Getting comfortable taking risks is an essential part of the creative process. But as classical musicians, we rarely learn how to exercise this muscle during our conservatory training.
Here are 4 ways you can practice getting comfortable taking risks, both on and off the stage:
1. Start small.
Like with any skill, you can build up to taking larger risks by starting with small, low-stakes exercises.
I originally heard about the “Coffee Challenge” in Tim Ferriss’ interview with Noah Kagan.
The challenge is simple: walk into a coffee shop, order something, and ask for 10% off your order. No need to rationalize or sell your reason why; just ask and wait for a reaction.
It sounds easy, but most people will find a reason not to do it. According to Kagan, the point of the exercise is to follow through with something that’s slightly uncomfortable.
“If you have a little discomfort, that’s the moment you start growing and learning… You find out, ‘Hey I’m still alive’…A lot of people psych themselves out before they even start.”
Each time you take a risk in a small, low-stakes setting, you will feel slightly more comfortable next time you have a chance to take a bigger risk.
You can apply this same idea onstage, too. Next time you’re playing a concert, try a new fingering or bowing. Just one. See how it feels to try something new in that context, and gradually build up to experimenting with phrasing and timing.
2. Get comfortable being uncomfortable.
One of the basic tenets of the Stanford d.school is learning how to “get comfortable being uncomfortable.” It sounds trite, but the beauty of this idea is that once you’re okay with feeling uncomfortable, you no longer shy away from opportunities that put you outside of your comfort zone.
Getting out of your comfort zone is so important because it’s often where the most important learning and growing happens.
Here’s an easy (in theory) way to practice being uncomfortable, championed by “The Iceman” Wim Hof: the cold shower.
For the best benefits, incorporate cold showers into your daily routine. As this takes strength and dedication, Wim advises to gradually build up the duration and intensity. If you have no prior experience with cold showers, start with a regular shower and finish the last 30 seconds cold. You quickly notice that you are able to tolerate the cold more and more, and eventually cold showers and even ice baths become things you look forward to (trust us).
I haven’t quite gotten to that last phase yet, but I will say that a morning burst of cold makes you feel slightly more OK with discomforts throughout the rest of the day. And, most importantly, exercising the “uncomfortable” muscle every day makes it a little bit easier every time you find yourself in a situation that puts you outside your comfort zone.
3. Consider risk an opportunity.
I can’t tell you how many musicians I’ve talked to who are afraid to program certain pieces, take auditions, or generally put themselves out there because they’re afraid of the consequences of failing. Of course nobody wants to set themselves up to fail, but sometimes the best (and only) way to see what you’re capable of is to stretch yourself and push your boundaries.
Instead of thinking of these risks as scary and doomed for failure, I like to think of them as opportunities to learn, grow, and test myself to see what I am capable of.
Rather than mentally saying “I hope I don’t mess up” and praying for the moment to pass as quickly as possible, challenge yourself to remain as aware of your emotions and actions as you can throughout the entire experience. Don’t judge how well or poorly you’re doing; simply watch yourself throughout the process of taking said risk and see what happens.
When you observe yourself instead of judging, you walk away from the experience having learned something, regardless of your “failure” or “success.” The entire experience becomes about personal growth, which is a much more sustainable and rewarding way to push your boundaries and continue to grow as an artist.
4. Remember that you are not your failures (or successes).
With something as personal as music, it’s easy to attach your self-worth to your professional performance.
The truth is, we all fail sometimes. And we all succeed.
Learning to create a healthy separation between your personal self-worth and your triumphs and disappointments as an artist is the only way to thrive in the difficult, competitive world that we live in.
And the process is 100% worth it.
What other risk-taking practices or mindsets have you found helpful in your own life? Leave a note in the comments!