Dealing with Fear in Music

In this episode of the CGC Podcast I deal with the topic of dealing with fear in music. Fear is something we all experience and it can impact your experience on classical guitar

I want to share with you a point in time that impacted me and transformed the way I think about what I do. I was an usher at Angel Place in Sydney, a wonderful concert venue. On the way home one night, I was catching a train and my friend John was with me and I was concerned that I had said something that someone didn’t like or something of the sort and he said, “Look Simon, not everyone in the world is going to like you and you’re not going to like everyone . . . and that’s okay.” What I found so striking about the comment was the ending, that it’s okay, that it’s okay that some people will not like what you do and that you will not like what other people do. It’s a rather obvious comment when you think about it but it’s also liberating. 

Several years later — maybe 10 years later — I went to the Sydney Opera House and I bumped into John again. I thanked him for his earlier comment and told him how helpful it was and, almost without missing a beat, he said, “Great, well I have something else for you — 10% are going to love what you do, another 10% are going to hate what you do, and the rest just don’t care.” 

The 10% Who Hate What You Do

So let’s break this down a bit. I’ve met some people over the years who are self-confessed trolls on the Internet. And I was really intrigued to ask them, “Why?” And I always thought that an Internet troll was a fantastical being that lives under a bridge, a little creature that’s mean-spirited. But actually the term trolling is about trolling for fish, where you put bait in the water and the boat’s moving and you drag the line through the water to catch fish. These people were initially looking for a reaction, to get you to engage with them — and they found it to be good sport.

Internet Trolls

I also talked with others who have multiple accounts on Forums so they can further trigger conversations. I myself had a pretty intense troll on the Internet and they created different names to create conversations. Even now I have someone within minutes of uploading a YouTube video will almost instantly give a thumbs down. Likewise there are several one-star reviews of this podcast on iTunes. And while I hope that I didn’t deserve those one-star reviews, maybe it’s just not for them. But for some people trolling is just good fun. 

Just having a bad day?

Another thing to keep in mind is that people come from all kinds of different perspectives and we can sometimes assume that people come from a sound worldview and perhaps think just like us, but words mean different things to different people and it’s impossible to know where some comments are coming from. There are also differences in how people express themselves and what might seem rude or aggressive to us might be something they don’t consider the same.

I also remember once someone said they said they wanted to punch me in the face and I found out later it was just a kid in their teens — we can often assume malice but maybe they’re just having fun. So knowing this can help us understand the kind of hate we might encounter in response to us, especially online. And for me a helpful approach is recognizing that what we do or say might just not be for some people. We take this approach at Classical Guitar Corner when sometimes people express how much they don’t like what we do and we have learned to say, “Great, we’re not a good fit, it’s not for you, perfect — it wasn’t built for you and that’s why you don’t like it.”

The 80% Who Just Don’t Care

Nobody cares about what you’re doing more than you do. The exceptions to this kind of rule might be family — spouses, children, parents, etc. — but, with that caveat aside, nobody cares about what’s going on in your world more than you do. Especially when it comes to performing on the stage or making a video, it’s important to recognize that the fear of making a fool of yourself is a fear you harbor more than anyone else. Likewise, if someone doesn’t give you a round of applause or an approving comment on your video, it’s not really about you — there’s so much else going on in other people’s lives that we can’t comprehend and sometimes people just don’t care. 

And this is comforting — it’s comforting to know if you get up on stage and have a really big memory slip or everything just falls to pieces you are probably the only one who will be awake at night thinking about mistakes you made. Most people are concerned with things going on in their lives, not with the mistakes you made in your performance. 

The 10% Who Love What You Do 

The last portion of the pie is those people who should be taking up most of your attention, the 10% who love what you do. These are the people that you’re serving. They are the people who listened to you work on something for two years and cheered you on when you finally performed it on stage. Perhaps they urged you to submit your exam at CGC Academy and want to celebrate with you when you get your certificate. Or maybe theyhave been emailing back and forth and you finally get the chance to meet at Summer School and they applaud for you when they hear you play. They just want to support you.

Learn to accept compliments

Now this doesn’t mean you should be like the TV talent show performers who are oblivious to their level of ability. What I’m talking about is learning to accept compliments, thinking and knowing that those in the audience are there to support you, and even if you crash and burn it’s a success because you gave it a go. This affirmative approach is very powerful and, although I’m as skeptical as they come, I really do believe in affirmation and the ability to steer our mind. 

Because, in the end, that is really what we’re up against when it comes to fear and inhibition. And what a shame to not have your creativity, your curiosity, your art out in the world, no matter where you are on that journey. That’s the real tragedy. And if you’re not doing that because you’re afraid of what other people might think or you’re inhibited because of what you think — that you’re not good enough, or what have you — make a decision to put your creativity, your art as a priority and just do it. You really do have to just jump into the deep end and go for it. And focus on that 10% of those who love what you do, who celebrate in your failure and your victories and everything in between, which is a wonderful place to be.

Is it actually that bad? 

Really, when you think about it, is playing classical guitar — maybe in front of a few people, maybe on a video — is it really that daunting? Or is it that our mind, with that ancient amygdala sitting atop our spine, is telling us that somehow there are bears and lions in the area and that we have to run away and flee, when in fact you have a classical guitar in your hand and you’ve been practicing for a year or two and you care about the music. Maybe it’s more about that in the end. 

Maybe there’s only one person out there who will get something from this article and the other 99 or however many are reading this will say, “That’s hogwash” or “Get off your soapbox, Simon” — and that’s okay. It’s for the 10% that it helps; that’s who it’s for. And for everyone else, it wasn’t a great fit and that’s okay. At the very least, know that we’re all in the same boat.