Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Musicians and Self-Criticism

Many musicians are very self-critical people. A very fine guitarist, with a long-established career, recently wrote me saying that whenever he heard a recording of himself he thought he should switch to a cedar-topped guitar. He plays a spruce-topped Hauser, but worries about his sound. A flute-player I used to work with was always saying how he hated his sound. There are a host of examples. Normally, of course, musicians only reveal these thoughts to other musicians that they are close to. Excessive self-criticism, which many of us are prey to, is a disease! Stage-fright is another manifestation of excessive self-criticism: you just feel that everything will go horribly wrong because you are fundamentally unworthy.

The thing is that self-criticism, in the proper amount, is absolutely necessary. When you are alone in your practice room who but yourself is there to say, "that scale was sloppy, better do it again;" or "my arpeggios are uneven, need to practice slower". But self-criticism can easily get out of hand. We also need a deep well of confidence and all that practicing, all that correction of errors, development of tone-color, phrasing and so on, must go towards building self-confidence. You need a lot of confidence to walk on stage and perform!

I am reminded of a very funny New Yorker cartoon from years ago. A small boy, perhaps nine or ten years old, is standing by a piano onstage and saying to the audience, "And now, God help us all, Rachmaninoff 3."

Aristotle really had it right when he pointed out that the right course of action is the middle between extremes. Courage is the right virtue, steering a middle course between cowardice and reckless disregard. Moderation is one of the most important virtues. Excessive self-confidence might mean that you too easily accept sub-standard playing. Excessive self-criticism means that you never have enough confidence.

Let's listen to some confident playing:


Robert Kennedy said...

I like your sentiments, but I think the advice could benefit from some more specifics that can guide the student / performer about how to think. To wit: For me the guidepost is honesty, and a willingness to focus on honesty with myself (and, when it isn't damaging, with others) both about things I already do well and about things I don't do well yet.

Making sure I acknowledge to myself the things I do well gives me the courage to go on stage and do them, even in front of a room full of musicians any of whom I know could fill my shoes in the performance. And making sure I acknowledge to myself the things I don't do well yet gives me the capacity to set priorities in my practice, without negative self-judgment.

Once we reach a certain level of skill, every one of us has something musical to offer to our listeners, and for each of us some aspect of our offering is unique and cannot be duplicated by anyone else. This is a very helpful thing for me to remember when I am focused on my weaknesses, because it reminds me that:
o) everyone has weaknesses;
o) I have strengths;
o) I have the power to diminish my weaknesses and grow my strengths through practice; and
o) despite my weaknesses, my strengths are worth sharing with listeners today, just as they are right now.

Bryan Townsend said...

I thought this comment was so useful that I incorporated it into a new post on the subject: