I was plagued with nervousness throughout all of
my earliest music life. My most memorable performances are those which stick out
in my memory because of how nervous I got and what the results of that
nervousness were. In fifth grade, in a performance in front of the entire
elementary school, I got so nervous that my mind wandered and I flipped the top
off of my first valve. It went spinning across the stage and I became paralyzed
by the thought of what I had done. The band was only four members strong and the
fact that I had done something so stupid caused me to react by not playing
The next thing I remember is when I was first
chair in the Wahiawa Intermediate Band. We were playing some kind of contest (I
didn't know what a contest was back then) and in the middle of my solo on
Camelot, my mouth became so dry I couldn't finish it. This dryness was a malady
which followed me throughout the next decade.
In high school, my nervousness heightened as my
opportunities to perform increased. I vividly remember the first time I
auditioned for All Region Band. It was one of the most embarrassing moments of
my life. As I progressed through the etude, my mouth became increasingly more
dry. Before I was even half way through the excerpt, it dried up completely and
I was forced to put my horn down after several measures of nothing but tongue
and air coming through the horn.
Shortly after that, I performed in the "Solo
and Ensemble" competition. It was a repeat of the All Region audition,
except this time, I became so frustrated that I began cussing, right there on
stage. Interestingly, I was not the kind of person who cussed. The judge (Kenny
Capshaw) and my band director (Al Mendez) have always been good friends and my
band director was shocked when he was told of my behavior. The fact is, this
nervousness condition was more than just a dried mouth. It ate at the essence of
who I was as a person. It caused extreme levels of desperation in me that I
didn't even know I was capable of.
So, that is where I'm coming from. That's what I
think gives me the authority to at least write a little something about
"how to deal with nerves". The following story is sort of a chronology
of my up hill battle to overcome this condition. I offer it to you, the reader,
with two thoughts in mind. First, I offer it as some specific solutions that you
can try on your own. These solutions won't necessarily work for everyone, but it
helps to have something to try. The more options you have, the greater your
chances are of finding a solution. Which brings us to my second (slightly more
important) reason for sharing this stuff with you. I want to give you an example
of the thought process and the work which went into finding my personal
solutions. If you understand what I went through, maybe it will give you the
motivation to find your own solutions in your own ways.
Curing the Symptom
Shortly after that "Solo and Ensemble"
competition, I called that judge to apologize to him for my behavior and then
asked him if he would be my teacher. I studied with Mr. Capshaw for the
next three years.
The first thing we worked on was my nervousness.
I remember specifically that he told me something that I've heard hundreds of
"The best way to fight nerves is to be
confidently prepared (or even overly confident) and to practice performing in
front of people as often as you can."
This did help. Unfortunately, it never made my
dry mouth go away. It became frustrating because, after all of that preparation
and practice performing in front of people, yes, I felt more confident and
competent, but my mouth still got dry.
So we began to work on other solutions. I tried
drinking water. That didn't work. In fact, it seemed to make my dry mouth even
drier. It was as if the water washed what little saliva I had completely out of
my mouth. Once the water was gone, I had even less moisture in my mouth than I
had before hand.
Then Mr. Capshaw made the suggestion of chewing
gum while I played. I scoffed at him in disbelief. Here was my trumpet teacher
telling me to chew gum while I played. But he made it clear that this was okay
if it made the difference between being able to play and not.
So I went on a search for the "right
gum" to aid me in this condition........and.......I found it!!!! In the
stores, back then (in the early 1980's), they sold a gum made by the same people
who made Gatorade. They called it GatorGum (or something like that). This gum
had a really tart, tangy, lemony flavor to it which worked wonders where all
other things failed.
That was my cure which I relied on for many years
after. It was a little bit of a juggling act because the flavor didn't really
last long. So I had to time it just right. Normally, what I had to do was put it
in my mouth ahead of time and then wait until a minute before the performance to
actually chew the gum. But it worked. It worked well enough to get me into the
All State Band twice and to do all kinds of other great things on the
But it was only the dry mouth symptom we had
cured, not the condition itself. And I'd be lying if I said that I was cured
completely. Sometimes, even with the gum, I would still get so dried up that I
couldn't play. Not only that, relying on the gum became a huge inconvenience.
