A number of years ago a conductor I knew from a handful of previous engagements invited me to be a guest principal for a concert with a chamber orchestra in Europe. When I arrived at the first rehearsal, exhausted from the trip, I was feeling a little apprehensive at the prospect of leading such a formidable ensemble as a guest—I had prepared well, but I'd never played with the orchestra and was the sole American flown halfway across the world to fill out and lead the ranks of more local players. After glancing around the rehearsal room at the other musicians taking out their instruments, tuning, and warming up on tricky passages, my eyes drifted to the principal viola stand, where I saw my would-be stand partner intently marking something in the part. I strode over to the stand and turned to her with a smile.Read More
A few years ago, while I was serving as the acting principal of the viola section of a regional orchestra, I played a concert of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony that taught me something about letting go in performance and accepting the result. The orchestra had been looking to fill the position for several years, and I had been invited to sit in numerous times, never sure if I would be hired again, or for what chair, or who else they had in mind for the job. I tried to take each performance as seriously as a job interview: I had to demonstrate that I was competent and not afraid to take charge, even though I was a relative newcomer to the ensemble, much younger than the other players in the section, and had never held a permanent principal position in a professional orchestra.Read More
As I write this, I am recovering from a difficult week. November is a busy time for musicians, and after more than a year of paying intense attention to the swings of political drama in the American presidential election, I was eager to set aside the fear and disgust that the campaign had surfaced and put the daily distraction behind me. Furthermore, I was more than ready to elect the nation's first woman president, a gesture of visibility and empowerment for women and girls worldwide and a sign of national progress toward gender parity.Read More
A few weeks ago, my husband and I played a show together in New York that I had plenty of reasons to be nervous about. For one thing, it had been a while since we'd played a formal concert as a duo--the previous year our free time had been consumed with planning our wedding, and the ongoing work of trying to build a teaching studio--so we felt a little rusty. I was also exhausted from driving 425 miles back to New York from the weeklong Art of Practicing Institute summer program the day before. In addition, the pieces we'd chosen to play were fairly virtuosic, and since we hadn't rehearsed in over a week there was no telling what kind of shape they would be in. The venue was a prominent space for very avant-garde, improvised music, and we didn't know if anyone would appreciate the pieces on our program. To top it off, we were the closing set in a composer residency, where we would be premiering a new work by the composer. And did I mention that both my husband and the composer of the piece we were premiering are, like myself, also violists? Excellent violists?
Like I said, I had plenty of reasons to worry about what might happen, and how it would be received.
Choosing to Trust Myself
But earlier that week, I'd had some helpful preparation for this stressful event when I attended the Art of Practicing Institute summer program for the fourth consecutive year. While every year had been quite different from the previous, this one was especially different: I was returning as an assistant teacher. When program founder Madeline Bruser initially invited me to teach, I was full of doubt. I was by far the youngest and least experienced teacher on the faculty, and I wasn't sure I'd learned the principles well enough to teach them to someone else, let alone someone who didn't play the same instrument as I did. I'd only recently begun to gain greater confidence as a performer, and I wondered if I would be able to set a courageous example in the closing concert. And I'd been through so much emotionally in previous years at the program, I wasn't sure how well I would be able to attend to others who needed support.
In spite of my worry, I knew that Madeline had asked me to teach for a reason—she saw I was ready to grow even more. Going into the week, I decided that I wouldn't try to force myself to be any different than I was. The purpose of my being there, I reminded myself, was not to prove I was worthy of praise, or show how much I knew already. The purpose was to learn more, and to share what I had learned for the benefit of others.
Surprisingly, it went pretty well. I managed to teach effectively, by relying on my own knowledge and instincts, asking for the student's input, and accepting lots of guidance and feedback from other teachers. When internal emotional turmoil arose, I handled it skillfully, and it passed. When participants asked me questions about meditation or performing, I tried to answer fully and truthfully—offering whatever wisdom I may have had without obscuring the messy reality of my own situation. Something strange seemed to be happening: I was choosing to trust myself, and I wasn't failing.
But Would It Hold Up?
Between the full daily schedule and my need for rest, I didn't have luxurious amounts of time or energy for practicing. I knew the two movements of Schumann that I planned to play in the concert quite well, and since the pianist who would be accompanying me had learned them beautifully, there wasn't a lot for us to do. In my three previous years of playing in the master classes, I had delved deeply into the nuances of my playing and my sometimes thorny relationship to performing, with a supportive audience witnessing my struggle and transformation. But this time, I was mostly witnessing others' transformative experiences. In a way, it was was a relief to play a more supporting role, but also a little disorienting, and I didn't know how I would fare playing in front of everyone for the first time on the last night of the program.
Inevitably, it all came down to trusting myself, again. I've come to see it as an act of will, a choice to stay open, ask my mind to relax, and let my intuition take over. Doubtful thoughts tend to appear no matter how well I've prepared or what the circumstances are. But everything depends on how I respond to them: when I become involved with them, or linger over them, my mind contracts, I lose touch with the moment, and my playing falters. But when doubtful thoughts arise and I can acknowledge them and immediately come back to the moment, I sail through split-second lapses before they interrupt the flow. I am beginning to get a feel for this experience of riding the razor's edge—and not falling off—but it's still quite new. All week I wondered if during the concert a wave of anxiety would well up as it had so many times before, and if I would be ill-prepared to meet it.
But the main thing I felt instead, in the hours before the performance, was a very unfamiliar feeling: calm, steady, groundedness. There was no squeeze of anxiety, no burning shame about my faults or eagerness to strut my stuff. I felt almost empty. I wondered if my lack of fear or passion was downright disrespectful, a sign that I didn't care enough, except that there wasn't anything I could do about it. Previously, I couldn't control my fear; I could only accept it as it was. This time, I couldn't control this strange, new sensation of inner calm.
I did feel a little more anxious right before I walked onstage, but the feeling of basic trust remained. It felt simple, direct, unadorned. I was standing on the earth, and there was no risk of falling off. I walked onstage, bowed, played the two movements without any mishaps, bowed again to warm applause, and left the stage. I had chosen to trust myself, radically, and the disaster I'd been fearing never materialized.
Trying It Out in the Real World
My experience playing at the closing concert of the summer program was still fresh in my mind when my husband and I were preparing to go onstage for our duo show back in New York. Again, I saw that my only choice was to trust my preparation and my instincts, and to do the best I could. And again, I found that in spite of my discomfort with some parts of the situation, I felt physically calm and grounded. As we played, I let go of all judgment and kept coming back to the present, over and over.
To my surprise, the show was great. We played with conviction, and the audience was full of enthusiasm and appreciation. I felt honored to have had such a rich experience in a culturally important space, and proud of my partnership with my husband. I couldn't believe it had been so...simple.
In reflecting on all of this, I remembered a conversation I had about confidence with program founder Madeline Bruser during our week together. I told her that I'd begun to see that, while confidence can be eroded through negative social conditioning, it can also be (re)learned through positive experiences with facing our fears. She quickly agreed—this route to confidence is a foundational premise of her teaching. But when I mused that perhaps some other performers are simply born confident, she gently corrected me. “Nora,” she said, “remember that every single human being is born a helpless baby. No one is born confident.”
