Rutland Herald (VT) March 15, 2015 Section: FEATURES

Book Review Too scared to perform?  ‘On Cue’

JIM LOWE – Staff Writer

On Cue: Managing Anxiety, Inviting Excellence” by Ron Thompson is available online at and For information, visit Local audiences likely know Ron Thompson best for his role in the Vermont Philharmonic’s annual performances of Handel’s “Messiah.” For when it’s time for “The trumpet shall sound,” Thompson’s trumpet sounds – brilliantly, with a luscious luster, and beautifully expressive.

But Thompson, who calls Calais home, is more than a veteran professional trumpeter who spent much of his life playing with top groups like the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C.

Thompson is a licensed and practicing psychologist who specializes in performance anxiety. (He’s also an electrical engineer, though that’s less relevant here.)

He points out that trumpet performance is a wonderful place to learn about performance anxiety, as there are no “soft” mistakes on the trumpet. Thompson has spent his life dealing with performance anxiety – often called “stage fright” – and has developed a system for dealing with it.

On Cue: Managing Anxiety, Inviting Excellence,” Thompson’s just-released book, introduces his “Masterful Life-Performance” method of dealing not only with performing artists’ stage fright, but the anxieties that prevent nearly everyone from living fully. The book is enhanced by the appropriately expressive black-and-white photographs of Patricia Lyon-Surrey.

“Masterful Life-Performance” is not a bag of tricks used to talk oneself out of fear; rather, it is a way of thinking, indeed living, that gives a performer the security to perform at peak. The performer’s cues come from their audiences, external and internal.

Thompson cites an early tour, in 1932, when jazz great Louis Armstrong reported great trepidation before playing at the Music Hall in London. When a request for “Tiger Rag” came expectedly from the audience, he – within himself – left London’s terrifying elegance for the New Orleans of his youth. He let loose and was rewarded with thunderous applause.
External audiences are thought of as the scariest, but it’s the internal self-criticism that is usually most debilitating. Childhood experiences are usually the source of deep insecurity that can destroy the best performer.

Of course, the technical ability to perform is a must. But after that, Thompson maintains the performer is able to choose his or her cue – or internal audience. This must be an audience of unconditional support, perhaps a recollection of a loving teacher or grandmother, or a picture. For one of Thompson’s “Messiah” performances, he used Kahlil Gibran’s sketch of the face of Jesus, “Good Friday.”

Perfectionism is one of the biggest enemies of peak performance. Thompson replaces perfectionism with “excellism” – the pursuit of excellence. He cites a quotation attributed to piano legend Vladimir Horowitz: “I must tell you I take terrible risks. Because my playing is very clear, when I make a mistake, you hear it. If you want me to play only the notes without any specific dynamics, I will never make one mistake. … Do you want to hear perfection, or do you want to hear Horowitz?”

Central to “Masterful Life-Performance” are seven essential areas of attitude: acceptance, forgiveness, trust, empathy, playfulness, presence and appreciation. And to achieve peak performance, they must be experienced unconditionally. Fortunately, Thompson offers very practical methods of achieving the ideal – unconditional presence.

This method relates not only to performing artists, as represented by Thompson’s personal experiences. The conceit of the book is a correspondence between Thompson and a surgeon plagued by self-doubt. Thompson uses examples from his psychology practice, from a young ex-con to a troubled man with autism.

The key is a loving “inner audience.”

Thompson sums it up: “The intent of Masterful Life-Performance is to empower people to experience peak performance in any chosen area of their lives, and to experience increased technical excellence, social contribution and inner wellbeing by alleviating performance anxiety.”