Wednesday, April 05, 2006

A Musical Interlude

I haven’t written about music in a while.

This semester, I am not playing with my usual music group (an early music group) because of being on sabbatical. It has been rather nice to have the freedom to practice as I wish and to consolidate where I am in my playing.

I still have had some good musical opportunities. When I was in England, the people at the study center where I was staying would hear me practicing sometimes, and so they asked me about my instruments and then asked me to play for the short evening service. This gave me performing experience of an especially concentrated kind: to come up with one tune appropriate for a formal worship service setting. The fact that I was asked to do this several times over the course of the month suggests that I didn’t do badly. It also challenged me to come up with a different tune each time. All of this was good for me. I wasn’t always as relaxed as I would like to be, and I didn’t play as flawlessly as I wish I always could, but at least I had the self-discipline not to draw attention to that fact or try to solicit sympathy and reassurance. Instead, I would chant to myself my new mantra: “I am what I am.”

In this light, I have been thinking a lot about “professionalism.” I’m so naturally insecure that it’s been hard for me to learn what professionalism really is. I think I’ve tended to seem reasonably professional, but by accident: I’m too shy to share the intensity of my insecurity beyond my closest circle of friends. My shyness comes across as cool reserve (maybe) and so people mistake me for being confident, modest, and professional (either that, or they just don’t notice me much at all).

It’s only been relatively recently that it has dawned on me that professionalism is not just an appearance but is also an attitude. And so I must admit that, in reality, I have not been very professional at all. My inner attitude when performing music tends basically to be: “I’m not really good enough to be doing this…” That’s not a professional attitude.

“But if it is nevertheless a true assessment,” I say to myself, “it doesn’t matter whether it is professional or not!”

Fair enough.

“It shows that I am not a professional! I should not pretend to be one!” I go on, stridently, to myself.

“Um, ‘am not,’ or ‘will not be’?” I quietly reply to myself.

“Can not be,” I insist. “Not capable!”

“What are you doing then? Why do you keep playing?”

“Well, er, theoretically I’d like to get to a good place sometime. But in the meantime, I’m doing it for love. I’m an amateur! And I do it because it is part of my spiritual discipline. It is good for me to keep trying to get to a certain level of respectable competence.”

“So it’s all about you then, is it?”

“Hey, wait, I’m trying to be humble here! I’m trying to say that I can’t claim that it can be about more than me. I can’t claim to be creating music that’s really good enough for others to enjoy! Oh, I’d like to be able to, but if I can’t, I can’t. Should that stop me from trying? Does that mean I must deny myself the joy and fulfillment I gain by trying? Am I really not allowed to play at all unless and until I’m excellent?” (If I’m starting to sound a bit defensive here, it is because this was the line of argument I’ve been using to try to convince myself that it’s okay for me to perform even before I am perfect because the only way to learn how to perform is to perform. No amount of practice ever prepares you for the experience of performing – it is only by performing that you finally learn to deal with the special characteristics of performance, such as all those people out there looking at you, and the sweating and shaking and dry mouth that suddenly overtake your body like they never do in the privacy of your practice room.)

“Ahem, with all due respect, maybe it’s time for you to start, er, growing up?”

“What do you mean?!? What are you talking about?!?”

“I see what you mean about trying to be humble and all, but, well, as soon as you do enter a performance situation, it’s not just you. There are other people there. Don’t you feel you have some responsibility towards them too?”

“Well, yeah, but … but … “

“But what?”

“They scare the willies out of me!”

“Is that why they are there? Is that why you are there?”

“Ok, ok, I know we’re all supposed to be there for the sake of the music!”

“And that is why the audience is there. They are simply coming to a concert. They like coming to concerts. They like the kind of music you all play. They are playing their part professionally enough. What about you?”

“What do you mean?”

“They are playing their part professionally – what does it mean for you to play your part professionally?”

“But I’m not a professional. I’m not getting paid to do this. I’m not pretending to be a professional musician. We’re an amateur group.”

“Do you think the audience knows that or cares? Sure they know the concert is free, but is that the only reason they come? If you were all dreadful, would they bother coming? No, they come because you are not half bad! They come because they love the kind of music you play. They listen to what you are – they don’t care about distinctions between amateurs or professionals. They – like you – realize that there is not a correspondence between the amateur-professional scale and the bad-good scale. There are amateur groups that are brilliant, and professional groups that are … lacking.”

