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So all that effort might have paid off; somebody important noticed your work and you finally got offered that big break, or at least something that looks like it might be The Next Big Thing in your career. You have the skills, the in-depth knowledge of your craft and the right tools for the job. All set and raring to go, right? Well, not exactly. That’s when you hear the little nagging voice in the back of your head saying you can’t or you shouldn’t, you’re not good enough, tall enough, or clever enough. Someone else out there can do it better than you. You might fail. Worse yet, you might embarrass yourself while failing. Or have a devastating wardrobe malfunction while in the process of otherwise embarrassing yourself and failing. Not to worry, some of the greatest of the great have felt this way and it’s not as bad as you think.

All of the above scenarios could happen, true. On the extreme edge of that kind of thinking, you could be performing your heart out and suddenly a giant asteroid slams into the Earth, squashing us like a cloud of summertime insects on a giant, cosmic windshield. On the other end of the probability spectrum, you could be out there doing your thing and Steven Tyler might wander by, exclaim that you’re “the best &*#$ing thing I’ve ever heard besides me,” hand you a wad of cash and a scarf or two, sign you up on a fat retainer in perpetuity and strut off into the sunset. The asteroid scenario is pretty unlikely and there wouldn’t be anything you could realistically do about it anyway, so it’s not even worth considering (unless you’re an insurance company). The Steven Tyler scenario is more likely to occur than a catastrophic cosmic collision, but still a long shot. You’re probably better off buying the scarves yourself. So what’s left? An awful lot of spectrum, none of which is a possibility at all if you don’t make the attempt.

I’m not advocating a blind leap off any old cliff — “use your head when wearing a hat,” as my 96-year-old grandmother says (yes, I really do have a 96-year-old grandmother who’s sharp as a tack and still rolls her own cigarettes to this day, thankyouverymuch). Before you leap, do your homework, research your options and make an informed decision. A cynic might characterize the entertainment industry as a cutthroat business that only the most clever or ruthless players survive in the long run, and on an organized, corporate level, it’s a great beast that specializes in eating its own young. An optimist would say with a little talent and a lot of bravado, the entertainment world is your oyster to open and the possibilities are endless for success. Being somewhat older and wiser than I used to be, and having endured the slings and arrows of adversity — or at least learned how to duck most of them, I tend to take a more cautious, moderate view; the entertainment business is what you make it. Despite your anxieties, people do want what you have to offer; witness the half billion videos uploaded to YouTube to date and the one trillion view mark hit in 2011. You have at least as much talent as a piano-playing cat. If you’ve been gifted with talent or built talents from scratch with endless hours of practice, grit, sweat and determination, I truly believe it’s a crime not to use them and take an informed chance.

Regardless of your industry view, there are predators out there who will not hesitate to take advantage if you don’t enter into a contractual agreement with your eyes and ears open. Make no mistake, entertainment is a business and everybody is out to make money — off of you. The talent you have is a commodity and like wheat, frozen concentrated orange juice, crude oil or pork bellies, everybody wants to buy low and sell high. Being true to your art is a noble sentiment but in the end, it’s doesn’t pay the bills, except perhaps for your progeny and relatives who’ll go through your meager possessions and sell your brilliance for top dollar after you’ve departed this vale of tears. The part of the starving artiste has already been taken; make sure you get all you should realistically be getting. Maintaining up-to-date industry knowledge will reveal what’s currently fair and what’s ridiculous to ask for. Ask too much and you’ll be dismissed as a prima donna. Ask too little and you may forever be discounted as an amateur player. There’s a middle ground; assess all of what you’re bringing to the table and the effort involved in delivering it before naming a price. If you’re losing money on the deal, it’s not a job, it’s a hobby. In a well executed show, the audience believes it’s all fun and games — and a lot of it is — but those who truly do it, understand how much work is actually involved. Compensation should be commensurate with effort. Opportunities may arise in the short-term and you might seemingly make a few quick bucks if you don’t take all the effort into account. But in the long-term, there isn’t anybody else there to look after your career but you and losing money every job isn’t a good business plan.

Your misgivings about The Big Break aren’t unique and performance anxiety as it relates to performing artists has been extensively studied by the medical field for a very long time.

“Nothing is more devastating to a performing artist than not having the chance to be on stage,” writes Eric A. Plaut in Science and Medicine’s Medical Problems of the Performing Artist in March, 1990, “and as the pervasiveness of performance anxiety attests, nothing is more threatening than having that chance.”

In other words, good news, you got the job; bad news, you got the job. The causes are myriad, affecting the humblest to the greatest performers. The “remedies” are just as diverse, from ingesting beta blockers to New Age spiritual channeling. The prospect of The Big Break can be just as terrifying as stage performance because in the back of your mind, there’s a pervasive fear, “If I screw this job up, I won’t get another chance.”  In this writer’s humble opinion, chances are just that — chance. Taking charge of your career, proactively managing and promoting your talents and continually honing your craft usually creates chances to prove your worth now and greatly increases the probability of having work sent your way in the future. Experience and thoughtful research make it easier to decide which offers are worth chasing.

