Manage Your Nerves
by Lisa Chisholm
Welcome to my Book!
For more than 20 years, I have earned my living by wiggling my fingers and blowing into an expensive wooden stick with lots of metal keys and a complicated reed.
As a professional musician having trained at some of the finest institutions and competed on the world’s stage in the form of orchestral auditions in Canada, the USA, Europe, and the UK, you might assume that I know how to be calm under pressure.
I am pretty good at handling pressure now—but I wasn’t always. In fact, it took me a decade or so of really thinking about it and studying it to figure it out. Could be that I’m slower than average… could also be that I am perfectly normal! Did you know, actually, that 98% of professional orchestral musicians get nervous? (tk Beder ref)
At the peak of my audition career, I was routinely making it to the final or semi-final rounds of auditions with some fine and fancy orchestras (New York Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra) and sometimes playing weeks-long trials for plum positions (Royal Opera Covent Garden, Royal Philharmonic, Houston Symphony, Toronto Symphony). On the other hand, I was routinely not getting the job that I wanted and worked so hard for. Heck, I was sometimes not even making it past the first competitive round, ending up instead in the trash heap of demoralized players dismissed after a first hearing. Your six minutes are up. The list of those orchestras is way too long to print.
Why was I sometimes sailing and other times flailing? I was prepared on my craft—and had 18,500 hours of diligence behind me to prove it!
Turns out, what I was not prepared on was my peak performance mindset. In fact, I hadn’t even realized that there was such thing as a peak performance mindset. I just thought that either you were good at what you do, or bad at what you do; and if you were good at what you do, you’d succeed, and if you were failing, it meant you weren’t that good after all. Even though I knew deep inside that I was good at what I did, I always seemed to be bad at it when it mattered—and that translated to a lot of conflicting and negative circular thought patterns. What a head-spin this was.
Do you know this feeling? You know that you’re good, yet you fail repeatedly, so therefore you feel that maybe you’re no good after all, yet deep down you know that you are good… and so the doubt and puzzlement cycles on.
It seems pretty basic in hindsight, and now that I am a coach to professionals in the performing arts and in business, I see this all the time in other people, too. Most people who I encounter are subject matter experts in their field, but have little or no training on the physical and mental elements of what it takes to deliver their excellence in a high-stakes situation, so they often under-deliver in those really key moments. In this same way, I was an expert with my musical preparation, but had absolutely no training on how to prepare my mind and body to deliver myself consistently.
I truly knew nothing about how to deal with the physical and mental manifestations of feeling pressure in high-stakes moments. The only thing that all musicians seemed to know about or agree upon was, “eat bananas”. (More on bananas later.) tk I did, however, know that professional athletes had extensive mental skills training to help them towards peak performance, so I went I search of some of that, to see whether it could help me.
I went back to school when nobody was looking. Between gigs, I took 2 years of full-time formal study focused on psychology, counselling, and a bit of physiology. I took such delight in everything I learned—every subject I studied seemed to have relevance to my experiences as a performer. I quickly realized that there was a curriculum to be created that I wished that I had had when I had been a student, and that I thought the whole world should have for their own self-betterment.
The psychology of learning and memory helped me to understand how I could learn and prepare my music more efficiently. The social psychology material helped me to understand how self-confidence and self-esteem could be rattled in high-stakes situations, how group dynamics can affect our confidence in the moment, and how we can sabotage ourselves with our thoughts and behaviour while we think we are pursuing excellence. It also helped me to understand that group decision-making is fraught with social cognitive biases, and these oft-fraught teams of decision-makers were the ones usually making decisions that would affect my life and career trajectory. The sport psychology material helped me to understand the pursuit of consistency and excellence in performance, focus and flow, motivation, competition, co-operation, and the all-important learning to control the controllables (my craft, my mental and physical preparedness) and to accept the uncontrollables (competitors, decision-makers, planets being in retrograde on competition day).
Studying physiology helped me to understand the bizarre functions and malfunctions of our bodies, and helped me to create a set of strategies to mitigate the physical effects of Fight/Flight/Freeze.
Finally, the counselling training helped me to tie all of this marvellous empirical learning together into something really useable and shareable. I gained a better understanding of how to manage negative self-chatter, how to foster intrinsic motivation, how to get to the root of the sources of negative self-judgment, and how to build a preparation and performance plan for myself that allowed me to get out of my own way and put my best foot forward.
In the end, I created a program that helps people to prepare for high-stakes performances and interactions. Amazingly, it worked. I learned how to get the upper hand over myself in my auditions (although it certainly took some trial and error), and ultimately, I won the audition that I most wanted to win—a position in the orchestra of the Canadian Opera Company. Today, I blow into my wooden stick and wiggle my fingers in the opera pit while famous singers scream high drama in fancy wigs and cakey makeup right above my head. Occasionally, stray flower petals, fake dollar bills, and imitation snow find their way from the stage down into the pit, landing on my music stand at curtain time. It’s quite a nice life.
I did not initially set out to create a curriculum on the mindset of optimal performance, or to expand into a coaching career. My first motivation was purely to improve my own performance by getting to the academic root of the sport and performance psychology material without someone else’s lens filtering (and clouding!) it for me. I wanted to get past the consumer-grade literature—and all those maddening Venn diagrams—and understand the psychological mechanisms of peak performance and under-performance. I wanted to understand what the Olympic winners understood. I wanted to figure out what tools and methods would work for me, exactly when and where I needed them. I wanted to improve my own consistency in performances and win the orchestral job of my dreams.
Now I want to share with you some of what I have learned along the way. What follows in this book is an introduction to and overview of mental and physical preparation and performance skills, and an exploration into understanding and managing the physical manifestations of freakage-outage.
Join me for the adventure over the next tk 285 pages, and let’s explore:
Before you read on and embark upon this adventure with me, I want to be clear with you about what my background is, and isn’t.
My hodge-podge of education and experience doesn’t make me Dr. Anyone. Although I have formally studied psychology and counselling, I am not a licensed psychologist or counsellor; I am a performing artist and a coach to performing artists and career professionals. I offer you my experiences, learnings, observations, and approaches to understanding and tackling the physiology and psychology of sub-optimal performance. In plain-speak, that means that I am just an orchestral bassoonist who was tired of underperforming and learned a few things along the way, and now I offer you what I have learned about how and why our minds and bodies fail us when we’re nervous. I’m telling you where I failed, what I learned, and what helped me to succeed—but I am not telling you to do what I did. You, decide for yourself. Race your own race, be your own self, and follow what feels right to you. Even if that’s bananas. (More on bananas later.)
Of course if at any point you feel like your anxieties are greater than this book can help you with, please do consult with a qualified counsellor. If any point you think I have no idea what I am talking about, just stop reading and give the book away to one of those free roadside libraries. And if at any point you think I’m brilliant, hooray! (My Dad thinks I am brilliant.)
Meanwhile, may my own failures inspire your successes. Now, read on, so you can get out there and get out of your own way.