Fear of Failing

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of fear. Fear that the other guy might win, fear that people might have to pay more taxes, fear that we all might be helpless if we are not armed citizens.

But as the political climate settles, the ads dissipate, and people become more concerned with whether it’s okay for Black Friday to start on Thursday night or how the head of our CIA got his email hacked by the FBI, or, more importantly, how an aging man of importance got a hot younger gun-modeling babe in the first place, I’m thinking about a different kind of fear.

The fear of failing.

All triathletes have confronted this at some point. What if I don’t finish? What if I drown in choppy waters? What if I get beaten by a 70 year old? What if I collapse on my run?

Usually this fear is unfounded. Proper and regular training, coaches, advice of more seasoned athletes and a herd of qualified people at racing events ensures that everything goes smoothly. It’s time to tap into weeks and months of preparation, training, and careful planning.

Sometimes this is on a much smaller level. Sometimes it just hits me as I try to drag myself out to run; what if my lungs feel crappy? What if my ankle starts to hurt? Then I realize there is a much more important question: Wouldn’t it be much worse if I didn’t go? What would happen then? Nothing. Extreme failure. Slothfulness.

About a week ago the parent of a cello student I’ve had for six years complained that he was going to get a D in school orchestra. I knew that he was still struggling to successfully execute his scales, as he was not a consistent worker and also is plagued by a variety of attention deficit disorders. I asked if he had trouble performing his scales.  His father scowled and said, “No, it’s because he just didn’t go to his lesson at school. We have no idea why!”

I know. I know that this particular student is TERRIFIED of failing. He refers to himself as a perfectionist. I confronted him and asked if he was afraid of the orchestra instructor at his high school, and when his response was negative, I asked if he was scared of screwing up


Basically, he shot himself in the foot so that he wouldn’t have to screw up in front of someone else. Who wouldn’t? It can be painful and humiliating to perform when you don’t feel ready. I’ll keep trying to give him the tools to be ready, but I can’t do the work for him. Ironically, he transferred to that school because they have an orchestra program.

As a teacher, I constantly try to give students the platforms they need to succeed. I remind my cello students at the small private college I teach at that each lesson is a mini-performance. I tell them they want to practice so that they feel confident and that otherwise it’s like trying to give a book report when you haven’t read the book.

My son Paul is a Type A personality. He generally excels at anything academic, he has composed a musical at age 11 and is working on his second one, and is one of few boys in the college town we live in that is a serious ballet dancer. He is not used to failing. He took up trombone in fifth grade and it came easily. He has a great ear and natural rhythm.

Although he is dancing 12 hours a week, he has elected to do school choir, show choir, band and jazz band his first year of junior high. He’s enjoying it all, but he is also being challenged for the first time. He has had to learn scales, which he knows by ear, but as he puts it, sometimes there is a short circuit between brain and his physical reactions. His band teacher encouraged him to try out for Honors Band, an Eastern Iowa music festival. He had pre-tryouts last week at his school but he didn’t make the cut. I was anxious to see how he would accept failure, especially when he had practiced quite a bit. He was mostly annoyed that he had gotten very nervous.

This opened up a good conversation about what we get nervous about performing. What are we afraid of? Making bad sounds? Missing notes? He pointed out that his stand partner, who did make the cut, had confidence on his side. He said that the other boy had told him that the band director had told him he was the best trombonist in the school. I asked him if he thought that if someone was really good he would feel that he needs to tell others that. We talked about trusting physical sensations when you are in an audition or performing situation, focusing on what good technique is and not on what is going wrong. We talked about how if Olympic skaters focus on falling on their butts, they probably will. Sometimes they will even if they are thinking about correct technique. Pressure is a strange thing and adrenaline changes our physical instincts a lot. It’s hard to recreate that unless you are in a situation of stress.

{Parenting lesson #101: It’s hard to see your child go through the same doubts you have about your profession.}

I hope Paul continues to enjoy the trombone and work at it. If he ever finds enough time to practice on top of his other activities, he will be gifted as he has a great ear. If not, I hope he can relax and realize he doesn’t have to excel at everything. As he said, there is always next year. I hope he feels great about the progress he made at playing in his upper range and learning new articulations for his audition.

What was my advice to him as a seasoned performer in music? I told him that I only enjoy racing, or performing on my cello, if I’m not comparing my skills to others. I race to beat my PR. I perform to share musical ideas and feel the thrill of making music come alive through my cello and see the audience’s reaction. Sometimes I get passed by 7 year-olds. Sometimes I get passed by folks over 70. I just revel in the fact that I’m out there. When I rotate to a new chair in my orchestra, I find pleasure in sitting next to other accomplished cellists and sharing teaching stories with them.

I do know that if I’m afraid of jumping in the pool, or going for my morning run, I’m going to feel a lot worse if I don’t go for it. Most of us could use a personal coach to encourage us to keep going. We can’t all afford one, and I’ve learned to tap into my inner personal coach. For the most part, I can turn off the bad voices during a concert that tell me I’m going to screw up a hard passage. This is not blind faith, it’s a deep trust in the work and preparation I’ve done and the knowledge of the positive results that I will soon be reaping.

This Thanksgiving, I’m definitely going for my own little turkey trot in the morning so I won’t be afraid of tackling the delicious chocolate-pumpkin flourless torte with pumpkin whipped cream that I’m bringing to the table. And I’ll be practicing a little for upcoming concerts so I feel prepared in rehearsal and don’t get stressed out.


2 Replies to “Fear of Failing”

  1. Nerves are okay. They can help you perform better, with more energy! A cellist friend once said, “The day I’m not nervous before performing is the day I’m in my grave.” You just need to find out how to channel that adrenaline and trust the hard work you’ve done.

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