Dear Students: an open letter to everyone everywhere, and to myself

Dear Students,

Every time we have a class recital, or you have important performances or auditions coming up, a nasty, invisible demon seems to visit most of you.

It talks incessantly and loudly, especially when you’re trying to make music. It doesn’t think musically at all. It talks about what people will say. It compares you to other students, to other professional musicians, to the greatest musicians in the world. It gabs on while you’re playing like the most annoying audience member of all time, pointing out mistakes and guffawing loudly, wailing in disbelief over a wrong note or a missed shift that’s already long over because you know better than to stop playing just because it’s distracting you.

It may not unwrap cough drops loudly enough to be a Lachenmann effect, but it has a whole Power Point presentation ready of Reasons Why This Performance Will Suck and Evidence That You are Not Ready to Even Stand on Stage, Let Alone Perform. It has everything lined up in such a seemingly scientific and unimpeachable way that you listen to it like a scared schoolchild. It must be right; after all, it’s so loud, it’s so articulate, it’s so authoritative. Far more authoritative than that quiet voice (so quiet it’s been completely obliterated by the noisy breaking news of How Much You Suck) that is only interested in listening, savoring the moment, experiencing the excitement, the sound, the way this section makes your eyes well up with tears, the synchronicity with your chamber music partners, the silence between chords that is the indicator of how rapt the audience is and how deaf the audience is to that very demon that is trying to steal the show.

We’ve done feedback exercises where you’ve discovered that what you were thinking and berating yourself about was not at all what others were thinking or noticing. And yet that information means little to that demon. It can take those facts and twist them right into its brilliantly evil argumentation like the most unscrupulous lawyer or politician. “They obviously don’t know what they’re talking about,” it will say. “They were just being nice. You want to listen to them over me? I’ll show you.”

Now think of the last time you were touched by a performance you heard. Remember that spine-tingling, heart-opening sensation? The perfection of your connection to the music, the stillness in your mind? Did you need the demon’s voice to tell you it was good? Of course not. You just knew it, you felt it, you experienced it completely.

Let’s throw one more idea into the mix. You probably don’t remember learning to walk or talk. Neither do I. But we all know that when babies start to walk, they fall down again and again and again. They get up every time. Why? Because there is no demon yet telling them how stupid and behind they are that they can’t do it right yet. Failure does not yet exist as a concept. There is only this desire to do that thing the grownups do to get from place to place and have your hands free at the same time. There is the notion that this must be possible and there is lots of time to experiment to see how the thing works.

That’s the curiosity and openness we strive for in the best of times. Then this deadline comes looming up and the demon gets going in full force and puts an end to fun and games and experimentation. This has to be good, it says, and falling is not good. Falling is shameful. Falling is unforgiveable.

What if we were all to take a radical stance (myself included – the demon is my oldest friend) and listen to that other voice instead – that quiet one who knows what it wants and knows when something is good – while practicing and performing? I spent most of my performing life listening to the demon more than to the other voice, and I survived but did not thrive. I wished I could have enjoyed my own performances as much as others told me they did. I thought I would be able to if only I could satisfy the demon. But, true to its reputation, the demon is insatiable. The more you feed it, the more it wants. The more attention you give it, the more it takes center stage. Where is the space for you, for the music?

And falling – how terrible is falling, really? If you think of your own musical equivalent of falling, do you notice that the fall is over almost instantaneously? If you don’t dwell on it, it is magically gone because, lucky for us, music happens in time and you are already playing the next part.

It’s only in recent years that I’ve learned to listen to the quiet voice. The demon hasn’t retired for good, but it does know its place now. It gets put in a cage with a blanket over it and aired out for a good laugh among friends. I know now that whatever it says will never change my music making for the better, no matter how convincing it is. That other voice, so atrophied after years of ignoring it, has grown more confident. It tells me what to strive for in my practicing, my teaching, my rehearsing. It isn’t bothered when I fall in any of those realms. It is always madly in love with what is happening right now, always growing, always learning, just like that falling infant.