So what if you do take a chance on a job and then screw up? It will happen because we’re not automatons. If you’re like me, the actual magnitude of the screw up and the amount of self-flagellation involved afterwards are often very diverse. Sometimes, I’ll lay awake at night going over and over the last show and asking myself things like, “How could you mess up that phrase? You’ve done it correctly for years!” I know it’s a futile exercise but sometimes it happens anyway because old habits are hard to break. The best I can hope after committing the heinous crime of a flubbed lick is to spend the time working on the problem areas and not make the same mistake in the next show. Brooding over the errors breeds doubt of ability, and doubt produces more errors in a vicious, self-defeating cycle.

In performance, handling a screw-up gracefully is the key to surviving it. Realistically, most audiences are pretty forgiving of minor performance mistakes, or completely oblivious to them if they’re into what you’re doing. Drawing attention to the mistake only makes it worse. Freezing after a mistake will inevitably sink you and usually the best course of action is to just “play through them.” In my opinion, mistakes in non-live-performance jobs are far more easier to handle because you usually have time to adapt and possibly repair the problem, but they can still be a major source of anxiety. How the hiring/commissioning entity handles your mistakes is a matter of psychology. Like audiences, most are pretty forgiving of little problems if you handle them gracefully. If they’re completely unforgiving of minor issues, likely they aren’t worth working for (unless a proven stepping stone to greater things and required to “pay your dues”). Before taking on the project, again, do your homework, find out who else has done work for them in the past and ask pointed questions. You’d be surprised how candidly people may speak to you. Weigh their responses and decide accordingly.

Long-term survival in the entertainment industry (and this includes performance, composition, journalism,  literary arts, athletics and yes, politics, if you come right down to it) requires cultivation of a thick hide, grace under pressure and a somewhat devil-may-care attitude about mistakes and detractors, providing you learn from them.  If you’re getting paid for a job, you owe it to the people who hired you to do the best you possibly can, just like any other job, and that includes putting on a happy face when things aren’t necessarily a bowl of cherries. Making a choice to be in the entertainment industry means, like it or not, people will be looking at you. How you handle yourself when confronted with errors, problems or hecklers is noticed and may affect you later on, whether you got paid for the job or not. What I’m trying to say is, yes, sometimes you just have to smile and “fake it until you make it” while cultivating those survivalist qualities.

I grew up in a musical household; in fact, both of my parents were musicians. My dad was a solid jazz drummer, vocalist and blues harp player for many years. My mom was an accomplished keyboardist, primarily on the venerable Hammond B3 (I don’t envy my father hauling that 300-lb beast around from gig to gig…), and equally adept on the piano. She was a veritable fount of knowledge and advice, especially regarding taking leaps of faith while squarely in the un-blinking gaze of the public eye. In her musical career spanning 50+ years, she played under some of the best and worst conditions imaginable, from tiny, foul, smoke-filled bars filled with thugs and mobsters in the 1950’s, raucous, friendly bars in New Orleans’ Marigny neighborhood pre- and post-Katrina, dusty bars on the plateaus of South Africa, fog-shrouded pubs in the north of Scotland, grand lounges of shining, 1500-passenger cruise ships plying the North Sea, to glittering, sky-lit, 5-star hotel atria in Paris (at 70 years of age) — and everywhere in between. She would play at the drop of a hat because she loved what she did, didn’t care who liked it or not, and very few disliked her playing indeed. She didn’t get to those places because they were handed to her, she took charge of her fears, assessed the risks, took the chances and did what she dreamed of.

Although very supportive in my musical endeavors growing up, I always sensed those long shadows of talent cast by my parents and it’s been a constant effort to feel comfortable enough to stand in the light alone. I still sometimes feel those shadows today but I’m learning my parent’s capacity to overcome the fear of failure. We’re all going to screw up from time to time, and again, usually the screw-ups are so slight that nobody notices but us, our own worst critics. You can’t dwell on errors. If you live in constant fear of failure, you’ll never perform on that cruise ship.

My mother had sage words to offer me any time I felt unsure of myself or unworthy of sharing my talents. I in turn, reverently offer them to you, dear reader, who may be hanging on the horns of a career choice dilemma yourself.

“Look out at those people,” she’d say. “How many of them can do what you can do? Not many, I bet.  And out of those who might be able to do what you do, how many have the stones to be up here now? None. So suck it up, get out there and play, because they’re not waiting for anyone else, they’re waiting for you.”

A wise woman, my mother, strong, graceful, fearless and the true definition of an entertainer.