The Pianist’s “MUSTerbation”

As a pianist, do you suffer from “MUSTerbation”?

The term was coined by American psychologist Dr Albert Ellis, the father of Cognitive Behavourial Therapy. It is a cognitive trait often present in people who are maladaptive perfectionists, who strive to achieve unattainable ideals or goals, and is a classic recipe for general anxiety and unhappiness.

“Musterbators” live by a set of inflexible, highly polarised beliefs, such as

I MUST do well and be treated with respect, or it is AWFUL and I can’t bear it

Is your piano playing and music making driven by ‘must‘ and ‘should‘ and ‘ought‘? Maybe you regularly make statements to yourself and others like:

  • I must practise
  • I should be practising
  • I ought to be practising
  • I have to practise

– and feel guilty and angry with yourself when you don’t act upon them

Such statements demonstrate a very inflexible and unrealistic mindset, and leave musterbators feeling angry, frustrated and resentful (of self and others) if they fail to fulfil a “should have” activity – such as piano practise.

Known as “categorical imperatives,” these shoulds, oughts, musts and have to’s create unrealistic and over-generalised absolutes. If we don’t stop to look objectively at these inner statements, we become enslaved by them. In addition, when we think we should be acting in a certain ‘ideal’ way, we create a judgmental Inner Critic and a part of us puts pressure on ourselves to follow these rules. We then feel guilty and depressed when we don’t. This often leads to strong feelings of guilt, self-hatred, anxiety and depression, and to procrastination, withdrawal, and obsessing about what has been (“I should have practised more”).

“The tyranny of the shoulds.”

Karen Horney

Such feelings can be deeply inculcated in us and often stem from parental pressures when we were children (“You should be practising!”) or from teachers, for example. We carry these behavourial traits with us into adulthood and may not even be aware of how much they impinge on our day-to-day life.

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Most pianists – professional or amateur – know they should practise, and most know that regular, focused, and intelligent practise leads to noticeable progress and deep learning. An important part of the practise process is retaining a sense of creativity, curiosity, spontaneity and experimentation. These aspects prevent practising from turning into mindless note-bashing and encourage us to find joy and excitement in our music making. There’s not much joy or vibrancy in a mindset which is continually under the sway of the tyranny of the should, and a whole lot of dissatisfaction and resentment. Unfortunately for musicians, much of formal musical training is geared towards the pursuit of perfectionism, even though perfectionism is an artificial construct and an unattainable goal.

As a musician, such obsessive perfectionist behaviour can stifle musical growth and creativity. The musterbator sets unrealistic or unachievable goals and then feels angry or depressed when such goals are unfulfilled. Musterbators worry excessively about mistakes, they dislike uncertainty, fear negative evaluation by others (teachers, peers, colleagues), and feel frustrated by the gap between what you expect of yourself and your current level of achievement/ability. The musterbatory mindset can lead to over-practising which in turn can lead to injury or greater susceptibility to injury, as well as feelings of low self-esteem and self-loathing, and resentment towards the instrument.

Last year, when I was working towards my Fellowship performance diploma (a high level professional exam), I found myself indulging in musterbatory behaviours, though I wasn’t aware of the term at the time and did not really recognise my obsessive perfectionist attitude as being anything other than taking a “professional” approach to my practising and study. I have always enjoyed practising, I know how to practise productively, and I work best when I have a clear focus or end goal. These attributes are not negative in themselves. My self-imposed practise schedule was such that I would be at the piano by 8am and would schedule at least 3 hours practise into each day. I felt I needed to practise every day and if I missed a day, I berated myself for lack of focus. I think it is important to note at this point that I am not a professional concert pianist and I did not, and do not, need to work at such a concentrated level day in day out. There were periods of time when I felt very angry with myself for not making greater progress and several occasions when I felt I had a reached an immovable impasse with the music (Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata). On these occasions, the piano, which resides in my living room, became a negative presence looming over me, reminding me of my failings. In addition, I suffered several bouts of extremely painful tendonitis and developed a shoulder problem which has still not been fully resolved. There were many times during the process when I felt deeply dissatisfied and disappointed with myself, that I was “not good enough” and I was ready to give up. On reflection – and I took 4 months away from the music after failing to pass the diploma to do some serious re-evaluation – I can now see that my personal unhealthy perfectionism, my “musterbation” was actually harming my relationship with the piano and my enjoyment of music, in addition to causing harm to my body and my emotional well-being.

Fortunately, it is possible to reframe one’s way of thinking to escape the tyranny of the shoulds and the musterbatory mindset. Not all perfectionism is negative, and unlike the musterbator, the “adaptive” or “self-oriented” perfectionist derives “a sense of pleasure from their labors and efforts, which in turn enhances their self-esteem and motivation to succeed…….Self-oriented perfectionists may then use their pleasure in their accomplishments as encouragement to continue and even improve their work“*

Of course, you cannot achieve perfection and you kind of get paralyzed, so you have to find equilibrium between the possible—what’s realistic and what is ideal.

– Yo-Yo Ma, cellist

These “healthy” perfectionists set themselves realistic goals and high personal standards which are achievable. They enjoy the process of striving, have a strong sense of personal autonomy and self-determination (“I choose to….” instead of “I must”), and notice incremental/marginal gains as well as larger achievements, and feel good about them. This in turn encourages greater effort and further achievement. In piano practise, this attitude enables one to regard mistakes as learning tools, to be imaginative and resourceful about problem-solving (of technical issues, for example), to be positive in self-evaluation and reflection, and be open-minded about critique from others (mentors, peers). The healthy perfectionist finds joy, spontaneity and love in their music making, which leads to greater feelings of satisfaction, self-worth and motivation.

If you find yourself prone to musterbatory traits in your piano practise, it’s probably time to question where this negative way of thinking or behaving has come from and why it must be followed. Are you placing undue pressure on yourself to meet unachievable goals, or maybe the pressure – real or imagined – is coming from an external force, such as a teacher or peers? Query whether this mindset is really benefitting you and your music (does it make you happy? Probably not……) and consider how setting realistic goals may improve your musical progress, your relationship with your instrument and your overall emotional health. It may be necessary to do this in consultation with a sympathetic teacher or trusted colleague.

Only when you banish toxic musterbatory thinking and free yourself from the tyranny of shoulds can you truly rediscover the love and joy of making music.

I practice because I’ve experienced so much love that you practice out of loving a phrase, loving motivic change, loving a structure or harmony change or the way a sound can get to something – Yo-Yo Ma

 

Further reading

The Problem With Perfection

 


*(Kilbert, J.J., Langhinrichsen-Rohling, J., & Saito, M. (2005). Adaptive and maladaptive aspects of self-oriented versus socially prescribed perfectionism. Journal of College Student Development, 46

 

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