So, dear students, identify your demon. Put it in a cage and throw a blanket over it. Post pictures of it for us to giggle over. Take your musical life back from it. Music is a demon-free zone and my god, people need that now more than ever.

With respect, love, and admiration,


10 Responses to Dear Students: an open letter to everyone everywhere, and to myself

  1. Beautifully said. Those demons are everywhere in every endeavor, golf, education, relationships………
    I doubt anyone can truly exorcise them altogether but given teachers like you who help with these doubts, they can be caged in a far away place with a heavy woolen blanket covering them.

    • Thank you Jim. I can see a followup blog coming, because I actually find that, once you really look the demon in the eye, it loses half its power and is exposed for the harmless creature it really is. Maybe it’s not even necessary to put it in a cage, because it naturally gets quieter when it’s allowed to speak. The trick is not to act on its advice!

  2. Hi Elena, I am a novice classical guitar player, a beginner. I have been loving the music that I have been playing and learning and I have been taking it very seriously and really trying to get things absolutely right. For the most part I have been succeeding and the next step for me is to try to fool people to make them not think I am trying so hard to get everything absolutely right. I felt like I had been succeeding in that also however I was playing for someone the other day and she saw through me. And at the end of the piece I played for her she touched my arm and she said I can see you care so much about getting everything perfect and she said I know you are playing serious compositional music but really you should have more of the attitude of a punk rocker and not give a flying f***, pardon my French!

    • What an insightful friend! I try to encourage my students (and myself) to practice in such a way that every musical gesture and every technical ‘difficulty’ becomes something effortless. It is difficult to have a punk rocker attitude in perofrmance when you’ve been practicing as if you’re repairing porcelain. This may be the subject of my next blog!

      • It’s funny I must say that I have just started making little recordings of solo pieces and I actually find that way more stressful than live performance. Especially if I feel like the recording is going great it’s even worse because I feel like I’m going to screw it up toward the end! One thing my friend told me who is a Pianist is that the more you play and the better you get the better your mistakes will start sounding and at some point your mistakes, what could also be called “unintended sounds”, may even start sounding better than the music as it was written on the page. It really can be so true but the important thing is to trust it and if you find yourself all of a sudden making an “unintended sound” realize that it is probably more likely to sound fantastic than it is to sound “wrong.” For instance on the guitar the difference between a spine-chilling twang and a nervous over plucking for instance is usually just a matter of confidence and having a relaxed feeling. My little recordings will often bear this out and what I thought what was a faux pas actually might sound very nice. I Play sort of an avant-garde piece where I almost feel like the composer built in at the beginning of the score an opportunity to just lay low and make crazy sounds, an avalanche of “mistakes” you might say, and then pick up the piece from there. I find this piece relaxes me so much because I feel like you can just let everything out of your system in the beginning and then just fly through the piece without as much stress after that.

        • Elena just one more thing I can only imagine for some musicians recording must be so much more nerve racking because it’s like you’re trying to capture spontaneity which is always a weird thing. At least in performance you’re just working with all of the energy in the moment and that’s that. Recording is kind of like pressing butterflies into a book or something.

          • Elena I believe the demon is a friend who is trying to tell us something. I think that the demon understands the absurdity and impossibility of our situation and that is we are jumping through the hoop of rehearsed spontaneity and deep down we know this is not genuine. I believe the demon is challenging us to play with wild abandonment and what we think of as fear of the demon when you really dive into it is our fear of ourselves of totally letting go.

  3. I guess the key word here is ‘integration’. The demon is the ‘ego-self’ that want’s to be the king but knows that it can’t maintain it’s total control over the mental and physical and so is scared sh***less for being exposed. The ‘ego-self’ also kind of knows it never can be as great as it would like to fantasize itself…

    I’m learning that when I can relax and integrate that ceaseless chatter of internal dialogue as some kind of one little melody line in the bigger partiture then I don’t have to fight or suppress it but also don’t need to pay attention to it too much. That’s an ongoing process and a life-long practice.

    Many thanks for your wise advice!
    Best wishes

    PS I thoroughly enjoyed the last Sundays’ concert in Staufen and your playing. You seem to incorporate what you tray to convey in your open letter …

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