Dealing with Daily Anxiety

(Originally posted 2/4/2017)

Due to its impact on daily life, Musical Career Anxiety can have a larger-reaching effect on a performer than performance anxiety. It can produce enough stress to mentally paralyze any musician, subsequently inducing a panic attack. The type of stress each musician encounters is different depending on which career path they have chosen. There are five categories that every musician fits into: Professional Ensemble, Soloist, Freelancer, Teacher, or Student. Each of these have many subcategories that clearly define each musician, and most individuals fit into several of these categories. Below is a short list of some of the situations in each field that may cause stress:

Professional Ensemble Musicians in orchestras, military bands, jazz bands, or professional quintets experience pressure to perform daily at an extremely high level, and to prepare for each rehearsal and concert - in addition to keeping their playing in excellent condition apart from the ensemble music. The changing repertoire alone can be enough to cause anxiety. Every week comes with a new show, and sometimes there are multiple, different, shows in a week with limited rehearsal time. 
    Soloists are constantly programming and preparing for performances and often are expected to play the most difficult literature for the instrument with ease. Even with help from a manager, they also must market themselves and find venues and audiences in order to keep their job stable. The logistics of traveling while on tour are often difficult and time-consuming. Then, recording CD's poses an entirely different set of problems and stress. 
    Freelancers are responsible for being the most versatile performers. This career requires a great variety of practice, listening, and competency on every instrument they may be required to play. The need to always being on top of their game is insatiable. Furthermore, marketing and networking takes up a significant amount of time and energy.
    Teachers have the most demanding job of all the fields because of the amount of responsibility that they hold to themselves and their students. In addition to recruiting and maintaining a studio, the teacher should be an equally adept performer in their field. Teaching requires practice (yes, practice) to streamline ideas, concepts, and the delivery thereof. While practicing teaching, there is a responsibility to do no harm while enabling the student to succeeded at their chosen field. Also, the teacher must ensure to place aside their ego in order to revel in the students' success.
    Students are often pulled in many directions resulting in time-management and efficiently problems. In addition to attending classes and ensembles, they must prepare for lessons, work on music for their own interest, complete academic assignments, and find personal time. There is always the question; "what if I cannot find a job?", resulting in high levels of anxiety.

                 The paragraphs below give suggestions to handling the daily anxiety for performance-based careers:

Prepare for concerts in advance. Advanced preparation can significantly reduce the amount of stress on a weekly basis. Most organizations provide a list of repertoire three months to a year in advance. When this list becomes available, write down every piece that will require practice and begin working through each piece slowly, softly and with great precision and ease. This is the time to play the long game - meaning that you have several months to perfect the music and will not have to cram (added stress) in the last week or two. Make each phrase sound easy, beautiful, and stylistically accurate, even if it is far under tempo and not yet at the appropriate dynamic level. Rotate pieces each day so that there is variety in the practice session and remember to break them into small sections for detailed work. Once satisfied with the result of the practice, put the piece away until the week before the concert. Then, pick it up again and slowly and carefully attend to any residual problems. This method will reduce stress during the week of the performance since the performer will have confidence that the piece(s) have been learned to the best of his/her ability.

 Become a better sight reader. There are weeks when the adequate time for preparation is not available, or new music is placed in the folder unannounced. This can quickly become a high stress situation which will likely lead to a sub-par performance experience. However, when looking through the music for a concert, you will quickly realize that you do not have to practice every note on the page. Bracket the sections that need a quick look on the trumpet and commit to sight reading the rest at the rehearsal/performance. If you are confident in your sight reading abilities, then this should pose no problem and will reduce the stress encountered during the preparation period (or lack of it). If you are not confident in your sight reading abilities (enough so to sight read a concert to near perfection), then I suggest spending a month or three sight reading and sight transposing daily. 

Take care of technical issues diligently. Technical problems cause confidence issues, which turn into stress while performing. The solution; address technical problems on a daily basis by implementing diligent, intelligent practice. Make a highly specific  list of the top five areas that need improvement and work through them each day. Slow, easy, unforced practice is the best solution for these problems. Once again, play the long game and Realize that you cannot fix everything in one day - the goal is to improve each day, not to be perfect. So many times, performers become entangled with perfection and become disappointed, angry, or stressed when they find it unobtainable. If there is improvement after each practice session, then that should be considered success. This can be 1% of improvement, or 100% - it does not matter because it is still better than its former state. Take the time to deconstruct every technical hurdle and rebuild it correctly. This manner of practice will ensure that the problem will be much less likely to return. 

Ask for help from colleagues or former teachers. While it may be uncomfortable, asking for help from trusted sources (not trumpet herald!!) may help manage stress. Often, the problems professionals face are not unique to them and there may be a simple solution available that will save weeks or months of discontent. A former teacher will likely know how you think and how to approach your problems efficiently, and colleagues will know your current playing tendencies and will offer advice if asked directly. Take their advice and tailor it for your playing needs, because even though they know you well, only you can discover what truly works. 

                                          The next post will cover teaching and student - related stress.

                                The paragraphs below give suggestions for dealing with stress in general:

One Day at a Time. Often, musicians look far into the future in the hopes of staying ahead of their preparation. While this is a necessary part of life, musicians elevate this planning to an unhealthy level and self-impose unnecessary stress. Spending too much time looking forward will cause the accumulation of every obligation to be placed at the front of the mind all at once. Instead, future planning should be limited to a small part of every week. Spend less than thirty minutes a week looking forward and planning a half-year schedule of events. Then, prioritize which events need immediate attention and which can wait. The goal for each day becomes one centered around progress, no matter how large or small. By taking one day at a time, you will be able to organize your time wisely to ensure that you are working toward future goals. Furthermore, during the day take one event at a time. Multi-tasking can lead to stress and become an unwelcome distraction. If necessary, set time limits for your activities (practice, eating, relaxing, other work, etc.) and focus only on one thing at a time. This is a good exercise in shutting out stress by refocusing the mind on the immediate, not the future. 

Time Alone is essential to reducing daily stress, but is often the first to be overlooked. Be sure to schedule in adequate quiet time every day. It does not matter whether you read a book, meditate, pray, or just sit and think - the point is to turn off distractions and spend time that is completely yours. Like anything in life, this is highly individualized and needs to be in balance with the rest of your obligations. Too much alone time may result in a poor work ethic, and too little time may lead to a mental breakdown - which will force a break from work. Each person will discover the appropriate amount of time they need for themselves, but remember that time alone becomes exceedingly important the busier you become, and will help you to be happier and less stressed. 

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle contributes greatly to stress reduction. Exercising on a daily or semi-daily basis will help clear the mind while adding variety to your schedule. I find that when I go more than a week without any exercise, I become irritable - but then my wife tells me to go run or cycle and I start to feel better after I finish. You do not have to spend an egregious amount of time exercising, but consider incorporating it into your daily routine. It can also serve as a stress-relief tool and time to process events. Also, be sure to drink plenty of water daily and avoid over-consuming sodas and highly sugary drinks - these may taste great, but they do not help your body and may cause dehydration.

Ensure that you keep a good sleep schedule. Everyone needs a different amount of sleep to function properly. However, regardless of how much sleep you require, it should be set high on your priority list. I recommend waking up close to the same time each day and going to bed at a set time each evening. These times will naturally fluctuate depending on your work schedule, but by setting a routine your body will feel more relaxed and you will be able to better handle the stress of each day. 

Philip Hembree