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Four Footsteps to Fearless–Step Two: Deploying Your Attention

emotion regulation four footsteps to fearless learnlovewellletgo performance anxiety Jan 12, 2022


Well, 2022 is in full swing already!

We hope you've had a good first week. The international horn world was shaken by the loss of two titans: Dale Clevenger and Lowell Greer. They have contributed much to our music world and they will be missed by many.

To quote Dale from one of my (Jeff) lessons with him, "Musical thought dictates technique."

Since hearing that, I have been driven by musical thought, or simpler yet, story. Not just in my technical ability and musical story pursuits, but also in what our newsletter is based in; the study of how our life story takes space with us on stage. Let's dive in!


We enter a situation.
We notice something about our situation.
We make an evaluation about what we notice.
We respond, and our stage is set for the next situation.

This week, we're learning about the second stage of our Four Footsteps to Fearless series: how to deploy our attention.

Attention is selective. In performance, we have options to direct that attention anywhere. Opportunities to miss a note (er... do a little recomposition!!), special moments that we love in our music, the sound of the audition panel writing comments... These choices in attention lead to next thoughts which lead to next actions which lead to real results! So finding constructive places to direct our attention is incredibly important.

The great news is that we are not at the mercy of our monkey minds :) You can train how you deploy your attention and how well you maintain your attention on a single task. There is still soooo much to learn about the way the brain works, but what we do know is very encouraging- not to mention, beautiful!

When you are engaged in a task, a circuit of neurons is activated in the brain called the task-positive network (TPN). One way you can visualize this idea is the brainbow- an innovative method scientists use to map connections between neurons.


(Image Source: Harvard Brain Tour)

Each color represents a neuron that can send or receive information to or from other cells. (Isn't it beautiful!?!)

When we are engaged in a task, the TPN is activated. This isn't how the imaging works, but for clarity, imagine you are engaged in a task and all the red neurons in this picture are lit up to form your TPN. You're deliberately doing something. You're intent on it, and you're unaware of much beyond the scope of what you're doing. Sometimes, you can get distracted from the task, but generally the circuit will carry you through until its completion.

Dr. Edward Hallowell & Dr. John Ratey note that in our modern world, fewer and fewer people are spending time in the TPN. Like a muscle, the network atrophies when it's not used. Imagine dimmer colors.. a weaker connection!

As we go through our days and mentally jump from a task to a notification that just popped up on our phone to the person who just walked in the room, the TPN weakens. Our attention span shortens, and our opportunity to focus on extraneous things widens.

A common phrase neuroscientists use is, "Neurons that fire together, wire together." It's possible to strengthen those connections in the brain and increase your attention span with practice.

Ultimately, as we prepare for a performance, we want to be trying out different details to focus on. When we find something that works, we then practice our ability to think of that one thing to the exclusion of others.

In this way, we aren't just practicing our performance music. We are practicing our performance thoughts. We can learn how to freely and flexibly control the focus of attention, and brighten up that connection to its most vibrant hue!

However, when anxiety is present, the scope of our attention narrows. There is an evolutionary tendency to pick up on potential threats in our situation. Musicians experiencing performance anxiety also tend to turn their perception inward toward themselves, rather than outward toward the music (Wolverton & Salmon, 1991).

The solution?

Love Well

Love your music louder than your fears. And we're not just talking about beaming love towards your music Care Bear Stare style (though sometimes, that's what it takes!)

Show love through action.

In the practice room, work out your musical thoughts that ultimately dictate your technique (thanks Dale).

Are your musical thoughts when you go to perform for an audience, "don't mess this up!" or "show them what you can do!" or is it more of a "share this beautiful music I love" or "ok here comes the forlorn moment that sounds like this with the clarinet."

How do you want this to sound? Get specific. As you perform your phrase, try on different images, sounds, textures, stories, emotions that tie to the music you're performing. The more unique, the more personal, the more detailed you can make your musical thought, the more prominently it will stand in your mind as a beacon to guide your attention.

Let go

The ultimate trick in this second stage of deploying our attention is to let go of seeking outward cues to help you inwardly feel a certain way in performance.

Of course, we want to stand on stage and feel comfortable, confident, bold, assured, happy, and so forth. However, feeling positive emotions isn't necessarily correlated with giving a great performance. Instead, embrace a goal of execution. Direct your attention inward to what you've trained yourself to think about in performance, and let success be a measure of how well and how often you were able to pay attention to your constructive thoughts.

It might be that the first time you try this out, you can only pay attention to your intended thought 15% of the time. That's okay! Make it your goal next time to bump that number up to 16%. As you partake in this practice, you'll notice your ability to focus on constructive details strengthening. And soon, when you walk into a performance, you'll stop leaving yourself vulnerable to the chance of what you happen to notice, and start directing your attention toward constructive details that will help you share your best.

* * *

To get started on becoming a master attention deployer, mentally review your last performance. When did you feel particularly shaken up? Was it walking onstage? Bowing? During a particular phrase? Switching from one piece to the next?

Pick one moment. Then, experiment with constructive thought replacements for that moment. Know and have practiced your thought replacement going into your performance.

Let us know how it goes! Cheering you on.

Jeff Nelsen

Dr. Katy Webb
Creative & Managing Director

Works Cited:

Hallowell, E., Ratey, J. (2021). ADHD 2.0: New Science and Essential Strategies for Thriving with Distraction. Random House Publishing Group.

Wolverton, D., Salmon, P. (1991). Attention allocation and motivation in music performance anxiety. In Wilson, G. D. (Ed.), Psychology and performing arts (pp. 231–238). Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Swets & Zeitlinger.

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