Her words flipped a switch in my mind, and something new was illuminated.
Confidence = Trusting Yourself in the Face of Uncertainty
In the book Conquering Fear: Awakening the Heart of True Bravery, Chögyam Trungpa says, “Whenever there is doubt, that creates another step on your staircase. Doubt is telling you that you need to take another step. Each time there is an obstacle, go one step further, beyond that, step-by-step.”
No one is born fearless, but we can cultivate fearlessness--not through getting rid of fear, but by meeting it and then going beyond it. What this summer's experience clarified for me is that we can't become fearless without going through fear: that's like trying to swim across a river without getting wet. But each time we meet the fear of performing with the right kind of attitude and preparation, we grow a little bigger than the fear, and it controls us a little less than before. Eventually, we may have performances where the fear seems so diminished that it's hardly there at all: but it's not because we've made the fear smaller, it's because we've gotten bigger.
When I first started learning the Schumann piece I performed this summer, over a year ago, I went step-by-step toward the confidence I wanted. I started by feeling and appreciating my enthusiasm for learning a new recital program of music I felt deeply connected to. I was mindful of recital dates I had scheduled, but instead of frantically trying to learn everything at tempo right away, I took my time. When tricky passages eluded my command, I examined them with a sense of curiosity rather than urgency—what makes this so difficult? What's getting in the way of the flow here? What am I doing with my hands in this spot? What does this harmony sound like when I play the piano chord under it and sing my note? Gradually, I learned everything up to speed. When it was time to perform the pieces for the first time a few months later, my connection to the music was durable even though I felt nervous, because I had taken the time to learn the music deeply, and I had positive associations with it from the many pleasurable hours I'd spent working on it. As I had more chances to perform the pieces, I learned even more about them. And each time I met the fear of performing and stayed open, my sense of trust in my own command grew stronger. I was learning the music, and I was learning fearlessness at the same time.
As I'm discovering, the experience of learning a piece deeply can take months or years, but we can also relax and enjoy the process. Likewise, though the ascent from fear to fearlessness is a continuous journey—because life always seems to lead us to new challenges—we can celebrate this boundless opportunity to grow. And, I now believe that climbing from self-doubt into confidence gets easier with practice. Though we can't ever predict what will happen in the moment of performance, each time we make the journey, step-by-step, we know the way a little better for the next time.
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Several weeks ago, as many freelance musicians must do from time to time, I chose to play a gig that really frustrated me. It paid decently, wasn’t that far away, the orchestra sounded great, and the music was wonderful. The problem was the conductor: though he meant well, he had a maddening habit of stopping the orchestra every few seconds to make a correction or insist that the players weren’t following him. He sought to control every detail of the music, forcing the players to render his idiosyncratic interpretation of the piece or risk being called out as incompetent or inattentive.
Not wanting to appear rude or unprofessional, the musicians did the best they could to tamp down their frustration. They laughed it off, tried to stay positive, drifted into their own thoughts, or stopped caring about playing well. I tried to take it in stride at first, but eventually I found myself veering from mere annoyance to fury. In an attempt to buoy my spirits, I ate a whole box of chocolate chip cookies on the way home, but it didn’t help very much!
The worst part was that the conductor genuinely wanted the music to sound good and couldn’t understand how his lack of trust demeaned the musicians and squandered their talent and their sincere desire to make beautiful music together. As grateful as I was for the paycheck, after the second rehearsal I vowed never to play the gig again.
One morning midway through the week I sat down to meditate, feeling irritated at the prospect of enduring yet another rehearsal obeying this conductor’s abrasive commands.
I decided to try a guided meditation on anger. When I began, what I noticed most was a feeling of burning tightness around my throat. As I sat with it as instructed, I slowly felt the sensation move into my upper abdomen, and it started to feel less like anger and more like despair. And that’s when I understood what was fueling the intensity of my anger toward the conductor: I had such a wealth of things to express through the music, but I didn’t feel I had any space to express them. It made me remember lessons where I was so frustrated by my inability to play exquisitely that every critical comment from the teacher just shut me down.
The Root of Anger
Anger is a tricky emotion, and it shows up in many forms for artists: frustration with colleagues, or the way our career is going, or where we are with our playing. When handled badly, anger can be extremely destructive, like an out-of-control fire. But while we are often told not to take out our aggression on others directly, many of us haven’t been taught what to do next. And if we feel we must contain our anger or else risk alienating others, we often turn that aggression on ourselves by becoming perfectionists, or developing addictions or depression. Or, we unwittingly take it out on other people through being critical or controlling. Although we may realize that these patterns take a toll, it can be hard to manage them when we don’t acknowledge their source.
However, when anger is handled skillfully, it is energy that can be put to good use: it is less like a blazing forest fire and more like a searing beam of light. Anger can illuminate the places in our lives that feel out of balance. Recognizing those places can lead to wise action, such as declining to work in conditions where we are being demeaned, or speaking up for ourselves or others in a way that promotes greater sanity and justice, or taking better care of ourselves. At the most basic level, we are angry and frustrated because we care deeply about music and have an intense need to express our truth. Figuring out how to manage this profound need is one of the great challenges of being an artist.
Embracing the Unacceptable
As aggravating as the situation was, my anger toward the controlling conductor was only part of the story. The frustration I felt, when transmuted through my meditation into a longing to communicate, led me to a deeper question: While I felt so stifled by this tyrannical conductor, was I really allowing myself to express everything fully when I did have the chance? In other situations where I had greater creative latitude, did I explode with freedom and expressive power?
While I felt I’d made tremendous progress in this regard, I saw that, strangely, the performing opportunities that offered me the greatest freedom also aroused the greatest apprehension. My fear was that in trying to let truth fly free I would do or say something through my playing that was unacceptable. And there are so many ways to feel unacceptable that are conditioned through our musical training, our upbringing, and our broader culture, that avoiding all of them while trying to be artistically free was impossible. No wonder I felt so frustrated and stuck.
Then I remembered a quote from Tara Brach, one of my favorite meditation teachers: “The limit to what we can accept is the limit of our freedom.”
And I finally saw something I’d been missing: that, far from being a way to prove to everyone how acceptable I was, music was my chance to say and be everything, including, and especially, what I felt was unacceptable.
Plenty of artists feel that their art is truly the only avenue for expressing what they fear is unacceptable; it is the only place they feel free to be fully themselves. But for me, this is such a radical shift that I am still letting myself absorb it. I ask myself, what is it that I most want and fear to say, and is there room for that in my playing? If you’re curious, I invite you to do the same. We owe ourselves, and each other, this measure of freedom.
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A few days ago I was grudgingly contemplating the prospect of writing a long-overdue post to my blog on the inner life of being a performing musician. I had a collection of unfinished articles that had begun with promising ideas, but then fizzled out once I felt the inspiration wane. After posting my inaugural article “On Jealousy and True Belonging,” in July 2014, I had received messages from the thousands of musicians, both friends and strangers, who responded positively to its message about finding a sense of belonging no matter where we are in the world of music. Some of the messages were heartfelt thanks from people who felt my words had reached them at a critical time. Others were full of good-natured advice from older musicians. As I read these kind messages, something struck me about my writing, and it was so obvious I couldn’t believe I had never noticed it: I had been so focused on identifying and grappling with the obstacles to becoming a confident and fulfilled musician, and helping others do the same, that I had completely neglected to honor the immense changes I’ve experienced since writing that first article.
