On Overcoming With Fear…

This was written in September, 2010, updated this week. My friend from Nashville days, Julie Rust, a fine singer/songwriter, asked me about how I deal with fear. Here’s my response…

“Hey Julie,

You recently asked me about fear and I took my time as I wanted to give you a real and considered response. Here goes…

I think anyone who’s putting something personal into a public forum has some level of fear about it, depending on the item, the forum, and one’s experience with doing that. So, yes, I have fear sometimes.

What I would say is that my level of fear, or nervousness, or anxiety is directly proportional to my comfort with the setting. If it’s a theater, a corporate audience, after dinner entertainment, they’ve had one or two drinks, mostly American’s, 18-70, I’m rarely nervous. I’ve had too many examples of it working and I call on that, I purposefully remember that if I have a doubt.

On the other hand, if it’s, say an urban high school (not that I play many of those), or if I was supposed to write or learn something special for the group and I’m not completely secure with it, or if in some way I feel there’s a potential mis-match between the situation at hand and what I do, or if for any other reason I feel unprepared – like showing up in jeans and a T-shirt for a black tie event – I’m more nervous.

For instance, last year I got to be the first act, the first night of the 7908 Aspen Songwriter’s Festival. John Oates of “Hall and Oates” was putting it on and asked me to do it. During my set we agreed that he would come out and we’d do his Hall and Oates hit, “You Make My Dreams Come True” together. Well, that’s not a hard song for me and I could improvise it on the spot. However, knowing I would be potentially nervous I practiced that sucker like you wouldn’t believe just because… well, it’s John Oates. Good thing I did, because on a whim he brought Sam Bush, probably the best mandolin player alive, out with him and we all played it together. I loved it, but I was a bit nervous about it. The next day John had asked me to do a classical arrangement of Olivia Newton John’s “I Honestly Love You” and accompany country singer, Jimmy Wayne in a tribute to the song’s writer, Jeff Barry (and Jeff was there). Again, it was outside my comfort zone and my arrangement would be naked out there, so I knew I’d be nervous. The way I deal with that is to identify the things I’ll probably feel out of place about, and then practice the hell out of them! And it turned out again it was a good thing because I had to coach Jimmy on the words, work with him on the melody, and by the time we rehearsed, a few hours before the show, I knew the damn thing backwards and forwards. That’s my way of dealing with it… be TOTALLY prepared. It also makes for a better performance because when you don’t have to think about the notes, THEN you’re playing music, rather than just regurgitating notes. And for any non-musicians reading this, this is a metaphor for EVERYTHING in life. You learn the notes so you can forget the notes.

The other thing I do to deal with fear is rely on an axiom I came up with a long time ago for just this thing. I used to do gigs for the US Navy in Puerto Rico. One night I was playing in a dark, hard-edged enlisted club with American sailors, CB’s, marines and then enlisted guys and girls from multiple nationalities’ forces (NATO). I have rarely been THAT nervous. They were listening to whatever was hardcore rock and rap at the time, drinking hard, and here I am, folkie-boy with my acoustic guitar. My axiom… really it’s a mantra… was and still is “Do what you do, do it the best way you know how.” Do what YOU do, do it the best way you know how. If they don’t like it, fine, at least I did what I do and that’s all anyone can ask. If I’m gonna bomb, don’t do it trying to be something I’m not. It’s actually my way of letting go of the outcome, which as long as I do what I do the best way I know how, is beyond my control. Control what I can, leave the rest to God.

They turned off the loud dance music and I started singing. Well, early on, either by accident or intuition I happened to play, “Proud To Be An American” (Lee Greenwood). It turns out the Americans had been feeling like a minority in their own club (because they were) and they went NUTS with pride singing with me loudly! Suddenly I was their best friend and after that I could have farted in the microphone and they’d have loved it. I played for hours and had a blast. And that brought some of the internationals on board, too, some of the Brits saying, “You know, WE really need a patriotic song like that.”

Finally, last year I had a morning show at the Benaroya Hall in Seattle for a large group of dentists and their staffs. I flew in the night before and woke up to discover I had my suit and shirt, but no dress shoes, just a pair of white sneakers. Ah!!! The show was early enough that I couldn’t make it to a men’s store in time, Walmart was a long distance away, and I was stuck. Rather than look REALLY stupid and try to borrow shoes from someone – “Excuse me, do you wear size 11 and can I borrow your shoes? Ugh” – I decided to boldly wear those white sneakers with my suit, as if that’s what I’d intended all along, like that’s just “my style.” And I did. And nobody said a thing. It worked. Here’s the kicker. Another speaker there took me aside after the program and actually complimented me on wearing white sneakers with my suit so boldly and being willing to be myself. I laughed, thanked her, and then told her the truth and we both learned a good lesson.

Anyway, that’s what I do to deal with nervousness:

1. Make sure as best I can that it’s not a mis-match.
2. Focus on what I do best.
3. Remember past successes, reminding myself that I am good at what I do.
4. Practice the hell out of whatever I’m not sure of.
5. Go boldly and let go of the outcome beyond what I can control (in other words quit worrying) – just be in and trust the moment.

I hope that helps. It works for me.



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