A Performance Enhancing Instrument

Just before I’m on stage, I am often a little anxious. I find energy in that anxiety. It carries me to the “high” that enables me perform well. When I begin, some part of my body may shake or need to fiddle, but I hide it well and no one notices. I play for the crowd, and to them. They see me, poised and professional. They hear me, strong and clear. When I am done, the audience acknowledges me. If my part is a highlight of a longer piece, I meld back in and contribute as a member of the group as a whole.

This description fits my former life as a hornist, as well as my professional life. The lessons I learned from playing my French horn have served me well throughout my work life from playing my part as a member of a committee, to giving a solo presentation or conducting a workshop.

When I was in sixth grade, I played “Greensleeves” on my horn at a PTA meeting. I vaguely remember being on stage, feeling both proud and nervous about being in front of so many parents. I remember being expressive in my playing, which meant that I was confident that the right notes were going to come out–no mean feat for a youngster on the horn. I listened to my performance several times in the years following, until my Dad recorded over the tape by mistake. Oops. Too bad: I sounded remarkably good if I do say so myself.

That first horn performance stands in stark contrast to my one and only piano recital. I sat on a hard chair waiting my turn as other kids hopped up and played through their pieces. They were at ease. I felt uncomfortable and ill equipped. I walked to the piano, wishing all of the eyes would focus anywhere other than on me. I sped through the first part of the piece I’d memorized, and couldn’t make the transition to the next section. Completely embarrassed, I started over. I didn’t make it through. I was that awkward one who had to leave the piano in shame while claps of sympathy escorted me back to my seat.

For some reason, playing the horn was different. Although my parents might disagree, I liked to practice. At least I liked to practice horn more than piano! I didn’t like my piano teacher, I wasn’t a natural pianist, and I barely practiced. My teacher was particularly annoyed when I told her I hadn’t been practicing piano because I’d been practicing my horn. That was the end of piano lessons.

Practice. It’s certainly one key to performance, whether for a presentation, a play, or a concert. While I never practiced my horn as much as the kids who became professional musicians, I’ve practiced it more than anything else thus far in my life. That practice has been a transferable skill. I didn’t just practice. I learned how to practice. Before I give any worrisome presentation, I run through it in my head, or aloud. If I get stuck on an important concept, I try to describe it over and over until it makes sense to the ear I’m using to hear what my audience will hear. If it’s particularly important that I do well, or I am speaking to a large audience, I practice in front of other people, not only to hear their constructive criticism, but also to “play” with and for them. Where do their eyes glaze over? Which of my side comments, intended to amuse and engage, work for them?

Newspaper clipping "Seniors are Soloists for Youth Symphony"
Senior soloists announcement

The most nervous I have ever been in front of a group of people was when I played my senior solo with the Lincoln Youth Symphony. There were just four soloists, each waiting our turn to go on. When I went out, my hands were shaking. My mouth was dry. I sat down and my knees were shaking too. The orchestra was going to play one measure of the Allegro movement of Strauss’s Horn Concerto No. 1 in E flat major, and then I would come in, all by myself, utterly exposed. Mrs. Moore nodded at me and raised her baton. I wasn’t going to be able to play with a shaking left arm and right knee. I let my left leg continue moving, licked my chops, took a couple of deep breaths, and played. I turned the nervous energy into wind that blew through my horn as sound. I soaked up the triumph of having done well, and the audience applause. Afterwards, people told me that they didn’t think I’d been nervous at all.

That concert brought me a powerful discovery. I had the strength not only to quell my anxiety for a short passage soaring over the orchestra from the back of the stage, but also to take control of myself when center stage, without others “reading” my fear. On the way out after my oral comprehensive for my Master’s degree, the 3 faculty on my committee remarked on my poise, saying that some students had barely been able to speak during their exams. I took my super ball out of my pocket and bounced it on the floor. During the entire hour, I’d fiddled with it in my hands, keeping my body under control, without them noticing.

Internal high energy. That is another key to doing well in high pressure, public situations. I suspect this is true for most people. I’ve learned I tend to get my energy from redirecting a little stress, whether real or manufactured. I’m at ease in most meetings, even when speaking my mind or being the center of attention. For a Big Meeting, however, if I am too calm beforehand, I sometimes have to produce a touch of anxiety, in order to become the Kim who is ON, ready to be the performer.

Before I gave the first of the four half hour orientations to 100 first year students, I was naturally somewhat worried: would what I had to say fit into 20 minutes so there was plenty of time for them to banter with me about their questions? From amidst my notes, what did I need to emphasize, since they would walk away with only 2 or 3 points at most? That session went well. That afternoon I felt a little blasé about the second session. However, brand new undergraduates, already overloaded with information, were not going to be interested in a dull “old” woman, so I had to get a hyped up. I paced up and down a few hallways, telling my colleagues how many people were going to be there, and what the challenges were. That gave me the energy I needed. During that half hour, and the two the next day, I had the students responding to “if you have a question, where do you go,” by chanting “Help Desk, Help Desk, Help Desk.”

In junior high and high school, my horn grew my self-confidence. When I play, even now ever so often, with my limp embouchure, I sing through my horn. As dorky as it sounds, I become one with my horn. I move emotion through my body and out my bell. My horn enabled me to “put myself out there,” to wear my heart on my sleeve, in a way that I couldn’t without it conjoined to my lips, hands, and knee.

My high school varsity letter, for music.

Over time, I gained the self-assurance to show myself with or without my protective appendage. I hadn’t been a shrinking violet, or friendless, but I’m naturally an introvert. I think it was my horn that gradually turned me into the leader I am now. My crowning achievement at Lincoln High School wasn’t my grades, having been selected for the McDonald’s All-American High School Band, or even my senior solo. My proudest moment was being elected Band President. Beyond the music and my horn, I loved hanging around in the band room, going to every basketball game to play in the pep band, and skipping classes right before concerts so that I could play with whichever group I wasn’t enrolled in. As “BP,” I took roll every morning along with the drum majors. I knew the names of almost every of our 100 members. My confidence grew from: as an individual I can master the horn, to people see me as a leader and that’s what I can be.

With my beloved nickel-plated Constellation Conn 8D on my knee, I practiced how to practice. I learned that I was capable of channeling nervous energy into tooting. I found inner self-confidence, camaraderie, and that I could be a leader.

My horn. Me.

CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 A Performance Enhancing Instrument by Kim Brookes is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at Permission to Use.