This past February I had the good fortune to spend two idyllic weeks in rural New Mexico for an intensive viola retreat. I enjoyed a respite from the bustle of NYC freelance life, luxuriating in the wide-open spaces and sweeping silence of the high desert, and I also worked hard, incorporating a new approach to physical and aural coordination into my technique. I interspersed practice sessions with long walks in nature and relaxing drives to local tourist attractions. But the most unexpected benefit of the time away was an exchange I shared with a friend I met on my trip, who taught me a difficult but valuable lesson about the power of being ordinary in a profession where specialness is often the most coveted currency.
The woman I met offered to teach me a little about the enneagram, which is essentially a conceptual tool for self-understanding. When she explained the different “enneatypes,” several stood out to me right away, but after some discussion I recognized myself in one particular type even more clearly, much to my chagrin. “If you are this type,” she began, “then your basic delusion is that you're separate from everyone else because you're special. Your basic fear is of being ordinary like the rest of us.” Ouch. She asked how that sat with me, and I confessed that I thought it was right on. We talked about professional envy and comparison, about how much my striving for musical excellence is tied up with trying to attain a superiority that never quite seems to materialize. Then she gave me one last piece of advice:
“Nora, I know you think you'd be happy if you played like so-and-so, that your highest priority is to be a great violist.” She hesitated. “But I'm telling you...your highest priority is to be a good-enough violist.” She looked at me soberly to see if I understood. “That's going to be very hard for you,” she admitted. “Being ok with the way you are is actually harder for you than trying to be the best,” she explained. “But if you can do it, you will be a truly powerful musician,” she said, placing her hand over her heart, “because you will have accepted yourself. And self-acceptance is not a performance.”
I knew my friend's advice was right--just dropping the struggle and feeling the possibility of being good enough already was a huge relief. But she was also correct that letting go of old ways of thinking wouldn't be easy. It was just too tempting to keep leaning on the fantasy that some day, if I learned enough and worked hard enough, I would finally play in a way that satisfied me, could finally prove that I was worthy. All around me, it seemed, other people were accomplishing so much more, at such a higher level, and everything I'd done seemed so insignificant in comparison. “You can't be satisfied,” the nagging voice in my head insisted, “until you're special, like them. Anything less is a disgrace.”
Yet the more attention I paid to my thinking, the more suspect it seemed, and the more suffering I realized it was causing. Sure, I was terrified of being average and undistinguished, because I still thought being ordinary was a source of shame. But even bigger than that fear was the heartbreak caused by continually failing to meet the unreasonable (and grandiose) standards I'd set for myself. I finally felt ready to lay down the burden of trying to manifest specialness, and just be myself and enjoy making music, however flawed it might be. But as I soon discovered, reconciling being a performer with being an ordinary person is not only challenging on an individual level; in a culture where specialness is often prized above all else, it's downright subversive.
Confronting the Myth of Specialness
Several weeks after returning from New Mexico, I came face-to-face with my fear of being ordinary when I was asked to perform a difficult solo piece at a house concert. While I knew a handful of people in the audience, most of them were strangers, and though my performance was an important part of the event, it wasn't scheduled to happen until midway through, and not necessarily the main attraction. So while sitting alone in a side room, I tried to channel my anxious anticipation into a calm, focused energy that would help me claim the performance space as my own the moment I walked in. While the audience chatted in between pieces, I closed my eyes and exhaled, and imagined walking out to greet them, witnessing their disembodied voices become flesh-and-blood people welcoming me with applause.
Then something unexpected happened. Several guests wandered past the room where I was sitting, and their conversation came into focus. At first I didn't know what they were talking about, but hearing just a few words was enough to send my mind spinning: “I completely disagree that most musicians suffer from stage fright!” a woman's voice insisted. “I hardly never get nervous to perform. In fact, I would say that the great talents don't get nervous at all—it's just natural for them, after all. I mean, if you're the type of person who gets nervous and you're trying to be a professional musician, you're setting yourself up for a lifetime of disappointment, don't you think?” I could practically hear her shaking her head in disgust.