A couple of years ago I was having coffee with a violinist friend, talking about these very obstacles I’ve spent the last few years confronting and chronicling. She recounted something her therapist had said to her: “Artists, especially musicians, are so disciplined and ambitious. You’re always focused on how much farther you have to go up the mountain. When do you stop and admire the view, congratulate yourselves on how much you’ve climbed already?”
The Root of the Problem
When I first began to confront my fear of performing in a more direct way, it didn’t take long for me to realize that the process wasn’t just about changing my practice habits, or refining my technique, or getting more experience as a performer. Instead, it was about a much deeper issue that was directly influencing all of those things: my attitude toward myself. When musicians struggle with major roadblocks to playing and performing the way we want to, our relationship to ourselves is often the last place we look. Usually our musical education is focused on accumulating an intimate knowledge of our instrument and the musical tradition we follow through study with a respected teacher, practice, and performing experience. Through exposure to our teachers’ expertise, exploration with fellow students, and performing, we gain proficiency and confidence. For plenty of people, this model seems to work.
For others, the fear of performing goes beyond garden-variety nerves that can be managed with adequate preparation and experience, and reassuring words from teachers and friends. After years of dedicated study, I eventually realized that my efforts to be a confident and effective performer were just fussing around the edges of a major problem: if I didn’t approve of myself, how could I ever become truly at home giving myself to an audience?
As discouraging as it was to realize how much havoc my attitude toward myself was wreaking on my performing, it was also a relief to understand why after so many years of accumulating skill and experience, I felt no more confident than before.
Even after I became aware that I had no direct experience of self-love, I had no idea how to change that. I tried meditation, therapy, and affirmations, and it all helped. But the words “self-love” and “self-worth” remained benign yet remote concepts. Then, about a year ago, I encountered a style of meditation called lovingkindness meditation that helped me start chipping away at the self-contempt that undermined my sense of worthiness as a performer. I knew I was on the right track when doing the practice produced a tangible physical and emotional effect—I was starting to experience giving kindness to myself, not just thinking about it. I continued to struggle with my demons, but I felt I had my stronger, kinder, wiser self alongside me.
One night while I was out of town for an orchestra gig, a couple of months after discovering lovingkindness meditation, I tried a practice advocated by one of my favorite meditation teachers, Tara Brach, in which I imagined I had only one year to live, then six months, then one month, then one day, then only one minute, and asked myself how I would wish to spend my remaining time. In doing this powerful practice, I realized that one thing meant far more to me than anything else: Love. And by not loving myself, not only was I hindering myself as a performer, but I was in a very real sense cutting myself off from the most vital source of well-being. When I finally understood how much my feelings of inadequacy had taken from me, it filled me with a sense of urgency and resolve. As my mentor Madeline Bruser writes in her brilliant book, The Art of Practicing, “We have one lifetime in which to express ourselves and connect to others. A performance is in that sense a microcosm of life: We have one chance, and we want to give it everything we have.”
A Resting Place
Last summer, on the day of the closing concert at Madeline Bruser’s summer program, I was walking to lunch by the quiet lake on campus, mulling over my performance later that day and my career in general. I’d had a great week—affirming masterclasses, deep conversations with wonderful, like-minded musicians, and fun rehearsals with the pianist I was working with. During one master class, I remarked, a little bewildered, “For the first time in my life, I feel like nothing is wrong. I have something to say, and you want to hear it, and I’m saying it.” I burst out laughing. Everyone applauded.
Walking around campus that day, enjoying the warmth of the August sunshine, these words came to me: “Whatever I set out to do, I’ve done it.” I knew immediately what it meant—and what it didn’t. It didn’t mean there was no further progress to be made in my playing, or no career ambitions. It simply meant that I could stop trying so hard to meet my own internal standards of being an adequate performer, because I had already met them. Not by practicing harder or getting better gigs, but by learning to approve of myself. And in that moment, something lifted. That night I felt more free and at ease onstage than ever. And in the months since I have found more ease, confidence, and enjoyment than I ever thought possible when I started this journey.
Change is Possible
What helped me enormously was hearing accounts of people, artists and non-artists, who had radically changed their outlook through a consistent practice of cultivating self-approval. I had always looked at confident performers onstage, and thought, “Well, they were just born confident and talented. I’m not like that. I can work twice as hard as anyone and still blow it.” If you often have similar thoughts, know this: lack of confidence as a performer is not a life sentence. Confronting the reasons behind it requires tremendous courage and a persistent discipline of kindness. But my view is that if you are deeply drawn to being a performer, even if you don’t know why, then the greater the obstacles you face, the more you have to gain from meeting them.
Of course, learning to love and approve of ourselves is far from a one-shot deal. Old habits die hard—doubt creeps in before an important performance, envy of our colleagues gets the better of us, self-recrimination for a mistake drowns out the audience’s enthusiastic applause. But just because we are temporarily separated from the wisdom we uncover doesn’t mean it disappears. Self-approval, and organic confidence, are acquired, not inherited traits. And no matter where you are on the path of becoming the performer you want to be, please don’t wait until you’ve summited the mountain to turn around and admire the view gained by your sincere effort, and to appreciate yourself for being willing to work for it. The love you bear for yourself will be the best companion on your climb.
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Loving Your Mistakes
One night after a concert I was having a drink with a colleague who told me a bizarre story about a graduate school audition he'd taken. While entering the subway en route to the audition, weighed down by his violin case and a large suitcase, he walked through the service gate behind someone else rather than swiping his card at the turnstile. Since he had an unlimited monthly pass, he had essentially pre-paid his fare and assumed there was nothing unlawful about walking through the gate. So he was stunned when a police officer stopped him, arrested him for fare evasion, and took him to jail.
With his violin case sitting on the other side of the bars enclosing his cell, he called the audition committee to explain the situation, and then waited anxiously, not knowing when he would be released. A few hours later, the officer finally let him go with a summons to appear in court a few weeks later. He grabbed his violin, rushed to the hall, made it there 20 minutes before his audition, played beautifully, and was accepted.
When he got to the end of his story, I was astounded. “How could you possibly stay focused with so much stress and distraction? Weren't you furious?” I asked. “ I would have been a mess.”
“I wasn't nervous or angry, I was totally relaxed actually,” he replied with a smile. “You see, the situation was so over the top I'd already let go of the outcome. Whatever happened I knew it wouldn't be my fault.”
My colleague could relax and allow his great talent and preparation to shine through in spite of these acutely stressful events because he knew whatever flaws that resulted from them were clearly not his responsibility. The absurdity of the whole thing disarmed him, and he let go.
