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Tiffany Chang conductor 


Here are some of my favorite posts:

What's your mission? - I examined mission statements from 71 U.S. orchestras

Empathy in relationships - we know empathy is hard, and we should also know what it is not

Why don't we talk about it? - how organizations may encourage performers to be advocates

Note: New and existing posts will be hosted at

Below you'll only find archived posts from before June 24, 2021.


What are your fears?

Posted by Tiffany Chang on 15 April, 2021 at 9:00

I wonder what are you afraid of as a musician when you do your work? Are my fears the same as yours?


If we could learn more about our fears, we can gain more perspective. Perhaps we could even develop strategies to help ourselves achieve more and be happier doing so. 


So I decided to do an informal poll. 60 people responded and I want to thank each and every one of them for taking the time to help! 


I asked the participants to rank 12 fears. I then asked them whether they were 1) conductors, 2) instrumentalists, or 3) singers. Within those categories, they identified themselves as 1) affiliated with an organization, 2) affiliated with an academic institution, 3) freelancer, or 4) student. 


I was curious to see what kind of patterns I might find and insights I could draw.


I do realize that not everyone has ALL these fears and that some fears are related to each other, so this is not a scientific study by any means. Also, my sample size of 60 was quite small. So - I will preface the rest of the post saying that I am not hoping to make any definitive conclusions or generalizations. I simply looked at the data I had available and remained curious.




I'll start with sharing my reflections on the general results of the survey. Here are the overall rankings of all responses: 

      1. Underperformance - knowing you could've done better
      2. Embarrassment - making a fool of yourself in front of others
      3. Rejection - not getting a promotion or receiving negative feedback on your work
      4. Weak link - letting others down, not contributing to the group
      5. Job security - losing work partially or completely
      6. Isolation - losing sense of belonging to others in the group
      7. Plateauing - not reaching your full potential
      8. Insignificance - not having the intended impact for the work
      9. Uncertainty - not knowing what's going to happen at work, being kept in the dark
      10. Confrontation - speaking up or disagreeing
      11. Ease - not being challenged enough, stopped growing
      12. Change - adjustments in working circumstances or processes


No matter how I grouped the data, Underperformance, Embarrassment, and Rejection emerged as the top 3 each time. This was not surprising. In fact, it may give you solace simply knowing that everyone else faces these exact same fears. 


Here are some other findings: 


Ease and Change are both consistently within the bottom 3. This shows perhaps that musicians are generally resilient and adaptable to changes in our workplace (unlike other industries where people are more afraid of organizational changes). And we are intrinsically motivated to keep growing.
Job security is a low-ish fear for conductors (9), compared to a mid-ish fear for instrumentalists (5) and singers (4). This is interesting. Why?
Insignificance is high for conductors (4), compared to low-ish for instrumentalists and singers (both at 8).


If you want to nerd out and see more detailed results, comparisons, and my thoughts, click here to go to another document. There's some interesting stuff there, but I don't want to focus on that for today.  





"Fear arises with the threat of harm, either physical, emotional, or psychological, real or imagined." (from this article in Psychology Today).


With these top 3 fears, musicians cannot easily make them go away because we've been programmed from Day 1 to value achievement and affirmation of that achievement from our teachers, peers, the public, and even ourselves. Whether our fears are real or imagined, they affect us deeply. 


In this TED talk, Guy Winch talks about how when we get hurt physically (like scraping our knee), we know to practice first aid and mend to the wound to make sure it heals properly. But when we get hurt psychologically (like failure, rejection, or loneliness), we don't take care of those "injuries."


And quoting Winch from his talk, Winch says in his talk, "It doesn't even occur to us that we should. 'Oh, you're feeling depressed? Just shake it off; it's all in your head.' Can you imagine saying that to somebody with a broken leg: 'Oh, just walk it off; it's all in your leg.'" Doesn't make much sense.


As leaders, it helps to keep in mind that musicians' top fears are in fact underperformance, embarrassment, and rejection. Those are the injuries that musicians are desperate to avoid and to heal. We can recognize that sometimes in an attempt to avoid these fears, they end up actually underperforming or embarrassing themselves. We can start to see that the underperformance is a result, a symptom of the fear - and perhaps not because they are incompetent or being nonchalant.