Not all stores carried it and it really was difficult to play with gum in my
mouth, not to mention what it was doing to my instruments.
Good Bye Dry Mouth - Forever!!!!
I used the gum for almost a ten years. But even
at it's best, it was nothing more than what a friend of mine calls a "work
around". It fixes the immediate problem but isn't a real cure.
What finally cured me of the dry mouth problem
was nothing more than a coincidence. Back in those days, Laura and I used to
take regular trips to the library, every two weeks. We looked up anything that
we might have been thinking about at the time. One time I wanted to know more
about what and who geniuses were. That, in turn, lead me to books about the
brain and memory. That's when I learned about the role blood sugar has in the
brain. One of the books I read said that the brain needs two things to work
properly; Sugar (glucose) and Oxygen.
What does that have to do with getting nervous?
At first, I didn't think it would have anything
to do with it. When I first applied this knowledge to my trumpet playing, I was
thinking more about my mind than I was about my nervousness. I just thought, if
I timed my eating just right, my brain would get all the glucose it needs during
a performance. My idea was only to increase my level of concentration through a
process that many people call "carbo loading".
Guess what..........it worked!!!!!
The first performances I had in which I actually
used carbo loading were the first, truly focused performances of my entire
trumpet playing life. Before carbo loading, using only the gum, I was lucky if I
had a fifty fifty chance of even doing okay on a performance. With carbo
loading, there are only very few times when my performances are truly bad. And
most of those are due to some kind of illness or something like that, beyond my
If you would like to read more about this carbo
loading, click HERE.
But the question is, what about the dried mouth?
Well, in my later research, I learned that dry
mouth is a symptom of low blood sugar levels. Here's my theory about what was
happening to me. I believe that, in a state of mental agitation (like stage
fright), the mind uses lots and lots of glucose. It uses so much glucose that
the blood sugar levels drop if that glucose is not replaced. Simply put, the
more you use your brain, the more glucose it needs. If you run out, then you get
all of the traditional symptoms of low blood sugar - including a dry mouth.
So carbo loading became a way of life for me and
I don't think it's a coincidence that this was when my career began to blossom.
Before carbo loading, like I said, I had some bad days and some good days. With
carbo loading, I have VERY FEW bad days. And people began to notice. Or better
put, people began to "not notice". They began to not notice any of my
bad days because I wasn't having any. I became musically reliable and the dry
mouth condition was GONE!!!!!
A Quest Towards Excellence
Unfortunately, having fewer bad days is not the
same things has having more excellent days. Figuring out the carbo loading thing
made a huge difference by removing a barrier from my performances. However, it
wasn't like a magical elixir or anything like that. I was still subject to other
things which kept me from being the best player, in performances, that I could
The success which followed my carbo loading
discovery got me on gigs with some of Houston's finest players and I naturally
wanted to do my best on these gigs. Unfortunately, "wanting" to do my
best was like a poison in my mind. The harder I tried, the worst my performances
became. Granted, they were never as bad as the bad performances I used to have,
BC (before carbo loading). But they were a far cry from "doing my
I soon recognized the problems inherent to
wanting to play better. By thinking about playing better, you are taking your
precious mental energies away from the music and the results are almost always
disastrous. Therein lies the dilemma. How do you play your best without thinking
about playing your best? How can you do better without trying harder? To me, it
was like trying to solve one of those rubics cube puzzles.
Fortunately, I had/have a model to study. I've
had the great honor of being able to work with David Caceres. I worked with him
for five years in the Tom Borling BeBop Band and then a year and a half with his
own band, the David Caceres Band. David's playing is like the Rock of Gibraltar.
When it comes to being excellent, at all times, David is there. So it has been
really good for me to see this with my own two eyes. It's been a learning
experience to see him, day after day, gig after gig, perform at such high levels
of quality without any of the hang ups I was experiencing in my playing. A lot
of that has rubbed off on me, but more importantly, he has offered me lots of
things to consider, things to ponder - about how all of this performance stuff
I remember, on a trip to Austin, we car pooled
and I had a lot of time to sit and talk with him while we were on the road. I
brought this stuff up and I was surprised by what he said. First, he admitted
that he really doesn't "feel" as confident as he seems. Then he said
that there was something that really changed his life. He told me a story about
when he went to visit Dave Nichols in the hospital. Dave was his best friend and
he was dying of cancer. But apparently, they had previously talked about the
exact same stuff as what I'm writing to you about now. They called it "the
monkey on your back". The monkey was like those nagging thoughts which
always make you think about how well you're playing. It's those thoughts which
end up making us play less well than what we are capable of. So Dave Nichols
told David Caceres "when I die, I'm going to take your monkey with
me." David says he thinks about that sometimes when he plays and it
helps him to let go of all of those nagging thoughts.
