Tag Archives: being a musician

The Self-Compassionate Pianist

The life of the pianist is, by necessity, solitary (and I have written before about The Pianist’s Loneliness). For many of us, the solitude is not an issue: we crave a sense of apartness to enable us to do our work and to create special connections with audiences when we perform, and we need quietude to allow time for self-reflection and evaluation.

The sequestered nature of the pianist’s life also calls for great self-reliance: we must  be self-starting, motivated, driven and focused to ensure our work (practising and preparation) is done each day. Most of us draw pleasure and satisfaction from knowing our work is done and done well, but without other colleagues and musical companions to interact with, it is easy for self-doubt to creep in, for us to question our role or our value, to ask “am I good enough?”.

Such negativism can stem from a performance which didn’t go to plan, the disappointment (and anger) from failing an exam or audition, a less-than-favourable review or some ill-advised comments from a teacher or mentor. Alone with our thoughts, such things can fester and grow into bigger problems than they need to be, and while most of us know that these things should simply be put down to “experience”, reflected upon and then put to one side, it can sometimes be difficult to shrug off feelings of inadequacy.

In his book ‘The Mindful Pianist’, teacher and pianist Mark Tanner notes the importance for the pianist of exercising “self-compassion” as a protection from the feelings of failure that can develop from setbacks, in addition to negative self-talk, lack of self-esteem, or dismotivation which can plague us when we spend so much time alone.

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Self-compassion is really no different from having compassion for others: the ability to recognise or understand difficulties, pain or suffering, and to respond in a kind, humane and sympathetic way. Having compassion enables us to offer understanding and support when someone makes a mistake, and demonstrates that we appreciate that we are all human and that suffering, failure, and imperfection are all part of the shared human experience.

By exercising self-compassion, we simply turn these kind and sympathetic responses back on ourselves. It involves acting in the same way as we would towards others when we are having a difficult time, fail or notice something in ourselves which we don’t like.

Self-compassion can be defined in three elements – self-kindness, mindfulness and common humanity – and can be applied to the pianist’s life and work as follows:

Self-kindness helps us cease the self-evaluation and critical assessment, the negative self-talk, asking “am I good enough”, comparing ourselves to others and the subsequent feelings inadequacy.

By exercising self-kindness we can recognize that perfection is an unattainable artificial construct, that when we fail, we need not beat ourselves up nor judge ourselves too harshly, but instead accept that we are human, that we “had a bad day at the office”, Self-kindness allows us be curious, open, and loving when it comes to how we regard ourselves.

Self-compassionate people appreciate that being imperfect, failing, and experiencing life’s difficulties are inevitable. By being self-compassionate we can be more gentle with ourselves when confronted with painful experiences rather than getting angry when life falls short of our expectations or set ideals. This can lead us to greater emotional equanimity.

From the musician’s point of view, such an attitude enables us to work with curiosity and open-mindedness, to be more self-inquiring, to regard mistakes as tools for learning and self-improvement, and to be kind to ourselves when lack of time or motivation means we may not get as much practising in on a given day as we’d hoped.

Mindfulness helps us to be non-judgmental and to take a balanced approach to our emotions. Being mindful allows us to observe our thoughts and feelings from a distance, and for the musician it encourages a positive attitude towards mistakes (learning tools) and setbacks.

Mindfulness also means “living in the moment” and being awake to experience: for the musician mindfulness encourages us to practise thoughtfully, with concentration, commitment, improved focus and care.

In a performance situation, it encourages us to focus on creating the sound we hear on the spot, and to immerse ourselves in the vibrancy and “now-ness” of the music, rather than over-thinking what we are doing or getting caught up in comparing the performance to the ideal one we have in our head. It also enables us to banish the destructive “inner critic”, to be less “over-identified” with our thoughts and feelings, and to be accepting of our own strengths and weaknesses.

Common humanity is about recognising that personal inadequacy, vulnerability and failure are part of the shared human experience – something we all go through rather than being something that happens to “me” alone. By recognising this, we accept that we don’t need to be singled out as the “most” or “least”, “best” or “worst” of anything, and we can become more objective about who we are in the world and how we choose to be. For the musician specifically, this includes not constantly comparing oneself to others but rather being accepting of who we are, and freeing oneself from the tyranny of perfectionism.

Self-compassion can protect us from the negative thoughts, self-doubt or feelings of inadequacy that the life of the musician may provoke, but it can also encourage us to open ourselves up to the full spectrum of our experience which is the starting point for truly compelling and mature musicianship.

Live life: it’s good for you and your music

I recently visited Vienna, a city which I fell in love with on my first visit in 2015. At the risk of sounding incredibly bossy, if you are a musician you have to visit Vienna. It is the city of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Mahler, Schoenberg, Berg and more. It boasts two fine concert halls with world-class resident orchestras, two opera houses, and beautiful churches where music is performed regularly. The place positively oozes culture from every pore: its galleries and museums contain some of the finest collections of art I have ever seen, and its imperial buildings (from the time of the Hapsburgs) are beautifully maintained. You can visit the homes of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schoenberg….. and pay your personal homage to the great composers at the main cemetery.

