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,