Trying not to swim upstream

I’m talking about anxiety. I’m not an expert, so don’t take anything I say here as advice.

I’ve always been pretty bad at remembering names, and abstract numbers, dates, codes, measurements, etc. This is bad when I’m talking to other musicians, who are usually gear heads and love to talk about how many watts or the size of drum heads or brand names. It gets embarrassing. But on the other hand, I’m very good at logic, concepts, metaphors, techniques, and coordination. So, I’m going to keep playing drums, and I’m not going to try to be a publicist any time soon. If you’re an industry person, you need rote memorization skills–which frankly I lack. I could tell you how things work until I’m blue in the face, but don’t ask me about the names of those things. So, I know my limits, and I continue to work on improving my memory of equipment specs, as well as your name. But for the time being, I tend to avoid situations where I have to be an equipment junky, and that often puts me at a frustrating disadvantage. Oh well, I have other advantages, and I just keep reminding myself to focus on the right things and be happy with that. Trust me, I get really frustrated about forgetting your name, even after asking you 3 times. But things would be a lot worse if my livelihood depended on it.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I played trumpet for 8 or 9 years, but the time came when I realized that I felt more comfortable behind a drum set. I was able to learn at a quicker rate than the trumpet, and it felt good to be able to keep up with my fellow musicians. So, I finally made the switch.

Similarly, I’ve experienced some decent anxiety in my software career. There can be a lot of pressure, and a lot of competition. I think the worst anxiety I’ve experienced in the past was in tough meetings or when giving presentations. For me, the more I prepare the less anxiety I feel. But one of the things I did recently was switch to a position where I’d experience less anxiety. It’s been great. I’m going to try to continue down this new path.

I think I put up with it for a while because I thought it was to be expected. But I’ve come to realize that it doesn’t need to be expected. I don’t have put up with it simply because that’s the environment I’m in. In fact, I can just choose not to engage in those situations that are the most troubling. And I can engage in ways to reduce stress and anxiety. Being nervous is normal. But heck, why submit myself to those situations over and over if I don’t have to? Luckily, I rarely get nervous playing drums. Musical performance actually recharges me, and that feeling really puts the rest of my life in perspective.

But here’s something tough to think about. If you suffer from performance anxiety, then consider the physiological ramifications down the road. Perhaps it’s time to take a moment to think about what makes you nervous, how nervous you get, and if there are ways to reduce anxiety. Or even stop doing the things that cause it. Everyone feels a little nervous on stage, but maybe it’s not right to be really nervous night after night. Maybe there are alternative ways to engage in your art.

Trying to change

During my recent time spent studying under Brian Oppel, I had the opportunity to learn some techniques that made drumming more efficient. I would work on my assignments, and could track my progress. It felt great.

And then I’d play a show, and would feel like a complete moron. All these songs that I had previously learned started to feel stiff and awkward. I hated the technique and inflections I was playing. I complained about this, and he suggested that I not worry about it so much. He told me to just let the new techniques slowly integrate themselves into my playing, and just play old songs however I had originally learned–and not stress out so much about it.

Since then, I’ve thought about this some more. One of the things that changes with experience is your perspective. I was perfectly happy with how I was playing old songs, up until I learned a new way to play. I also have to manage my resources: am I really going to go back and relearn every single song I might play live? That’s not realistic. It’s far more productive to focus on being a better musician in the long term and practice the more efficient techniques. Actually, now that I writing this… perhaps use old songs as exercises and kill two birds with one stone. Just make sure you are practicing correctly.

Here’s a pitfall: integrating a new “efficient” way of doing something into your life immediately. You may understand how the new thing is awesome, but you’re not even close to mastering it at the same level as the old “inefficient” way. So you’ll probably mess that up, too. If you’re going to replace a way that you do something, you better be coming out ahead. Give yourself plenty of time to practice the new way in situations where no one is depending on you or where you have low visibility.

So, I think the point is that change can’t happen overnight, and it’s disruptive to try to force it. Instead, better to allow the new techniques to just integrate themselves into your life as you move on. Otherwise, you’ll get stressed out and be unhappy, which will just slow you down even more.