IIRY Podcast: 26. Blair McMillen: “It’s okay to be vulnerable.”
A chat with pianist Blair McMillen, about performance anxiety, perfectionism, and why process is more important than product.

In this conversation with pianist Blair McMillen, we discuss how to manage stage fright and performance anxiety; why being a part-time musician can be a healthy option; why we should talk openly about what a musician’s life is really like; and why he wishes classical music could be more about process than product.

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Blair McMillen

Blair’s YouTube channel

2:12 – Blair talks about how he got started, going to Interlochen, and then Oberlin.

4:59 – Blair’s struggles with a “debilitating fear of performance” and how he learned to manage this anxiety and stage fright. How beta blockers helped him deal with his “preoccupation with playing perfectly.”

Noa Kageyama, The Bulletproof Musician

13:08 – How Blair helps his own students deal with performance anxiety and stage fright.

14:36 – How talking about “uncomfortable things and awkward truths” was “taboo” when Blair was in school. The “hero worship” of teachers in music school who seemed to have “perfect lives.” “Students want to know their teachers aren’t perfect human beings.”

16:30 – How a broad liberal arts education helped Blair discover his interest in music of the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s and opened the door to contemporary music for him.

Tim Weiss, Oberlin College and Conservatory

21:08 – Blair talks about his years at The Juilliard School, going from a broad range school to a conservatory’s narrower focus.

23:44 – Blair and I talk about life after graduating from Juilliard.

26:05 – How the advent of the Internet changed the perception of entrepreneurship and self-promotion in classical music. The need to change the classical music paradigm.

29:08 – How the “old guard” mentality about achieving a career in classical music gives very little agency to the performer.

31:20 – How COVID has affected performers and how the pandemic may push us to be more creative and resilient.

32:42 – Blair’s love of learning music that has little or no “performance history” and how this liberated his interest in contemporary music.

34:22 – How music students today are interested in expanding past the idea of classical music as Eurocentric. “A life in music will not be a recital-oriented, soloist-oriented life.”

37:07 – How the attitudes towards contemporary music and teaching have changed.

38:02 – The pandemic and the importance of “trying things you’re not good at.” “It’s okay to have doubts and it’s okay to try other things for a while….It’s okay to be vulnerable.”

42:34 – “I so wish that classical music could be more about the process than the product.”

45:49 – Why being a part-time, semi-professional musician can be a healthy option. “It’s okay to be part-time, it’s okay to let it go for a while.” “Try not to base your own self-worth on what other people think about you.”

47:50 – Why open conversation about the realities of a musician’s life is important. “It’s okay to not have a clear vision of what your life is going to look like as a musician.” “Doubt about the future, for better or worse, is part of the ‘crazy life’ of a musician.”



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