IU Prof Helps Fight Fear

Jeff Nelsen
Jeff Nelsen takes you from frightful to fearless.

Jeff Nelsen gets scared when he performs. We all do. But, he says, “Fear is a choice.” He should know. Nelsen, a French horn player and teacher, has performed with the New York Philharmonic, the Canadian Brass, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and other prestigious musical groups in front of huge crowds across the world. A professor of horn at IU’s Jacobs School of Music, he’s also a magician. So, much of his life has been spent on a stage, performing. But in that sense, he’s no different than you or me. Whatever we’re doing, we’re performing.

“Performance is everywhere,” he says. “When I slipped getting out of a chair, that was a bad performance. Making a sandwich, that’s a performance. One day, I counted how many performances occurred before lunch, and there were more than 200.”

Nelsen is also a performance coach. He delivers “Fearless Performance” seminars that focus on strategies such as goal-setting and letting go of any destructive self-criticism to achieve peak performance.

Before going on stage — or making a sandwich— consider Nelsen’s advice:

  1. Have a definition of success that’s healthy and clear. “It doesn’t have to be realistic,” he says. “Look at me, I’m a pig farmer from Alberta, Canada, who tours the world as a classical French horn player.”
  2. Be solution-based. Make it about what to do, not what not to do. “Let’s say I’m trying to lose weight. If I put a note on my fridge that says, ‘Don’t eat pizza; don’t drink beer,” then I haven’t succeeded because I haven’t done anything. I’ve only not done things. It’s an avoidance. So put on the fridge, ‘Eat salads; drink water,’ or whatever. If you define the problem by changing it to a solution, you’ll end up doing those solving things, instead of avoiding your problem.”
  3. Learn; love well; and let go. “Throughout our life, we are learning what to love well and what to let go of … to clarify our thinking. We’re in trouble when we get complicated. A friend of mine who plays in the New York Philharmonic said to me, ‘I don’t go out there anymore to play my best; I go out there to play like me.’ I think that’s a great way to define authenticity.”
  4. Take ego out of the equation. “You are not what you do. If you didn’t get the job, don’t tell yourself that you weren’t worthy of it. You’re being just as arrogant as you are when you’re thinking more of yourself. Instead of thinking you’re the one with the problem, just get over it and join the party; we’re all prone to fear and chaos, so find focus amid the chaos. Get over yourself.”
  5. Collect success. “It’s much easier to be right about what could go wrong. It feels good and fulfilling to know what I messed up. But that’s what I call ‘wrong rights.’ That’s the shift that I try to do with people — name one thing that went well. I call it ‘success collecting.’ I try to get people to say a 100-percent-positive thing about something they did, maybe, ‘Oh, I played this one note beautifully.’ And that slowly starts the thaw from our inner critic telling us what went wrong.”
  6. Ditch perfectionism. “Perfectionism is the biggest illusion. Your personal success can be something you did well, not perfectly —  that’s an important detail. Some will say, ‘Oh, I did this well, but it wasn’t perfect,’ and they’ll start shutting down. Celebrate more things that went well.”

This article appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of the Indiana University Alumni Magazine.

Written By
Brian Hartz
Brian Hartz, MA’01, is a freelance journalist based in St. Petersburg, Fla. He also writes for the Indiana University Simon Cancer Center, The Gabber (Gulfport, Fla.) newspaper, Crain’s Tampa Bay business magazine, The Limestone Post, and the Business Observer (Sarasota, Fla.) newspaper, among others.