“So, what’s your point?”

“The difference between an amateur and a professional is not about being paid; nor is it about being good. It’s something about your attitude.”

“Ok. Say more.”

“It’s not that you are either an amateur or a professional. A professional is an amateur-plus.”

“Plus what?”

“A different kind of attitude. Amateurs play for love. Professionals don’t stop playing for love. They add to that love something else. Or, wait, maybe they subtract – they subtract an unhealthy self-consciousness. They are there not for themselves, but for the music and for the audience.”

[Mumbling] “Easy enough for you to say. Not so easy to do!”

“Fair enough. I’ve framed it kind of negatively: ‘stop being self-conscious!’ That way of putting it is not very helpful. This kind of shift requires a new kind of mental discipline. You understand about mental discipline! The secret is to gently replace the negative scripts of self-consciousness with realistic, believable, aspirational positive statements that will move you into a more professional attitude.”

“Can you think of any examples?”

“Yes. Instead of thinking, ‘I hope I don’t unravel during that fast passage,’ picture how it felt when you’ve nailed it. Instead of looking out on the audience conceptualizing them as Intimidating Monster Music Critics, remind yourself that they are not here to have a miserable time logging all the errors they can find – they are here to have a good time enjoying the uplifting music.”

“Mm hmm” [unconvinced].

“Ok, try this: it’s about communication. What are you trying to communicate through the music? Why do you think it is music worth sharing with others? What do you hope they will hear in it? What effect do you hope it will have on them?”

“That’s better. I can almost get a grip on that.”

“The unprofessional is focused on how he or she looks and sounds. The professional is focused on how the music sounds.”


“The professional is only there incidentally, to help the music out. They are there to hold open the curtain that lets the music out.”


“And it’s an act of mental discipline to keep oriented in that attitude. That’s what being a professional is all about.”

As I’ve begun to realize this, I work at it backwards. The easiest way for me to start getting a grip on this is to manage how I am after the performance. During the performance, I try to look relaxed and happy, no matter what happens. After the performance, I continue this. I smile and try to be gracious. When people comment, if they comment about me, I gently deflect the conversation to the music instead. I resist all temptations to say things like, “I can’t believe how I flubbed up that high D!” Instead, I have the discipline to say, “I just love the Fantasia – wasn’t that an amazing piece of music? What a brilliant composer! Did you catch the interplay between the two low recorders towards the end?” And this works. It keeps everyone’s attention focused on the music, even after the concert is over.

(Footnote: The alert reader will recognize the irony of this entire posting: the unprofessional sharing of the inner personal struggles of one seeking professionalism and the loss of self-consciousness. But is this really just a personal story -- or is it instead one so personal that it (ironically) becomes general if not universal?)


  1. Hi:
    Well... music and performance. I grew up comfortable playing before people, as a busker, playing in Ceili bands, performing traditional ballads, performing my own. Thee might have read on my blog that I suddenly can't.
    For me, all that I was in music, I just wasn't, all at once. It became performance rather than communication, and that was so painful. I really long to go to places where I felt at home in the music, in the Heberdies, in the west of Ireland, however, so many place I have been, music has been becoming performance... and I am a little afraid that I will find TV has brought the big change those remote places as well, I should go and see, but I am really afraid of the loss of finding out, ( so much for my posts about courage, eh? ) But, I am really lonely without this constant companion, music, which was the sound of my soul from before I could talk, now, there seems only to be silence, and that... is very odd.

  2. Hi Lor,

    Yes, I do remember reading on your blog that you suddenly cannot play anymore. And I was sad about this. And this was somewhat in the back of my mind as I wrote this post, along with other thoughts, influences, and concerns.

    Your thoughts on music becoming performance rather than communication really strike me.

    In my own pursuit of music, I keep looking for a way of life in which it is a natural mode of communication and communion.

    And then I keep being startled to find myself being regarded as performer instead.

    "Wait, why are you all looking at me? Haven't you heard what I have been saying?" is how I often feel.

    "No," their looks tell me. "You are speaking this exotic foreign language. The language sounds very beautiful, but we don't understand a word you are saying!"

    And suddenly I feel very alone.