Schubert’s glasses

During my visit I overdosed on Secessionist art, walked the elegant boulevards in glorious and unexpectedly warm early spring sunshine, ate wurst from a stand behind the opera house, drank beer in a bierkeller, visited the (alleged) birthplace of Schubert (a tiny two-room museum with a touching display of mementos including his little round glasses), rode round the Ringstrasse on a retro tram, drank more beer, ate more wurst, attended a Sunday morning concert at the Konzerthaus, saw Dürer’s exquisite drawing of the hare, drank coffee with a colleague from HelloStage at a proper Viennese coffee house, toured Mozart’s house in the old city, and vowed I would return in the winter.

When I returned to London, replete with Weissbier, Mozartkugeln and kasekrainer, I felt that for the five days of my stay in Vienna I had steeped myself in its culture. When I practised music by Schubert I recalled the trip to his birthplace, a short tram ride from Schottenring to an area which was probably countryside in his day. My practising was coloured by recollections of the sounds and sights of Vienna – the noise of people (most obviously around St Stephen’s cathedral), the steady clop of horses’ hooves (you can take a horse-drawn carriage tour of the old city), the rattle and chime of the trams, the timbre and rhythm of conversations in cafes and bars. I’m a romantic at heart and it meant a lot to me to be able to walk the streets that Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert may have walked before me. When I returned to my piano and my practising, I felt I had a better handle on the music of these great Austrian composers, my understanding of their cultural background and their music deepened by my visit to their city.

Cutting oneself off from normal life by spending hours and hours in the practise room is not healthy. Aside from the law of diminishing returns (after about 3 hours you stop taking in information and are simply “typing” the music), it is important to remember that the composers whose music we love and revere were normal people too – and we can connect better to them and their music if we go out and live life, just as they did. As as student of mine remarked recently on the prospect of attending a specialist music school, “I’m not sure I could hack it, with all that practising. I’d want a social life too!”. And she’s right, because having a social life, meeting friends, going out together, eating and drinking, going to the theatre, the cinema, art exhibitions, reading trashy novels, falling in love, falling out of love, all feeds into our cultural and creative landscape to nourish and inform our music-making.

By the same token, placing the composers on high pedestals and turning them into demi-gods sets up expectations which we can never hope to fulfil, because we will never feel we can “do justice” to their music. Instead, treat them as ordinary people – they too had love affairs, went out drinking with mates, and enjoyed a good meal with friends and colleagues – but respect what they give us in their scores and show fidelity to the wonderful literature they have left us.

10 habits of successful musicians

American cellist David Finckel, who has just embarked on a series of seminars entitled ‘Being a Musician’ at Stony Brook University, identifies the important habits of those musicians who have built and maintained successful careers. (This article first appeared in The Strad.)

1. Know thyself
Being a musician begins with you. Knowing and being able to articulate why you love music, and why you must make a life of it, are the first steps to convincing the world that you are in the business to stay. Understanding how you stack up in the music world, and knowing what you have yet to learn, is equally important. If you are tougher on yourself than others, you’ll be ready for anything.

2. Be an artist
There are many musicians, but few real artists. True artists remake and replenish themselves perpetually, and are the ones followed by a loyal public. Decide what you need in order to honestly call yourself an artist and go get it. Study the people you consider to be great artists and emulate them. You can’t go wrong by spending a day as Mendelssohn, Picasso or Charlie Chaplin. Put yourselves in their heads and you’ll see the world differently.

3. Keep learning
Artists never stop absorbing knowledge and ideas that enrich their minds. Read, listen, watch, ask questions and surround yourself with interesting people. Don’t discount unconventional sources of knowledge. People who are constantly learning are the most interesting, always changing and always growing. Be one of them.

4. Work on your performance
Don’t be afraid to compare your performance to your own ideal. Be relentless in your determination to improve. Tape yourself on your mobile phone. Ask your friends for honest opinions. Listen and watch those musicians you admire most. Ask to play for the best musicians you know. You will only show yourself to be more dedicated than others.

5. Make friends
Careers are not made in isolation. Your friends, colleagues, mentors and industry contact list should be large, ever-growing and well-maintained. It will likely be one of these people who opens opportunities for you, recommends you, or shares a new idea that changes your life. A large musical family is not a bad thing to have.

6. Visualise possible lives
Keep an open mind as to the variety of ways you could be a musician. There are many.

7. Ask not what the industry can do for you…
Everyone who works in the arts industry faces enormous challenges on a day-to-day basis. The best thing a musician can do for them is to offer solutions, not present problems. These people appreciate all your ideas about programming, creative ways to appeal to the public, and help you can offer to run their organisations more powerfully. Ask what you can do for them.

8. Lead by example
The ideas and ideals of an artist are often beyond the comprehension of most around them. As a rule, the most effective way to stand out in the field from the rest is to live the life you believe in. Inspire others through your own work, and opportunities will surely come your way.

9. Give back
It is never too soon to begin sharing your experience, knowledge and inspiration with those poised to become classical music listeners, supporters and practitioners in the near and far futures. As an artist and a musician, you always have something to share. That you are perceived as thoughtful, generous and forward-thinking is completely in your favour.

10. Stay the course
Commitment to your art – respecting your initial reasons for becoming a musician and rejecting all unprincipled derivations from the course of integrity – is essential for ultimately commanding the respect of your colleagues, public, supporters and the entire industry. Today there are numerous temptations in the music world to stray from the highest standards of a pure course of study and practice of great music. Musicians, educators and administrators desperately employ short-lived ideas for getting engagements, creating opportunities for students and selling tickets. At the end of the day, not being among those who doubt the staying power of our art is the only safe way to ensure that you will be trusted and taken seriously.