How to become a more courageous performer
My first experience with improvisation was… terrifying. I was a teenager when I took part in a jazz workshop, given by a wonderful sax player (regrettably I have forgotten his name) in my home town, Sassari (Italy).
Given that many of us were classically trained, we started with simple exercises. Without instruments, we had to sing a single note, or sound effect, in turns. That was fun, I could do it, no problem.
However, when in one of the rehearsals someone prepared the band nicely to introduce the violin solo, I totally chickened out. I remember thinking ‘I can’t improvise!’ and that was it, I did not play a single note.
Fear is a very normal reaction. Our brain is wired to protect us. An unknown situation gets the alarm bells going as potentially life threatening. Facing an angry beast or having people listening to your music, is basically the very same thing for our brain and it will trigger the same physiological responses in our bodies. You logically know the difference, but the primal brain, the amygdala, where this response comes from is faster than reason.
A good news. Research has determined that a part of our brain, the sgACC, is the driving force behind courageous acts. A strongly active sgACC silences the amygdala… concluding that each of us have it within ourselves to become courageous if we can just learn how to use this area better. Fear can be one of the most crippling emotions. But when channeled, it can transform into courage.
Defining courage. Thanks to the images we have of heroes, we might think that courage means feeling no fear. But, think about it, if one feels no fear, whatever they are doing cannot be considered courageous, right?
Courage is a cluster of strengths:
- Bravery [valor]: Not shrinking from threat, challenge, difficulty, or pain; speaking up for what is right even if there is opposition (external or internal); acting on convictions even if unpopular; includes physical bravery but is not limited to it
- Perseverance [persistence, industriousness]: Finishing what one starts; persisting in a course of action in spite of obstacles; “getting it out the door”; taking pleasure in completing tasks
- Honesty [authenticity, integrity]: Speaking the truth but more broadly presenting oneself in a genuine way and acting in a sincere way; being without pretense; taking responsibility for one’s feelings and actions
- Zest [vitality, enthusiasm, vigor, energy]: Approaching life with excitement and energy; not doing things halfway or halfheartedly; living life as an adventure; feeling alive and activated” (source: VIA Character)
Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is doing things you fear. There is always the option of doing nothing, but that won’t take you far. If you allow your fears to prevent you from taking action, they will transform into self-beliefs – “I can’t improvise”, “I am not good at taking auditions” – and hold you back from reaching your potential. Success demands taking actions in face of uncertainty.
What to do
You can train yourself to be brave. Whatever you fear, you can conquer it, by taking action. Courage is like a muscle, the more you work it, the stronger it gets.
1. Identify your fears.
Find out what your fears are and choose to work through them. Ask yourself: “What is the worst thing that could happen?” When we look into the face of our fears they often melt away. “Living in an authentic manner—meaning acknowledging and appropriately expressing one’s actual feelings, thoughts, and desires—requires acknowledging one’s fear and risks and moving forward anyway when the cause merits action.” (A Qualitative Exploration of Courage by Alizabeth Lord Jetter)
2. Have a strong why.
A clearly defined goal in mind. Why do you play? What is the message you want to share? The clearer and more compelling your why the easier it becomes to act. Choose something you feel passionate about, a big purpose: that will trigger the courage needed to take those brave steps. Then your Self-belief can make it happen (read more about that).
3. Be vulnerable.
Going out there risking failure and criticism is the one thing that can make us more courageous. According to Brené Brown the belief in our unworthiness drives us to fear-based lives. Brene explains that courage and vulnerability are closely aligned and the two qualities can greatly improve our lives. Be aware of perfectionism. Believing that if we do things perfectly we will avoid judgement and shame is in fact what is really preventing us from being seen. Of course you want to improve yourself, but perfectionism is more about “what will they think”. “The fear of failing, making mistakes, not meeting people’s expectations, and being criticized keeps us outside of the arena where healthy competition and striving unfolds”, says Brené Brown.
4. Practice courage.
Include in your practice routine performing without brakes, in a good way. Really going for it. Focus on letting go of your fears of making mistakes, not caring about consequences. Playing safe guarantees you will not perform at your best, taking a risk, on the other hand, might well result in your peak performance. No risks no game. This exercise is to train your courage, so don’t count eventual mistakes! it will get better, remember, courage is a muscle, the more you train it the more it strengthens.
5. Remind yourself how courageous you are.
Write down your 10 most courageous actions. Playing for a new teacher, an audition….anything that required you overcome your fears. The outcome is not important, the courageous act was that you did it in spite of your fears. Having a journal with our achievements will help you setting forth training your courage. It is easier to act knowing you have already faced your fear in the past…and are still here :-)
“Courage is the first of human virtues because it makes all others possible.” Aristotle
Resources & links:
- Brené Brown on Vulnerability:
- by Ben Dean Ph.D.: Defining Courage
- by Carolyn Gregoir: The Science Of Conquering Your Fears — And Living A More Courageous Life
- by Dr. Claartje van Sijl: How to escape perfectionism as an excellent researcher
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