Do you notice a pattern here? David said that he
doesn't feel as confident as he seems. And yet, he comes off sounding as if he
is the most confident player I've ever heard. There is a pattern and this
pattern has become a huge part of my entire life, not just my performances. It
seems that how confident you feel isn't as important as being able to play
without letting your own thoughts interfere with the performance process.
It's alright to "feel" incompetent.
It's alright to know that you're not perfect. Just don't let those feelings
effect your playing. When you actually perform, your mind should be free of
these kinds of thoughts.
To free my mind from these poisonous thoughts, I
self inflict myself with an attitude of indifference bordering on contempt. To
release my mind from this prison of concern, I convince myself that I really
don't care how well the performance goes. Does that sound like a bad attitude to
you? It is. This reminds me of when I was in high school and there was a sax
player in the band who obviously didn't care much about how well we played as a
band. In one of the band's competitions, this sax player showed up late and
walked on stage in the middle of a tune. The band director got mad and told him
to get lost. In response, the sax player threw the soprano sax he was barrowing
from our teacher, threw it on the floor and walked out.
I definitely don't encourage that kind of
behavior. However, at this point in my life, I need to have a little bit of that
kind of attitude. Back then, I thought of that incident as if the student was
saying he was too good for us. But now, I see it as if he really didn't care,
one way or the other.
This attitude of indifference has been working
very well for me over the past year or so. The most difficult part of this has
been in convincing myself that I don't care when I really do.
So, as you can see, there is still a slight flaw
in this solution. If you only convince yourself that you don't care, you still
have, way in the back of your mind, a monkey sitting on your shoulder, nagging
you with thoughts about wanting to play well.
An Expression of Grace
Just recently, I've been able to reach a final
adjustment to this attitude which really works well for me. I don't think I'll
be needing anything else beyond this final solution. However, it's such a big
deal to me that I'd like to make it a separate essay of it's own. I call it:
"An Expression of
It is the final chapter in the story of my battle
with performance problems.
The entire purpose of this essay was to show you
the thought process and the work which went into finding my solutions to my
specific performance problems. If you can use some of the specific solutions
which I have shared with you, that's good. But more importantly, I want you to
see that these things can be worked out. Everyone is different and your
solutions will be different from mine. Don't give up just because you tried
something and it didn't work. You need to keep trying different things until you
find what works best for you. Look at me, I'm only now beginning to feel as if I
have an answer to these problems. Considering that I've been fighting this
battle since the late 1970's, I think that says a lot.
Let's look once again at what I had to do to get
where I am. The first and more immediate problem was a physical problem. To
solve that problem I used analysis, did research and tried different solutions
until I came up with the carbo loading solution. I should mention at this point
that I do continue to use carbo loading, even today.
The next step in this development was to increase
the quality of my performances towards a greater degree of excellence. This was
a mental problem. To solve it, I employed more analysis, not only of myself but
also using David Caceres as a model - remember - he's the Rock of Gibraltar.
With this problem, there was less true research and more thoughts and
ponderings. I found that altering my attitude erased the concerns I had, the
same concerns which were causing me to play less than what I was capable of
Two different kinds of problems - two separate
I just finished writing the "Eat to
Perform" essay. I wanted to include the last paragraph of that essay here,
too. Because I want people to know that I'm here to help them if they need it.
If you EVER have any problems trying to figure
this out, or any questions about this process in general, please feel free to
email me with your questions. I know that all of this nervousness stuff can be
extremely depressing, even career ending. I want you to know that I've been
through it myself and that, even if I don't have your answers, I'm here to help
you find those answers. Most importantly, don't give up. There's an answer out
there for each and every person. You just need to have patience. It took me over
twenty years to find my solutions.