For many of us it's not so easy to hold the things that go wrong with lightness—to regard them as vicissitudes of fortune rather than as tactical errors, character flaws, or divine punishment. But as I pondered my friend's story, I began to see that letting go of the impulse to assign blame for our past and future mistakes—whether to others or to ourselves—is crucial for our growth. Instead of defining ourselves by our missteps, we can learn to see them as vital steps toward greater wisdom.
Here is an example from my own experience.
Trying to Be Right
This past spring I arranged a play-through of my recital program for a colleague in preparation for an upcoming concert. In starting to collaborate more with piano, I'd discovered that my knee-jerk habit, honed from years of orchestral playing, is to blend with and defer to what's going on around me, instead of taking charge. After that realization I'd worked hard to learn what it meant to fully occupy, or request, if necessary, the musical space I needed to play with the command that performing as a soloist requires.
As the pianist and I played through our program for my colleague, I started to feel that the music was tumbling by too quickly and I that didn't have space to execute things the way I wanted to. In my frustration, I tried to slow down, but the pianist and I weren't aligning, and my frustration persisted through the end of the play-through.
After we finished, my colleague offered us warm praise, and then gently suggested that in my efforts to play everything as exquisitely as I'd set out to, I was blocking the flow of the music. I countered that I had been trying to slow things down to give myself space and strength. But she replied that while my intention was good, it couldn’t work in performance, when the music of the moment required me to join up with a gesture or tempo that was already in motion. Her words and voice were kind, but I felt chastened and confused. I’d been trying so hard to be “right.” Now I felt I was back to being “wrong.”
But as I thought about it, I saw the wisdom in my colleague's advice. In rehearsal, it was important to lead by communicating how I thought the music should flow. But in the moment of performance, I had to let go of all of that effort and be flexible in working with the particular demands of the situation instead of fighting them, no matter how “right” or “wrong” they might feel.
A few weeks ago I encountered another situation where my desire to be “right on” was inhibiting I was playing with a pianist in a master class at Madeline Bruser's Art of Practicing Institute summer program, and we were trying to get the ensemble of a particular cadence just right. From my previous experiences, of first trying to follow the pianist, and then trying too hard to lead, I instinctively knew that for us to be together, the main thing I needed was to be solidly connected to myself—that if I could stand clearly in my own feelings and convictions, I could naturally connect with the pianist and she would know exactly where to place her notes. But I also knew that making a big effort to connect to myself would tie me up in knots. It had to just happen, but I didn't know how.
When I explained this predicament to Madeline she said, “It sounds like you just need to let your mind relax.” Luckily we had been meditating for two hours a day for the previous five days, so after closing my eyes for a few moments I was able to let go and merge my mind with the sounds I was hearing and with the feeling in my body. We played the passage again, and the cadence flowed effortlessly. Buoyed with confidence, we tried the same idea at another cadence and were again completely in sync. But at the last second the pianist was so relaxed she played a glaring wrong note, and everyone in the room burst out laughing. It was a really great mistake, because it loosened us up, and brought everyone closer together for a moment.
When “Wrong” is Just Right
While I was at the summer program, another friend told me he was in the process of writing a piece for a student orchestra. The previous day he'd gone on a walk and felt very inspired, and sat down to write several minutes of music. But he went on to confess that after listening to it the next day he found it mawkishly sentimental and embarrassing. He dubbed it “The Happy Bunny Farm,” and played it for me, and we laughed about it. But the day after we talked he felt fresh and full of good ideas, and ended up finding the thread that became the piece he did write. He just had to get the Happy Bunny Farm out of his system first. One songwriter I know recently told me he asks his students to do what he calls the “Bad Songs Challenge.” They write one complete “bad” song per day for a week, and in the process they accumulate valuable insights about what works, what doesn't, and why. And presumably they share a few good laughs.
I've spent the last few years trying to get more comfortable with the idea of screwing up, but the truth is it's still hard to deal with. I'd always heard the phrases “mistakes are inevitable,” or “you learn from your mistakes,” but it's taken a long time to start acquainting myself with the palpable meaning of those words. In reflecting on the missteps I've made as a performer, I've begun to see them not as pitfalls I could have avoided by being better or smarter, but as necessary steps on the path toward true confidence, a confidence based not on protecting myself from being wrong, but on becoming big and bold enough to welcome any experience that comes my way, wrong or right.
The word “forgive” comes from the Old English forgiefan. Another translation of that word is “to give up.” In my case, forgiving myself for my mistakes means giving up feeling any certainty about whether I'm on the right track. I often feel lost, uncertain whether my next step will take me closer to or further from what I desire, which is to communicate truth and beauty. But the alternative is to remain paralyzed by the fear of being wrong, which makes it impossible to take even one step forward into the vast and beautiful wilderness that is ours to know. Getting lost is not only inevitable, but vitally important. When we can hold our missteps with gentleness and humor, we are exactly where we need to be. The path is in the walking of it.
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A friend recently told me about a master class he’d observed at a world-class chamber music festival. The young pianist in the class played a stylish and virtuosic showpiece with dazzling technical mastery. Then, something strange happened. As the coach leading the class began to work with the pianist, it became clear that while she played the piece with great panache and flawless technical command, she couldn’t work with any of the teacher’s ideas about shaping the music differently, and the energy in the room dissipated as he found himself without much to say.
At the end of the festival the pianist played the piece again, in concert, exactly the same way she had in the master class, and her electrifying performance was punctuated by the audience’s gasps at her technical brilliance. After the concert, my friend saw the pianist sobbing. When I asked him if he thought she was crying because she wasn’t happy with her performance, he said, “Maybe she was crying because not being able to change anything made her realize that she had no living connection to what she was doing. And without that, there was no satisfaction to be found in performing.”
His interpretation of what happened made sense to me. But when I told another friend the same story, she saw it differently. Her guess was that the pianist cried because she was overwhelmed to receive so much appreciation from her audience.
I had no idea how to reconcile these two interpretations of the story. But then I realized that the point was not to determine exactly how the pianist felt or why, but that these two views represent contrasting sides of the same conundrum we face as musicians: We want so much to perform and connect with our audiences and to do justice to the music, but we often feel pressured by a desire to be perfect. We may even get depressed if we fail to live up to that ideal. Yet if we can really let go onstage and fully receive the audience’s appreciation of our performance—in spite of our imperfections—it nourishes our heart enormously.
I also realized that when I thought that this pianist was upset because she felt disconnected in performance, I was actually projecting my own disconnection from the music and from my audience onto her. I’d long been so fixated on excluding my flaws from my playing and performing that despite my desire to move my audience, I’d built a wall around myself. Even when an audience did applaud warmly, I couldn’t open my heart to accept their appreciation. So when I heard the second friend’s interpretation of the story—that the pianist cried because the audience’s appreciation meant so much to her—I saw what I longed for even more than perfection: to fully exchange heart energy with the audience instead of being walled off from them by fear and shame.
The Trap of Perfectionism
I thought back to my conversation with the first friend. He and I were talking about how hard it can be to be spontaneous in performance because we often spend so much time formulating a specific idea of how the music should sound. He said that he tries to counteract this habit by remembering that each time he performs, he is actually creating the sound that he is hearing on the spot, and that this helps him immerse himself in the vibrancy and “now-ness” of the music, instead of getting caught in comparing his performance to the ideal he has in his head.
