|Posted by The Fourth Wall on May 29, 2013 at 8:35 AM|
Posted by Neil
One of the many pig-farm-raised, Canadian, magician horn players in the world, Jeff Nelsen has thrilled audiences and inspired studentsfor over twenty years. So far he’s enjoyed touring with Canadian Brass (8 years), teaching and mentoring at Indiana University (7 years so far… ), giving a TEDx Talk about Fearless Performance, playing on Broadway (2 full show runs), soloing on 5 continents, and performing with dozens of orchestras including the New York Philharmonic, Chicago, and Boston Symphonies, and the Cleveland and Philadelphia Orchestras. Jeff is also proud to be a magician member of “The Academy of the Magical Arts” at the Magic Castle in Los Angeles, California.
Jeff Nelsen’s Fearless Performance seminar takes place this week at IU. We spoke at his home in Bloomington as he was “swimming in Fearless concepts in preparation for the seminar.” Our conversation progressed in a decidedly non-linear fashion, with multiple digressions into such topics as the artwork of Brian Andreas, Alex North’s unused original score to “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and “The West Wing.” Occasionally, he would dive back in to his seminar writings to hone concepts like the difference between discipline and diligence.
Neil: How do you introduce yourself to people you’ve never met? What do you lead with?
Jeff: I find, “Hi, I’m Jeff” has worked pretty well for me. It so depends on who I’m meeting. Like, massively. Cause I grew up on a pig farm. A friend of mine kicked my ass about owning where I am in the horn world and the music world. I am near the top of the horn world, and I realized that I don’t wanna be that. You know, I’m doing the best I can. That’s why I was so shocked the first time I won a professional audition. I was like, “Really? That was good enough? Because I thought I crapped all over it, in my opinion. Wow! Okay! Thanks!”
And how many musicians have those stories? Winning the audition, thinking you’ve played like crap, versus losing the audition, thinking you rocked it. It’s all over the place.
Yeah. And it’s really hard to read why you didn’t get the job. There are too many variables. But it’s never anyone’s fault but your own. I like thinking in terms of responsibility instead of blame. Blame is in the past. Responsibility is what I can affect into the future. ...did you ask me a question? But what’s interesting is that I want to be liked by all, and that’s one of my strengths, I think. I feel like I can do that well, and it helps me help people and helps me do what I want, and everything in between. So I keep my successes pretty quiet, I think, and when I find myself with musicians, sometimes I find myself dripping one out here and there. So it really depends on who I meet. What do I lead with? Usually a joke. Usually something funny, y’know. But other than that, there’s no …y’know, my dad was loved by all. Dad grew upon a farm, my mom grew up in the city, and she wanted me to step out there and maybe be disliked by a few people and have more opinions. So it was a great mix.
And for people who are not in the classical music world, how do you describe the French Horn?
I say it’s the big, curly, one-legged trumpet. And if you’re crying in a movie, the French Horn is playing. I say I get to perform and teach all over the world. It’s wonderful. It’s a great honor and opportunity to do that. Yeah, I’m always explaining what the French Horn is, for sure. We get to play all the great repertoire, be it Classical or Broadway, movie soundtracks, video games, and all that.
Fiction or nonfiction?
[pause] …c’mon, Jeff, have a simple answer on one of these, alright? I love movies, but I spend my time with nonfiction. But I love “Lord of the Rings.”
So it might be media-dependent. For movies or something you watch, you want fiction, you want the escapism. Whereas, maybe the books you read…
“Books I read”…yeah…I mean audio programs I listen to driving between gigs.
So the books you hear are more informational.
Yup. Yup, I would say that. Neat.
Poetry or prose?
The Swedish Chef. My dad did a really good Swedish Chef, and he was Swedish. But it would be a toss-up between Swedish Chef and Beaker. It’s something about no English words. Nothing decipherable.
And yet you know exactly what’s going on, except sometimes with Beaker.
You do, he doesn’t!
Right, whereas the Swedish Chef, he knows exactly what he’s doing, and we get to see the fallout.
Yeah, very clear communication there.
[For fans of the Swedish Chef and Beaker, might I recommend my all-time favorite performance of Danny Boy.]
Complete this sentence. “The older we get, the more_____”
…the more opportunities we have to give back, help, contribute, change the world. Help people keep hope.
How long is a piece of string?
I’ll try not to answer in a quote…”long enough to touch the ground” [Salinger’s answer to the question, “How long should a man’s legs be?”] Great question. A little longer than it needs to be. Just in case.
Who or what is your nemesis?
The fact that I have to go to sleep every day, dammit! I’ve been trying to do better, to get those 7 or 8 hours in, because lack of sleep physically hurts the brain. And I love going to sleep, I love that moment, but can’t it take just five minutes? Or could I at least remember the dreams?
What do you think of the beer bottles labeled with liquid level markings for musical pitches?
That’s genius! I’m shocked that it didn’t exist before or that I didn’t know it existed.DUH!
Snakes: cool or creepy?
Yes and yes?
Yeah. Amazing animals. And it’s great to see the glass in between them and us. Canadian Brass was on tour in Virginia, and I really needed to take a leak, so we pulled off to the side and this huge black snake went by right where I was about to step, and I screamed for my life and jumped back in the car. They told us there were huge water moccasins out there, and I was like, “WHAT?!” Because in Alberta, you can just run all the way into the woods, and it’s totally safe. So for months after, the two trumpet players would stay in my house in Toronto and they would hide fake rubber snakes. I would go to the gym at 6 at this point, and there was one in my protein powder, and I just went, “Huwaaaah!” and yelled really loud, so I at least woke them up. The ones that got me were in the shower. And they served food one time, and there was a snake on my plate. It was rather traumatic.
