Oh boy, not great today, mild hangover and tired. What a negative effect that combo. Has derailed the whole day, mind and body suffering. A big lesson in self-management and consequence. Struggled with the discrepancy between what's in my head, what I now expect to come out of my Horn, and the sound I could hear myself making. I chose to let this rule my thoughts and action. Ella said if I hadn't stopped she wouldn't have known, so my facial expressions and body language are faculties well under my control!! I can choose great self care, of mind and body. I can choose to continue performing when the quality gap is there because nobody but me knows.

Day 24 - 10/05/14 Performed for Jackson Family: Felt excited, looked forward with great expectation to performing for friends in an intimate environment. Great control over sound, dynamics, felt quite easy. Very nice lyrical playing with a great sound. A fun performance experience. 

Rest Day - 11/05/14

Day 25 - 12/05/14 Performed for Sydney and Brass Class: Eyes wide open - transcend self. So powerful, so easy. 

Day 26 - 13/05/14 Performed for Isaac
Day 27 - 14/05/14 Performed for Russell
Day 28 - 15/05/14 Performed for Julia
Day 29 - 16/05/14 Performed for Sharron

The Take home:

On Day 10 I realised that my concept of fear and failing had shifted when I got back in the car, having not played well, and felt nothing. At that point I understood that practice doesn't make you perfect, but helps you stop thinking that you have to be. Through repeated opportunity to practice being discomfortable, I understood that I can perform with thoughts and feelings of fear and self doubt. I can acknowledge in the moment of performance that I’m experiencing those emotions and continue with the greater purpose of sharing the gift of music.

 Here’s a wonderful quote from Elizabeth Gilbert’s Ted talk about fear and creativity.

“You have to recognize that fear and creativity are conjoined twins. And what I see people doing in their lives is they're so afraid of their fear that they end up trying to kill it. And when they kill it, they also kill their creativity because creativity is going into the uncertain, and the uncertain is always scary. And so what I've had to figure out how to do over the years is to create a sort of mental construct in which I make a lot of space to coexist with fear, to just say to it, hey, fear, listen, creativity and I - your conjoined twin sister - are about to go on a road trip. I understand you'll be joining us because you always do, but you don't get to decide anything about this journey that we're going on. But you can come. And I know that you'll be in the backseat in panic but we're going - mommy's driving. And we're going anyway. And you just take it along with you. And that seems to work for me.”

TED Radio Hour Where Does Creativity Come From

 Go: Make something happen.

Grab a pen and sheet of paper and brainstorm how you can take small steps to tackle a big problem. Journal your ideas and draft a detailed and achievable plan to create these new habits. It’s important to journal daily through your project and that these notes include clear directives for what to improve in the next step of your journey. If you find it difficult to stay motivated, share your plan with a friend and make yourself accountable to them every day.

Further Learning

Fearless Performance TEDx

The Source of Creativity TED Radio Hour

The Hidden Cost of Avoiding Failure Bulletproof Musician

Notable Values Identity development and career outcomes for musicians