I was envious of his experience of openness. I realized that most of my experiences had been quite the opposite—of closing down, contraction, and narrow possibility. And as I reflected, I saw that the primary source of constriction I had so often encountered while performing went beyond the formal demands of the music, or a sane commitment to mastery, or even physical tension. Underneath all that was my orientation toward re-creating the “perfect” version of the piece every time I played it—of reproducing a pre-formed concept rather than staying open to the possibilities inherent in live performance.
Closing my eyes and thinking about my habitual perfection-seeking brought to mind the image of building a ship in a bottle, of squeezing your fingers through the narrow neck, tweezers outstretched, to perch the delicate sails on their masts, just so. While the precise form of the replica inside is exquisite, the neck of that bottle isn’t big enough for a human being to fit through. Talking to my friend at first brought up many memories of feeling hemmed in by the fear associated with this perfectionistic approach. The sensations were vivid—muscular tension, tunnel vision, compressed musical gestures and narrow dynamic range. I realized I’d literally been trying to make myself small, small enough to fit through the neck of that bottle and come out perfect on the other side.
Freedom and Vulnerability
I tried recalling my exceptionally joyful or confident performances and recognized that what I’d felt was freedom—to move and use my body, to express my musical ideas, and most of all, to be myself without desperately trying to hide my flaws. When I felt courageous about being on the spot, it was because shifting my focus to the immediate sensory experience of creating sound not only gave the music space to be born anew, but also allowed me to let go of judging my performance or myself.
While I was writing this article I was in the process of preparing for a solo recital, which was in the forefront of my mind. Through meditation, I did some quiet inquiry into my deepest aspiration for the performance, and I found that what I wanted most was to be able to give and receive freely, to feel I had nothing to hide, that no part of myself was unworthy of being touched by the audience’s gratitude. As I inquired further, I realized that this free exchange of feeling required me to be completely vulnerable—to not armor myself or hold anything back out of fear or shame.
The trouble is, being vulnerable enough to let go of our ideas about how we should be or how the piece should go, feeling as though we’re right there with the sound as we’re creating it, isn’t often easy or comfortable. In fact, it can be terrifying. Suddenly we’re conscious of all of the open space around us, within us, and even within the music itself. We’re aware that anything could happen, and it might not make us look good. In each moment we’re deciding what to do next and are completely present for the whatever result we create, instead of just pressing “play” on the recording in our minds and following along.
The upcoming recital loomed in my mind. Did I have the courage to let go of my habitual desire to be perfect and to allow myself to be genuine, which was my true aspiration?
Saying Yes to Everything
When the day of the recital arrived, I embraced it as another opportunity to see how much I could let go, trust myself, and be kind to myself no matter the result. As I prepared during the hours leading up to the performance, I employed a practice from Tara Brach’s incredible book Radical Acceptance: I practiced saying “yes” to everything I experienced—sensations, emotions, thoughts–no matter if I found them pleasant or unpleasant. This means that when I said “yes” to unpleasant thoughts, such as “I’m going to fail; I always fail,” I simply allowed those thoughts to be in my head without either believing them or trying to make them go away, and they then became less threatening. Negative thoughts, sensations of nausea, feelings of sadness—everything that came into my awareness became a passing wave in a greater sea of my intention to be awake and free to give.
By the time I was ready to walk onstage, feeling the pounding in my heart and the vibrations in my stomach, I knew that no matter what happened I could be right there to experience it, and I didn’t need to leave any part of myself backstage. The performance went well, but perhaps the most significant part of the experience was knowing I’d given the audience my whole self, without regret or apology. Hearing their applause and congratulations afterwards, I knew that they were not just applauding the performance itself, but also thanking me for my sincere efforts to prepare and for my courage in being seen and heard—in sharing myself onstage.
If you also wish to experience more freedom in your playing, here are some ideas.
1. Think about when you notice constriction most. Ask yourself deeply what it is about these situations that provokes the feeling of contraction or tightness—the circumstances, the setting, the people involved?
2. Acknowledge that the tension you’re experiencing is the result of a sincere wish to create something beautiful and meaningful.
3. Try to assess honestly how your drive for perfection has served you and how it has inhibited you.
4. If your habits of constriction are limiting you physically, and especially if they are injuring you, seek help from a qualified professional. Alexander technique, Feldenkrais, or a teacher of your instrument who emphasizes good body mechanics can help you find a more easeful and natural approach to your instrument, which can promote mental and emotional ease as well.
5. Experiment, on your own or with people you trust, with letting go of the idea of re-creating something perfect. You might practice very slowly, improvise, or play a familiar piece in an unusual or spontaneous way. Even if the result isn’t what you want, notice that you do in fact have the freedom to do something different in any given moment. If you can let go of labeling sounds as “good” or “bad,” even better! Or if something sounds really terrible, you can laugh about it!
6. Imagine a situation that makes you nervous or uncomfortable, and really “put” yourself there, with all of the corresponding sensations, thoughts, and emotions. First, try mentally saying “no” to everything that enters your awareness, and notice what effect that has. Then, try saying “yes.” If this practice works for you, you can also use it during meditation or during any uncomfortable situation you might encounter.
The Gift of Freedom
As artists, we offer a gift to our audience every time we perform, and we would do well to consider the real potential of that gift. The most useful gift an artist can bestow is not a perfect ship in a bottle, as impressive as that might be. Far better would be a real boat, hewn from living wood, that can carry us from familiar territory to the vast shores of the unknown that stretch out before us. Art, practiced with sincerity, can be the vessel that keeps us afloat on the unpredictable seas in our journey.
By emphasizing letting go of perfectionism I don’t mean to downplay the importance of skill. Becoming skilled as a musician is a necessary, worthy, and useful goal. But we lose something very dear when we allow technical mastery to become the end instead of the means, or when we decide that we must become technically bulletproof to be permitted to speak and take up space. Each time we find the courage to fully inhabit musical space just as we are, without trying to hide our flaws, we are actually giving ourselves, each other, and our audiences the space to be fully human. And that’s a far greater gift than a flawless performance.
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When I was a sophomore at Brown University, my teacher asked me to perform in a master class for one of the best violists in the world. I’d never played in a master class before, but despite my limited solo performing experience, the opportunity excited me. I chose a movement of Bach to prepare and worked on it with greater care and attention than ever before. My teacher seemed pleased with my progress and happy to present me as his student. When I stood up to perform, I felt eager to share my work with the audience, who included this world-renowned soloist.
When I finished and received the audience’s warm applause, I felt good. I turned to face the master teacher with a mixture of assurance and trepidation, open to her guidance but unsure of what would happen next. She began with a discussion of phrasing in solo Bach, and I was able to work with her ideas, which was reassuring. Then, she really let me have it. “So,” she said, putting a hand on my shoulder, “Here’s the hard part. Honey, you don’t play in tune.”
The Wake Up Call
I was mortified. I’d thought I was creating something beautiful and meaningful, but she was telling me, in front of an auditorium of people, that I hadn’t even mastered the basics. The satisfaction I’d felt for my ability to transmit my reverence for the music collapsed into a heap of shame. Somehow, I maintained my composure through the remainder of the class, thanked her warmly, and even returned to the stage for a performance with the viola ensemble.
