Nervous about performing?

In high school I had a friend named Mike Watts. It was a very lucky friendship for me because I was a band geek who loved playing and listening to music, and Mike’s father happened to be Ernie Watts. Ernie Watts is not a household name, but among jazz and popular musicians, he’s known worldwide as one of the A-list saxophone players. He’s played and recorded with everybody from Buddy Rich to the Rolling Stones. To use a sports analogy, for me it was like being a basketball fanatic and having Stephen Curry’s child as your friend.

Mike played the clarinet in the band and I played the trumpet. I could not get enough of music, signing up for every music class, workshop, scholarship, competition, honor band, or other playing opportunity I could find. I also loved listening to music and could spend hours daydreaming to a Rudolf Serkin LP I had just bought at Wherehouse Music in Van Nuys.

(One day, riding my bike home from the record store with a John Coltrane album in my right hand, I crashed into a parked car and flew over the hood, landing on someone’s front lawn. My record sailed across the grass to the front door of the house. A man came out of the house, picked up the record and asked me if I was okay. When I responded that I wasn’t badly hurt, he replied, “Well, at least you have good taste in music.”)

Love-hate relationship. Still, my relationship with music wasn’t all love. I loved playing and listening to music, but I often hated to perform because of overwhelming anxiety. I was afraid to make a mistake in front of an audience. In essence musical performance anxiety comes down to that: are you afraid to make a mistake in front of an audience?

It was very kind of Mike to invite me to come along to one of his father’s gigs. On that particular concert, Ernie was playing in a back-up orchestra at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angles (the former home of the LA Phil) for a popular flute player named Hubert Laws. This was in the days when musicians could afford to hire a small orchestra, including string and horn sections of woodwinds and brass to back them up at a live concert.

Hubert Laws is not a household name these days, but in the late 1970s and early 1980s he was a big name in jazz and instrumental pop. Popular enough that he could sell out a venue like the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion and hire an orchestra to back him up.

For me, being backstage at the Hubert Laws concert and meeting the musicians was a dream come true. I met Snooky Young, a trumpeter who had played in Count Basie’s big band as well as Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show band with Doc Severinsen for many years. When he learned that I was a serious trumpet player, he gave me a few simple words of encouragement. “Keep on playing and you’ll get your chance.” When a player of that stature gives a young person a few words of encouragement, the effect lasts for years.

The musicians did a short rehearsal and sound check then broke for dinner before the performance that night. During the rehearsal, Ernie had to go to the front of the stage with Hubert Laws and perform a difficult passage of music on the flute, not his main instrument. The thought of doing that made me feel nervous even though I was safely watching from offstage with Mike.

At dinner, which we ate in a diner next to the concert hall, I asked Mr. Watts whether he ever felt nervous performing in front of so many people. His reply has stuck with me ever since. “I don’t feel nervous if I’m prepared and I know exactly what I’m doing. I only feel nervous if I’m not prepared.”