Fear and Uncertainty: the What-Ifs

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fearFear. Uncertainty. What would happen if you stopped “what-if-ing” and just did it?

Fear and uncertainty are the dream-killers for most people. Most of us have a “safety switch” somewhere that keeps us from going too far. The trick is in recognizing when your switch is triggered unnecessarily.

Our inborn reactions to danger are both necessary and appropriate. We naturally shy away from fire, flinch at lightning and thunder and avoid precarious heights. But we learn over time which circumstances are truly threatening to us and which instinctive reactions we can safely ignore.

Music offers its share of fear-inducing situations, and not just those having to do with performing.

It might be fear of playing wrong notes or playing too fast. It might be fear of trying a new piece or technique, or even just the uncertainty of our ability to do what we want to do, to play the way we want to play.

In order to prevent fear and uncertainty from blocking our path forward, we must do three things:

  • Recognize the fear and uncertainty.
  • Examine the consequences of submitting to the fear.
  • List the benefits of overcoming the fear.
  • Create a new habit.

Recognizing Fear and Uncertainty

Often, our fear is disguised as good intentions and habits. We hide our fear behind appropriate concerns. “I don’t want to speed this up before it’s ready.” “I don’t think I’m ready to try that piece yet.”  “It pays to develop the correct fingering habits solidly when you first learn a piece.”

All of these statements are true and correct, but they may also be convenient reasons to hold back, to not push yourself, to not allow yourself to experiment in ways that will help you grow. Making music isn’t brain surgery. Mistakes aren’t fatal; they are part of the learning process.

Consequences vs. Benefits

Now is the time to do some serious “what-if-ing,” but not just the “what if I mess it up” kind. Instead of only thinking about what might happen if you obeyed your instinct and listened to that fearful voice in your head, consider what might happen if you acted in spite of your fear. What might you discover or what skill might you begin to develop? Here’s an example:

Often I have challenged my students with this silly sounding maxim: If you don’t play fast, you will never play fast. When one of my students is trying to inch up a tempo notch by notch, I encourage her to take the plunge and try it at tempo a time or two instead. This technique helps her develop the physical and mental coordination that will be necessary to play the piece at tempo. Playing the piece at tempo as part of your practice won’t destroy the careful work you’ve done so far; it will help you move to the desired tempo more quickly.

Do the benefits outweigh any negative consequences? That’s the question for you to consider. Ask your teacher if you aren’t sure.

Create a New Habit

If you decide that you are ready to ignore those butterflies in your stomach and forge ahead, then you will need to create a new habit to support you through that process.

  • Using the tempo example above, your new habit might be to play the piece once through at tempo at the beginning and end of each practice session, no matter how many mistakes you make.
  • If you have been afraid to try to memorize your music, try memorizing one line of one piece each day.
  • If you are a reluctant sight-reader, buy a book of simple pieces and sight-read from that book one day each week.
  • If you want to begin performing in public and are anxious about it, schedule several low stakes preview concerts, choosing music you play confidently for “audiences” of two or three close friends.

Remember too that fear itself is a habit. The more you resist it, the weaker it will become. And the stronger and more confident you will be.

  • Jane

    Thanks for this inspiring post. I want to play faster and have been using the metronome notch method. My teacher doesnt encourage my wanting to play fast. I am going to try throwing caution to the wind and just play fast. Your words also apply to other endeavors such as trying a new art form. I need to overcome the fear of failure and just plunge in.


    • Anne Post author

      Take that plunge, Jane!


      • Lee Stewart

        Thanks for this message. I have had a rough year and since March have lost most of my daily habits; everything from flossing to drinking water, exercising, reading, knitting and playing the harp. I have stopped doing even the things I love. Today is my day to get back in the saddle – or on the harp bench – And I am afraid. So what do i do to get over my fear? Reading this helps. I will listen to the Q and A tonight. I have set daily goals now I have to have the courage to do them.


    • Margaret

      Well said Jane , I agree with you and need to break down the barriers and just do it.


      • winniferd

        Play because you can – Play because it is a privilege – a joy – and a blessing to even the birds that sing. Let the birds and God hear your hands sing. Love the fact that you can play. Our hearts hear yours.


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