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MIT student blogger Anna H. '14

I know you’re bad at something by Anna H. '14

And here's what you should do about it. Hint: NOT "do something else"

The brass drops off, and suddenly you’re alone with the rhythm section. All eyes are on you, as you lift your instrument to your mouth. This is improvisation: there is no script, no written notes – just blank measures and symbols telling you what key you’re supposed to be soloing in. It’s your chance to play whatever you want!

Maybe this sounds delightful to you. Freedom! A chance to be expressive and creative in front of lots of other people!

For me, this sounds like: My Worst Nightmare! A chance to freak out and embarrass myself in front of lots of other people!

I took improvised solos for seven years. I joined the middle school jazz band in sixth grade, and then continued with the high school version three years later. Nothing before or since has come close to terrifying me as much as those solos, as illustrated in the following table. Here, Fear Level is inversely proportional to The Number Of Seconds I Think I Have Before I Throw Up.

Scary things Fear Level
The dark 130
The angel statues from Doctor Who 160
Axe murderers 155
Improvised solos 938,324,129
That Creepy Guy staring at me from across the airport lounge while I write this 20*

*Please. I could totally take him.

My band teacher, Mr. L, assigned me my first solo in sixth grade. Just straight up told me that I was going to do it. I practiced hard at home and played it well when alone, but in class my hands shook and I pressed my mouthpiece so hard to my lips that they went numb and no notes came out. It was humiliating, and every time I was convinced that Mr. L would take my solo away from me. The big scary eighth grade boys in my section thought so, too; they suggested naming the band “The Band Of People Who Can’t Play Solos” in my honor.

Mr. L never took that solo away from me. Three or four measures before the start of the solo, he would give me a smile and a nod. I would lift my instrument up. Blow. Nothing would come out. Panic. Shake. Get a few notes out. Fail. He would wave play on, like nothing happened, while I hid behind my music stand.

Three years later, I was in high school, and the system was different. At the beginning of every piece, Mr. L would ask for volunteers for the improvised solo section. For reasons that are still not quite clear to me, I raised my hand almost every time. I knew that if I thought too hard about it, I wouldn’t do it – so I put myself on autopilot, and shot my hand in the air. On the occasions that I didn’t, Mr. L would usually make eye contact with me, and I knew that I was soloing whether I wanted to or not.

And boy, was it good for me. I soloed a lot. In class, in concerts at school, in public squares in Malta and in cathedrals in Prague. I’d get that little smile and nod from Mr. L, put my trumpet to my mouth, do my thing until the rest of the band started playing again, and ride waves of adrenalin (the terror kind) for the rest of the song. It never got less terrifying, ever. I never got less nervous. My solos improved, but I was never super good. What improved was my willingness to solo: I became better at clearing my head, relaxing, and enjoying my time on stage – at saying “yes, this is terrifying, and therefore I am going to do it.” Every little success felt tremendous (what? a note in the right key? YES!). Every time I inhaled and raised my hand to volunteer at the beginning of the piece, and heard the applause at the end of my solo, I emerged a tin ybit more confident.

Here is something I have never regretted doing, ever: impulsively signing up for something because I find it scary or intimidating. At the beginning of freshman year, I joined Dance Troupe, because I liked dancing but the idea of dancing in front of other people practically made me wet my pants. The night of our first performance, I found myself standing on the stage in the dark, seconds before our song began – and suddenly wondered what the heck I was doing there. Before I could have a full-blown nervous meltdown, the lights came on, the music started, and all thoughts of the audience disappeared. A few minutes later, I jogged off stage, heart pounding and a huge grin on my face.

It was so much fun. It’s much less humiliating to stick to things you’re good at – and, let’s face it, people will go to pretty extreme lengths to avoid embarrassing themselves – and you can achieve great things that way. It takes a whole new dimension of gut, though, to hold your head up high when doing something you’re not good at, in front of other people: to keep on going purely because you enjoy it, and want to improve.

So, do something that scares you. Prefrosh: this fall, sign up for one activity that you’ve always sort of secretly wanted to do but are scared of trying because a) think you might be bad at it or b) you’ve done it before and you’re definitely bad at it or c) you think people would judge you for doing it. Dance. Try out for a sport. Audition for an a cappella group, or an improv comedy troupe. Pick up a new instrument. Get a friend to do it with you, if that makes you feel better. Heck, I’ll do it with you.

Oh, and that solo in sixth grade? The night of the concert, I rocked it.

6 responses to “I know you’re bad at something”

  1. DanielG says:

    This is great advice. As a musician, I have performed regularly in front of people, and bombed in direct proportion. However, most audiences are surprisingly supportive–nearly all of the time, they are on your side and are quite willing to overlook any mistakes you do make.

  2. Lyndsey says:

    No matter how much I agree that improvised solos are scary, NOTHING is scarier than the weeping angels!

  3. D :) says:

    Not to forget the cuddle with the dolphin when you were in 2nd grade. The dolphin trainer asked for a volunteer. You shot up your hand and walked fully clothed straight into the lagoon before we could stop you. We had to buy a new set of clothes for you as you were completely soaked.

  4. Tim '12 says:

    Anna, you should totally come back to Dance Troupe!

  5. Keith says:

    I used to be deathly afraid of speaking in front of groups of people until I got into college. I had to have an elective so I decided on Public Speaking. Best thing I ever did. I had for a couple of English classes before so maybe that helped but now I have no problems speaking in front of people.

  6. Anna H. '14 says:

    @DanielG: I’ve definitely found that to be true smile
    @Lyndsey: You have a point.
    @D: I totally forgot about that!
    @Tim ’12: I want to! I just need to find the time :( since dress rehearsal week was a little crazy.
    @Keith: That’s awesome smile I admire you for it!