So beware who you trust with your deep-seated fears.
Yeah. Or they’ll help you through it. Yeah, amazing animals. And they move like that? Genius. Who needs legs?
Which composer’s or musician’s spouse interests you most?
Jeff Nelsen’s! ... umm…Mahler, I guess.
[OK, raise your hand if you thought a horn player would name Alma Mahler as most interesting spouse.]
How will you survive the zombie apocalypse?
Dude, are you kidding? Do you know how great that’ll be for Fearless Performance? Hmmm…I’ve been studying up watching “The Walking Dead.” Shot to the head, right? Wait, I’m Canadian, I don’t have a gun. I’ll have my American wife protect me. Wait, are we even supposed to survive the zombie apocalypse? …ummm… Feel free to use any of those answers.
How are you unlike the horn player stereotype?
I think there are two stereotypes. There’s the person who really obsesses and controls everything, makes sure they play all the notes, gets everything right. And then those who say, “Fuck it, miss notes, but make music and tell a story.” I think I’m closer to the “Miss notes, make music, get over it” type. Unlike? ...hmmm… I grew up on a pig farm. That probably separates me from most. And I think having quit for three years freed me up from having my self-worth wrapped up in every note. So I don’t think I have as much to lose when I play. Canadian Brass afforded me a full two hours to make up for any missed note. That’s different in an orchestra, where you have just two moments. Really good question. I’ve got a 7am routine that I do that keeps me growing every day, and I never warm up. Because I never cool down. Warm-ups can become very dangerous, because they can become physical, with way too much focus on this little thing here, the lips. Everything else is more important. I can pick up the horn now, after a week off, and I can play, really, quite well. And I’m surprised every year with how well. My system serves me really well.
There are people I know who never risk taking even a day off. And then there are people I know who sometimes pick up the horn and go, “When was the last time I played? Oh, that’s right.” And then play and go, “Oh.Yeah. I’m doin’ alright.” And I think to get to that point, there’s a certain amount…sort of like Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 Hour Rule”…you have to have acertain number of performances under your belt, so that if you take time off, you can come back to it, and you just know how to deliver.
A huge part of that, I think, is how important we keep our lips. Cause I’ve taken a month off, picked up the horn and played a very high, loud, easy, high C. That alone means these muscles are not the most important thing. It’s ability, not strength.
As an observer of fear, which group of musicians would you say is most at-risk?
Maybe the most at-risk not to deal with their fear would be string players. They have so many more notes to learn than I do, but they’re not as exposed in their string section. Then I’ve found they come to me when they have an audition coming up. A lot of string players come to me for auditions. Interesting. A question I haven’t really thought of before. And, more of a general thing, would be professionals who’ve won their audition and have their gig, and they stop studying. Singers study their whole life. A lot of opera singers study their whole life. Instrumentalists stop studying. They think, “I’ve got my job, and I deserve a break.” And they do, but a break doesn’t mean to stop studying.
Interesting. I wonder if one main difference is that a vocalist’s instrument develops much later, when they are more self-directed in their learning experiences. So maybe they are more motivated to continue learning.
Yeah. And the other thing is that instrumentalists don’t audition every year. Vocalists are employed for six weeks at a time, so they need to keep up their connections, and they can take 30 auditions a year. But instrumentalists get their job and don’t want to audition again, because it’s such a hellish trip.
If you were to get a tattoo tomorrow, what would you get?
Either in Latin, around my wrist, “Learn. Love Well. Let Go.” A Möbius strip kind of design. Or a big heart with an arrow through it with “Nina” and “Rhys” …with room for more kids.
In your experience working with fearful musicians…
Which is redundant. All musicians are fearful.
Right. So of the people who are most fearful, do you think more of them overestimate their skills or underestimate their skills?
50/50 split, I think. I’ve experienced both. A lot. It’sprobably a 100/100 split, actually. Because they do both. They over estimate their ability to do it without studying their fear, and then they massively doubt themselves. And that’s how it manifests. But it’s not about not fearing. It’s about dealing with it when it comes. Fear is fine. It’s fearing fear that’s the problem.
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Yeah. It’s a destructive choice. If you don’t study it, that’s a long-term choice. You think if you can play your scale just a little bit faster, that’s all you need. Be a technician. So there are the technicians: How you do it. And the musicians: What you think Mozart meant. And the performer: Why you’re up there. What you think when you walk out there. What you think when you miss a note. There’s a different skill set for the “building” stage versus the “sharing” stage. And you should practice both. Practice crossing the “magic line.” I have tape to practice crossing it. You practice standing there, letting go, you read your inspirational sheet, what you want to do well. Then cross it, read it again when you get to the stand. Even in those ten seconds, expert doubters let it grow again. Execute: now, now, now. Practice being present just on one or two notes. No learning onstage. Love well and let go, but no learning onstage. My mom, who teaches singing, says, “If you’re listening, and the audience is listening, then who’s singing?” So record yourself. Learn later, because you don’t have time. That’s in the past. You don’t have time. You don’t have time to think, “I should have practiced more today.”
What impertinent question didn’t I ask?
What is the biggest concern that matters the least? What are the worries that should be #20 on the list, but end up #1? Like, “What is my audience thinking during my performance?” That is the number one, most useless waste of energy, because we can’t control their perception, just our own presentation.
For more information about Fearless Performance check out www.jeffnelsen.com
Categories: IMPERTINENT QUESTIONS