In the following weeks I was overwhelmed with embarrassment, anger, and despair. I told my teachers and friends that I was considering giving up playing. While they urged me not to, I felt so humiliated that I didn’t see how I could enjoy it anymore. But as distressing as the master class had been, I recognized it was a turning point: I either had to put everything into pursuing a performing career, with no guarantee of success, or accept that I would never be a professional musician and move on.
Addicted to Self-Improvement
That summer I attended an intense orchestra festival where I played fantastic music with people I connected with, and I returned to school in the fall intent on getting a Masters degree in performance. Even amid heavy academic responsibilities, I increased my practice time to three, then four, then five hours a day, found teachers to study with during breaks and in my semester abroad. Many of them encouraged me, and some of them told me straight up how much work I had ahead of me. I embraced their criticism with an austere sense of purpose.
The tremendous changes in my playing were apparent to everyone. The changes going on inside me were less visible, but no less powerful. The cutting critique of this pedagogue had radically changed my approach to music. I vowed never again to be oblivious to the flaws in my playing, so I could be sure never to embarrass myself that way again. And if I couldn’t impress people with my skills, at least I could make them see that I wasn’t a naive idiot for thinking I was any good. I began to equate seriousness with severity, practice with punishment.
Of course, my urgent striving quickly leached out most of the enjoyment I’d gotten from music, but it was strangely addictive, and it became the principal intent in my relationship to the viola.
Searching for Joy, Struggling to Escape
When I began writing this article, I intended to present it as an inquiry into amateurism and professionalism, and the attendant beliefs and practices surrounding those two approaches to making music. I had hopes of helping myself, and other professional musicians, reclaim the simple joy many of us used to feel before our exacting standards took over. “How to Rediscover Your Joy and Overcome Self-Doubt in 10 Easy Steps!”
As I wrote, and considered my feelings, I realized that the tools I’d previously relied on to reconnect with my joy were no longer working, and felt I had no place suggesting ideas for how others might recover theirs. While I wanted to blame the teacher who wounded me in that master class, the reality was more complicated. She’d been unkind, but I was responsible for perpetuating the self-denigration that kept her critique so vivid in my attitude toward myself. I also saw that while her appraisal lacked context and the delivery was cruel, it wasn’t wholly incorrect, and that I wouldn’t be the musician I am today without the hard work and careful attention that followed her upsetting remarks.
As I continued to write this article and examine my attitude, I realized that much of my hard work in the practice room and on my state of mind had been motivated by a desire to escape what I viewed as my flaws. I saw that my desperation to rid myself of pain and disappointment wasn’t leaving room for any natural or spontaneous relationship to the music, or to myself. My fear of being plagued by imperfections forever was actually keeping me stuck.
Several weeks ago I attended a stirring performance of some good friends. The musicians were full of poise, and I was envious of how at ease they seemed with themselves. But instead of falling into my usual mode—examining the origins of my feelings, pretending not to be bothered by them, forcing myself to be open to them in hopes that they would vanish—I put my mind on the back burner and tuned into my body. I felt extreme warmth and energy in my chest, and to my surprise I was able to marvel at the power of my heart, capable of so much sensation. My feelings were just as powerful, but my perspective on them zoomed out, and I experienced, for a brief moment, all of my longing to be a more skilled and natural performer, gratitude for being able to share such beautiful music with all of the people in the room, and an appreciation for my own courage in opening myself up to the situation as it was.
What I experienced at that moment was grace.
When we think of grace, we often consider it a superficial quality of elegance or refinement. In this case, I’m referring to it as our innate ability to accept our circumstances without conditions, with an open heart. When someone sits down to say grace before a meal, he is giving thanks for whatever is on his plate, whether it is appetizing or not. As musicians, we can also learn to acknowledge the gifts of our talent and our outlets for it, however large or small. Of course we have many ways of avoiding making peace with what is on our plate—comparing it with what other people have in front of them, holding our noses and gobbling it down to get it over with, pushing it around hoping it will turn into something more enticing. The analogies to our situation as artists are plentiful—coveting others’ skill or opportunities, exhausting ourselves in a punishing practice routine, puffing ourselves up about our accomplishments.
What I’m discovering is that grace isn’t a status I will achieve when I get rid of my flaws and self-doubt; it’s the open and courageous state of letting my imperfections and uncertainty be seen and acknowledged, most of all by myself.
Inviting your Natural Grace
While I’m still discovering what this process means for me, if you’re curious about how you might find grace in the midst of your own situation, here are a few initial ideas.
1. Recognize the many facets of your musical life, satisfying and unsatisfying, joyous and painful. You may choose to reflect on these things, or it might happen spontaneously.
2. If you feel difficult emotions surfacing, instead of ruminating on the circumstances that are spurring them on, try focusing on the physical sensations that accompany them. You might choose to see if a particular image or phrase comes to mind that feels associated with the bodily sensation. This exercise is part of a therapeutic technique called Focusing, which I first learned about this summer at Madeline Bruser’s amazing program Mindfulness, Confidence, and Performance. You can read more about Focusing here.
3. You may find these physical sensations more neutral than you previously thought, or you might find them threatening or uncomfortable. Whatever you notice, just allow it to be there, and acknowledge your courage in doing so.
4. Appreciate your ability to be awake to what is happening in your mind and body, because that awareness is the gift of being human. If your relationship to music or yourself feels stuck, shifting your focus to basic awareness can help allow your natural brilliance to shine through your confusion, without struggle.
As I reflected further on my master class experience in writing this article, I grudgingly realized that as poisonous as I’d allowed it to become, in fact it was more like an unpalatable meal: unpleasant, but nourishing. For our bodies to grow and survive, they need food, and for our musicianship and humanity to mature, life gives us a whole range of experiences to work with, even some yucky ones. All of us have our disappointments, regrets, and frustrations: the concert we botched, the job we didn’t win, the piece we can’t master. But what if we learned to appreciate the texture and flavor of those disappointing, or even embarrassing moments, as food for our growth as musicians, or as people? Hearing such sweeping criticism from someone who made me feel ashamed certainly wasn’t the comfort food I’d craved, but I realized that wishing things had been different, that I were different, wouldn’t help me grow. I gleaned one morsel of wisdom from her unkind words: to treat my own students and colleagues with kindness and respect, and not to lose sight of the bigger context of their lives in the finer points of our work together.
I had another small breakthrough a few days after seeing my friends’ impressive performance. At the time, I was totally exhausted, walking to a gig with a 6 a.m. call having slept only a few hours. It was still dark outside, and the city streets were quiet. All of a sudden I had a flash of insight: my circumstances, from how much talent I’d been born with down to what I’d had for breakfast—were simply what I’d been served. I didn’t need to atone for them, or pretend I liked them, or berate myself for being whiny, I just needed to stop struggling against them. A wellspring of contentment surged up and mixed with my weariness. I savored that particular essence for the rest of my walk, happy to be alive and on my way to make music, my heart bursting with humility and gratitude.