As if that weren't bad enough to overhear, another man jumped in to agree with her. “Oh yes, thank you for saying that! I can't relate to this idea of having to overcome fear at all. I was a soloist for many years, and I recall feeling so much joy and excitement before a performance, I just couldn't wait to get onstage! Any self-consciousness at all on the part of the performer is hugely detrimental,” he scoffed. “I believe if you are nervous, you simply cannot play your best!”
Eventually they wandered off in search of hors d'oeuvres, but I felt the trouble brewing deep in my stomach. I'd been ok with the idea of performing a difficult piece (after sitting for close to two hours without being able to warm up) for an appreciative audience who was willing to accept the sincere efforts of a competent—if undistinguished—violist. I was not prepared to perform for people who insisted that if I felt at all afraid, I might as well hang it all up and go live in a dumpster. My heart started racing, and I felt a shakiness rising up from my core. Maybe they were right. Maybe I was not special, like them. Maybe my dreams of being a musician were silly, would amount to nothing. Maybe I was too scared to be a performer. I thought about leaving, saying I didn't feel well. I saw how easily it could all fall apart.
And in the next instant, I saw that I could choose not to let that happen. I couldn't choose not to be nervous, or to be better violist, or to have a more affirming audience. I couldn't choose to be anything other than my ordinary self. But I could choose not to be ashamed of who I was. When it was time for me to play several minutes later, I walked out in front of the audience, introduced myself and the piece, and did my best to counter the dismissive talk I'd overheard with my performance. Maintaining my composure and standing up for my right to be heard might not make much of an impression on them, I reasoned, but it meant a hell of a lot to me. I got through the piece just fine and tried to brush it off as an unpleasant but valuable learning experience. But the learning wasn't over yet.
Looking in the Mirror
Several weeks later, on a day off I decided it was time to listen to some recent recital recordings, which I'd been putting off until I felt ready. With a mix of hopefulness and trepidation, I sat down with my headphones and hit “play.” Within a minute or two, I judged that, as usual, my playing had failed to meet my sky-high expectations. It was ok, there were some nice moments, and I'd clearly benefited from my hard work in the practice room, but it still didn't sound commanding enough, clean enough. It wasn't...special. Which was strange, because the audience had loved it.
I was dulled out by familiar discouragement when I arrived at the second-to-last piece on the program, “Spiegel Im Spiegel,” by Arvo Pärt. The title means “mirror in a mirror,” and as I heard myself explain to the audience on the recording, the most salient meaning of the title, to me, is that a mirror reflects everything that is present, perfectly. In my mind that “everything” includes everything...there is truly nowhere to hide in this piece. I reflected morosely on that fact as I listened back to my rendition, which had seemed heartfelt at the time, maybe even transcendent. But what most caught my attention listening back were the tiny inaccuracies: a note taking too long to slide into focus, an unsteadiness in tone, a hesitation. And so on.
And yet, midway through hearing the piece, I started to cry, without knowing why. In part, I was reacting to the shock of seeing myself clearly, of accepting that no amount of transformative work or wistful daydreaming would turn me into the different, “special” person of my fantasies. But the sound of myself coming through the headphones was also mirroring back something unexpected, something more than the flaws.
It was a message from myself, a reminder in this moment of desperation, and meant to be shared with you now: it's ok to be ordinary. When the trophies and the accolades and even the craft itself fall away, we are simply vulnerable, unadorned human beings, and that alone is enough to be worthy of dignity and praise. It must be, because it's how every one of us enters this world, and it's how we will leave it, no matter what we have achieved in between.
The people I overheard at the house concert dismissing the merits of art made by mere mortals may be much more accomplished than I will ever be. But no matter how much I tremble and worry and doubt myself, I strive to believe that I don't have to be the best musician on earth to be worthy of speaking what is in my heart and my imagination, and neither do you. If you're also suffering, I invite you take a step outside the spotlight of “specialness,” or the striving for it, with me. We can wake up, look around at this beautiful world that's been given to us, and take our place in it, among everyone else here. Here we can rest, in the place that the heart calls home. Welcome.