In that light, what could we do to help prevent the cut from getting deeper, to stop the bleeding? Often, what happens is we either do nothing or we make the wound worse by poking at it. We make it clear that someone is not performing up to par and they need to work harder. We guilt trip them as a tactic to encourage them to do better. The intentions may be positive and means to elevate their work, but I wonder if jabbing at the wound in the moment is really the best tactic. 


Maybe acknowledging the fears and their consequences on performance is all we need to start creating a culture of safety and high performance. 


But, how can we help them lessen or get rid of those fears? Well, perhaps getting rid of them is not the path to be on at all.





Instead of removing these fears, we may actually be able to take advantage of them and use them as a catalyst for doing our best work. Now, bear with me as I explain.


Let me ask you this: despite the fear of making mistakes, failing, or embarrassing ourselves, why do we keep doing things that put us in that position? Well, it's because it actually feels good.


Andrew Huberman from Stanford University calls fear a "negative sensation that you don't know how to alleviate." It can paralyze us because we don't know what to do about it. We can also run away from the situation in "flight" mode. But sometimes we decide to fight and confront the fear. We jump off the diving board, we climb the mountain, or play that piece from memory. When you take that step towards fear, you go into the space of courage. Fear and courage are two separate things. And what courage does is it releases dopamine, the reward chemical of your body, and you get a hit of pleasure.  


You don't actually need to wait to get to the top of the mountain to get this chemical released. Even one step toward confronting the fear gives you dopamine. It's the body's way of saying "this is good for you, keep going." And here's the important thing: the only way to get this reward is if you have fear to fight with. So without fear, there is no reward. I find that fascinating and it completely debunks the idea of being "fearless." It's not what we think it is, and it doesn't allow us to be naturally encouraged to move forward.


Considering all this, what if what we could do to tend to our fear is to capitalize on this biological reward mechanism?


Two scenarios: 

1) Yes, performance is scary. We worked hard and we don't want it to go to waste in the one critical moment of the performance. But also consider this: we are often much less fearful in rehearsals than performances; we don't always confront the fear full on until the moment of the concert. So what if we practiced putting ourselves in that space of courage in every rehearsal and use our natural release of dopamine to edge us forward? Huberman also explains that the more we do this kind of activity involving courage, we rewire ourselves to seek that activity more because it makes us feel good. What if we get in the habit of living on the edge every rehearsal, and the concert is just another opportunity to do so? As musicians, we can be framing challenges with fear and encouraging ourselves to dash toward that fear all the time - knowing there is going to be a reward waiting for us. We may not perform a perfect concert, but in the process, we may just have leveled-up to a point beyond where we would've been had we waited to step into courage only at the concert.  

2) Now, our other big fear is rejection. So we refrain from taking risks, saying what we really want to say, or going for a great opportunity. We know now that being inactive about confronting this doesn't give us dopamine, so what if we can establish a culture that rewards this kind of courageous behavior. Maybe it's acknowledging someone for voicing an opinion (even if it eventually doesn't make it into the final product). Or offering an incentive for submitting an application for an opportunity (I've personally been given money simply for applying for something). Or valuing the valiant, out-of-the-box performance with a cracked note over the mechanically perfect one. 


Let's think about how we can activate what Huberman calls the "courage circuit" by putting ourselves in the position where we might get rejected or embarrassed or underperform? Let's remember that fear is necessary to have courage, and that's the space we want to occupy to become better. 




Now, back to Guy Winch from the TED talk. When we engage with these fears, there is no question that we are going to get hurt. What we don't want is to first encourage musicians to be courageous and then scold them for getting hurt. 


When we are hurt by choosing to confront our fears, let's normalize this result by acknowledging that it sucks, it hurts, it failed, and we feel crappy. Then, follow up with bandaging the wound and giving it care over time so it can withstand the next blow. This can be a simple check in with a musician after a tough rehearsal. Winch calls this "emotional hygiene," like how we brush our teeth every day for dental hygiene. 


I've come to understand that deep empathy is crucial for a leader in order to serve their people. When something doesn't go well musically in rehearsal, it is so easy for us to jump to all sorts of negative conclusions. "It's all X's fault; they didn't come prepared." or "They don't seem like they care at all." But we really have no idea what is causing that behavior, and fear is a real possibility given that all of us face the same fears.


It is really all about playing the game of "How can I help them to help themselves be the best." If fear is a big part of that game, we can use that to our advantage rather than see it as an obstacle.


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