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A few years out of school, I happened to meet a prominent and well-connected freelance violinist. She was several years older than I was, very skilled and street-smart, and I asked her to lunch so that I could glean some useful career advice from her. After some pleasant small talk, I got to the pressing question: “How can I get more work in New York?”
She sighed, thought for a moment, and gave me the names of a few people to call. But she warned me that I wasn’t likely to get anywhere by asking other people for help—I just had to stick it out somehow until people got to know me. At the end of our meal, I thanked her and asked if she had any parting words of counsel. She looked me squarely in the face and said, “Just remember, no one is your friend. Act confident, and don’t open up to anyone. Go in every day with your armor on.” I was incredulous. I told her I thought there must be a way to avoid succumbing to such bitterness. “Nora, you can’t go around saying things like that,” she retorted, “People are going to think you’re some sort of princess.”
Vulnerability as a Liability
Although I was devastated by my colleague’s cynical admonition, I knew that her attitude must be concealing great pain, and I could relate. I’d often wondered if I was just too sensitive to handle the demands of being a performer—competition, scrutiny, and rejection all made me fall apart. When I was a child, music had been a refuge, but over time the emotional vulnerability that defined my relationship with it began to seem like a serious liability, and I strove to bury it under hard-bitten perfectionism.
I had always been attentive and diligent, but after hearing my colleague’s sobering advice, I became more cautious than ever. In some ways this strategy paid off—I arrived at every gig thoroughly prepared and developed a reputation for being reliable and hardworking. I projected cheerful confidence, was easy to get along with, and made everyone laugh. Slowly but surely, I started eking out a meager living as a violist.
Since my strategies for armoring myself against feeling or showing any vulnerability seemed to be working, I was afraid to give them up even though the space to be myself was eroding all around me. I couldn’t have fun playing anymore, because all of my effort was directed toward masking imperfections. I was convinced that if anyone knew how I really felt, or how I really played when I wasn’t trying to conceal all my rough edges, my career would be over. Eventually, I gave up on doing anything meaningful or positive with my talents, I just wanted to be utterly unobjectionable.
When I finally decided to check out Madeline Bruser’s program on Mindfulness, Confidence, & Performance in 2013, I was well on my way to a freelance career in New York. So although I was desperate for something about my attitude toward performing to change, I was also terrified of facing how I felt.
Vulnerability as an Asset
When I first arrived at the program, I still wanted to believe that I wouldn’t have to own up to my feelings. But the professional veneer I’d fabricated quickly imploded as other participants began to describe their deepest longings and self-doubts. I was stunned. I had never heard another musician admit to feeling vulnerable in such a public situation. But shock soon gave way to profound admiration for their courage and unvarnished generosity in speaking out. At last I’d found a place where I felt at home being honest with myself about what was really going on inside my head and heart.
The relief of recognition offered me a crucial sense of safety amongst utter strangers. I decided to honor other participants’ candor by being honest about my own struggle. Allowing myself to be exposed in the music workshops was even harder, because I couldn’t rely on my verbal eloquence to smooth over the embarrassment of feeling not in command of my instrument or of my state of mind as a performer. Through it all, my fellow participants responded not with repulsion, as I had expected, but with gratitude, respect, and tenderness. Learning to be honest with myself and my audience was hugely affirming, and I began to play with more depth and authority than ever before.
I learned something important that week: that openness to the full spectrum of our experience is the starting point for compelling and mature musicianship. Suffering and joy are equally endemic to the human condition, and sharing the full range of our emotions with our audiences, through our presence and through the music we make, is not a selfish act, but a generous one. If we allow our fear to shut down that generous impulse—whether or not we admit it to ourselves—we can’t express ourselves freely. I went deep into the notion of vulnerability as an asset in the ensuing year, with serious trepidation. But the results were substantial: I felt more contentment, I found the courage to perform as a soloist, and I won my first orchestra job. I wrote an article clothed in honesty that was read by thousands of people.
I was eager to return to the program this summer, pining for a refreshing boost of clarity and affirmation.
Losing My Way
Of course, expectations can be dangerous. My experience the year before had been fruitful, and I craved more of it, so I took a big step into my vulnerability in one of our discussion groups. My candid display of emotion moved many people, and some of them thanked me. But I wasn’t sure how some of the others felt. I thought they seemed put off by what I had to say, or that they didn’t understand it. And that thought, coupled with my embarrassment, sent me back into feeling unfit for the act of performing. I knew my expression had been sincere, but I began to hate myself for being so dramatic and emotional, and for failing to feel the joy that others were feeling as performers.
I buckled under the confusion: In the previous year I’d clung to the mantra that vulnerability inevitably led to insight and empathy, but now I found myself being swallowed up by self-judgment for being so vulnerable in front of other people. Unsure of what to do, I tried to remain open to my feelings in spite of others’ apparent incomprehension, and to expose my tender heart through my playing. More affirming words came from many people, but in my fog of estrangement, I couldn’t take them in. I became very worried that I wouldn’t be able to keep it together for the recital at the end of the week.
Taking Shelter in Self-Compassion
Then one day, unable to face practicing, I went for a walk. I found a bench under a tree, sat down, and looked up through the leaves. A bolt of intuition flashed through my mind: in my longing to share myself with others, I had gone too far this time in laying myself bare. And what I needed now, instead of more self-exposure, was shelter for my vulnerable heart. That simple realization shifted my entire inner landscape from panic to ease. I stopped seeing my sensitivity as a creeping liability or an onerous burden. Instead, I saw it as a gift that should be handled with wisdom and care.
Once I gave myself this space, I was free to express my feelings with greater poise. I performed with much more confidence in the final workshop and felt comfortable enough to perform on the recital. In fact, a few minutes before I went onstage to play the first movement of the E-flat major Brahms Sonata, I thought of it as a love song to myself, and an offering to the audience that we all be a little gentler with ourselves in our painful moments. I played with assurance and forgave the imperfections. Afterwards I felt enormous pride that I’d had the courage to be so kind to myself.
Respecting Your Vulnerability
I learned from these experiences that our vulnerability is indeed our greatest gift to our audience, but that because it is so precious, we need to develop great skill in handling it. If you value your vulnerability as an artist and person and are curious about how to work with it in a healthy way, here are some ideas:
1. Start by asking yourself how you feel about the idea of being vulnerable. Be honest about what you have to lose or gain from letting your guard down.
2. Experiment with feeling vulnerable in your practicing. Feel your desire to honor and embody the music, coupled with the inherent uncertainty of how it will all come out. Notice if anything in your body or mind shifts, and how it affects your playing.
3. If you feel ready, experiment lightly with feeling that vulnerability in rehearsal or performance, even for a few moments.
4. Seek out friends or colleagues who you can open up to, and share your experience with them.
5. If you’re feeling so raw and exposed that it’s impairing your ability to function as an artist, allow yourself to back away from your feelings until you feel safe again. Your artistry is important, but nothing is more important than your safety and well-being.
6. Regardless of where you are in the process of opening up to your true feelings, appreciate yourself for having them, and for having the courage to share yourself with your audience. Know that we all learn by trial and error how to be skillful with our vulnerability, and that simply burying it will not help you develop the abilities you need to communicate powerfully with others.
