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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