7. Celebrate your discoveries and successes on your journey with people you trust. Be receptive to their encouragement and understanding.
At our post-concert party on the last night of the program, one of the participants gave each of us a precious homemade gift of a hand-painted Ukrainian Easter egg. One egg stood out to me: a deep blue background overlaid with chains of red and white hearts. Blooming out of the hearts were delicate red flowers, their faces opened to the sky.
This delicate and beautiful work of art reminded me that all of us have been blessed with a delicate and beautiful gift for appreciating the joy and sorrow of life, and that it is this gift that defines us as artists and as human beings. Here is my humble advice: treat your gift as you would treat that egg. Share it with others who can admire its heartrending beauty and the simple goodness underneath, but keep it safe.
And know above all that it belongs to you.
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Several years ago I was confiding in a friend, an accomplished cellist, my persistent feelings of self-doubt as a violist. This friend attended one of the top conservatories in the world on full scholarship, went to the best summer festivals, had been a member of an acclaimed chamber ensemble, and was touring and recording with a high-profile artist. Naturally, I felt envious.
I told him that I thought that my late start and undistinguished early training had shut me out of the storied institutions where the “real” art must be happening. If only I had gone to a top-notch school, or a major festival, then surely I would feel like an artist, that I had a place in our majestic tradition. “Of course, I’m sure you wouldn’t understand,” I said, “since you’ve been so successful.” I expected him to offer me some cheerful platitudes about my playing and my prospects.
Instead, he shook his head, pointed at his heart and said, “But Nora, I don’t feel like I belong either. I feel like an outsider, too.”
The Myth of Earning Self-Worth
It took me quite a while to find the wisdom in my colleague’s remark. At first, it was too much to fathom, so I disregarded it as his isolated experience. After all, how could my gifted peers suffer from insecurity or dissatisfaction? Didn’t their achievements fill them with enormous self-assurance and joy? I figured once I racked up some more accomplishments I would feel worthy and happy, too. I would know for sure that I had found my rightful place in the world. Why else could I be working so hard?
But it wasn’t so. In the ensuing years I made considerable progress in my playing and my career. But the more I accomplished, and the more real connections I made in the music scene, the more excluded I felt from it. And all the time, I felt envious of my talented colleagues because I imagined their success erased all of their self-doubt and fulfilled their need to belong.
For many of us, it isn’t obvious how to nourish a feeling of belonging, especially if such nourishment hasn’t been modeled for us by our families or teachers. Moreover, the conventional view of being a musician is often framed in terms of zero-sum competition for inclusion, particularly with the emphasis on winning auditions and competitions. The current state of the arts in our economy makes matters even worse—we feel like we need to edge out someone else just to have a space for ourselves. I felt envious of my accomplished colleague because I thought that his success left less room for mine.
The truth is, we are all born with an equal and inalienable right to belong, and if we tune into our most heartfelt desires, we will end up in the right place.
But first we need to let go of some of our habitual ideas about where our worthiness comes from.
Belonging as Your True Self
In the midst of writing this article, I had a painful and revelatory experience. I was passed over for a lucrative and career-boosting gig, and it felt personal. I felt lost for a couple of weeks, and even wondered how I could write something insightful about belonging when I felt so much on the outside. But even amid all of the difficult feelings, I knew there was a powerful lesson for me, and for anyone who struggles with feelings of jealousy and unworthiness.
First of all, I knew I needed help. I sought out friends, family, and colleagues I could trust, explained the situation and how it made me feel. I got a lot of advice, some helpful and some not, but it all gave me a bigger perspective. I saw that my lack of confidence in myself had influenced the situation—people could sense it in me, and they were less drawn to me than to players with more confidence. That realization hurt, but it made me feel like less of a victim.
Next, I spent a long time thinking about the gig itself. What were my motivations for having it? If I really wanted to pursue something similar, how could I do it? I took some long walks and did a lot of sitting meditation, and just let the sadness, anger, and longing flow through me. In the end, I saw that this job I missed out on wouldn’t bring me any closer to my deepest ambitions as a musician. Most of all, I saw that the affirmation of being chosen for the job wouldn’t give me the fulfillment I sought if my heart wasn’t in it.
The Power of Letting Go
I mentally congratulated the colleague who got the job, and, instead of feeling diminished, I felt empowered. I saw how writing this article could help me move past feelings that had kept me stuck for a long time. Once I began to let go of my sadness, new ideas started to flood my system. Projects that had seemed like distant possibilities came to the foreground of my mind, and I took steps toward making them happen. My previously sparse social schedule became filled with coffee dates with artists who I thought could give me advice on how to make my own path. Most of all, I began to see that my vulnerability and self-doubt, which I always thought separated me from other people, were actually powerful forces that connected me to other people who feel the same way.
I’d be lying if I said I knew exactly where I’d like to end up as an artist, or how I will get there. But the biggest thing I’ve learned is that when we embrace who we are at heart, we belong exactly where we are in that moment, and that’s a great place to start.
Steps to Cultivating a Sense of Belonging
If you seek a greater sense of belonging in the musical world, here are a few practical suggestions:
1. When a situation arises that brings up feelings of jealousy, disappointment, or longing for fulfillment, allow yourself to feel them instead of pushing them aside or covering them over. Acknowledging your feelings is the first step to understanding them and changing your outlook.
2. Explore the origins of your feelings in a gentle and probing way. See if you can own them fully, even though they are painful, and take healthy responsibility for your own reaction to the situation.
3. Know that at the root of your feelings is your natural human vulnerability, which you can celebrate as a way to connect with other people.
4. Seek out the company of people you trust. Just hearing how much they value you as a musician and person can make a big difference. They may also have fresh ideas on your situation that can awaken your own insight about what to do.
5. Take some time to remember why you became a musician, and ask yourself how you can bring your musical activities into alignment with your most genuine aspirations
In just a few days I will be returning to Madeline Bruser’s transformational summer program, “Mindfulness, Confidence, and Performance.” I am looking forward to a week of contemplation, community, and keen, heartfelt musicianship. I’d like to leave you with a story from last year’s program.
In one of our amazing group discussions, I described how I saw the tradition of classical music as a vast, ornate building that I longed to enter but could not. I was drawn to its regal facade but felt that the luminous interior had no room for me. A wise friend in the group then turned to me and said, “What you don’t realize is that you’re already inside—you’re just in a different wing. You’re building your space around you.”
His comment helped me realize that in each performance, each lesson, and each moment, we are all adding our own bricks to that sublime architecture, simply by being alive and making music.
Let’s celebrate its grandeur.
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Hi everyone! I always look forward to summer as the time to focus on projects that are the most meaningful to me. In that spirit, I've finally made my own website, and it's been a long time coming.
It's a place for people to check in about what I'm up to, and I'll also be writing an ongoing series of articles discussing mindfulness and music from my own perspective, the first of which will appear here in a few days, in addition to being featured in Madeline Bruser's fantastic e-zine, "Fearless Performing." To subscribe to my updates, please click on the link below!
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