Saturday, December 23, 2006

Finding Oneself Musically

Yesterday was the last day of final exam week. So I've been really busy. It is hard when the end of the semester comes this close to Christmas! Tomorrow I depart for Christmas travels to visit family. It will be really nice to see everyone again. I am very excited about this trip!

My concerts went pretty well last weekend. In addition to playing the Charpentier Midnight Mass, I also played a Telemann flute duet with the other flute player in the impromptu baroque orchestra that had been assembled for the Charpentier Mass. We had two performances: one on campus, and another at a local historical venue. I really like performing in historical spaces. Not only do I appreciate their historical charm, but such places tend to be smaller spaces whose acoustics are more suitable for early instruments. Playing baroque flute with modern instruments is always a challenge. While the other players do a nice job of playing in baroque style, their modern instruments can so easily overpower the baroque flute. But I think we did a pretty good job at these concerts. And I really enjoyed this experience.

Leading up to the concerts, though, I was not so sure. The concerts came at a time of the semester that is really busy for me. Besides all that, we had just received news that our wonderful Dean is leaving at the end of this year. This hit me particularly hard, because our Dean is a member of the philosophy department, and was chair when I first started teaching here. He has been a very important mentor for me.

So, I was reeling from this news, and was overly busy, and tired. Our dress rehearsal got cancelled -- instead we were to meet early for the concert and have a quick run-through then. That run-through went reasonably well. Then in the span of time between that and the concert itself, I became aware of how unusually nervous I was. I have always had problems with performance anxiety, but thought I had been getting better.

So I took a good look at this spell of anxiety (so bad that I wondered whether I shouldn't just stop performing altogether), and realized that it wasn't lack of confidence about my preparation, but was simply an effect of how unsettled the rest of my life was feeling. "Still, was it a mistake to agree to do this?" I wondered. "Is it going to be a disaster?"

But then I reminded myself that I knew better than to spiral into negative thinking.

"The music is beautiful!" I reminded myself, "and that's what this audience is here to hear!" So, how was I to focus my attention just on the present: this music, here, now? Why, by praying, of course!

So I asked for God's help. "I feel rattled and tired, and I'm worried that I even feel like I've slipped onto a self-destructive path, but you know that that's not really what I want. What I really want is to be a medium for the expression of this beautiful music. So, how do I get to the frame of mind that will allow this to happen?"

Suddenly there popped into my mind the realization that I really had quite a negative image of myself as a performer: someone with a fatal weakness in my soul that is likely to cave in under pressure, causing the music to collapse all around me. And along with this realization was again the sense that I knew better than this! Key to success in any endeavor is the ability to conceptualize a positive image of that success. Didn't I realize before my last performance that a good way to conquer performance anxiety is to pretend to be one of the flute players I most admired?

But now I realized that even that wasn't quite the right technique. What I needed to do, I realized, was create an image of myself as a good performer! Imitating others' styles can be helpful along the way, as one is learning and cultivating one's range of expression, but everyone knows that mastery culminates in the development of one's own distinctive style. I realized with some astonishment that I have not given this the attention it deserved. I keep "humbly" thinking of myself still as learning. And, in that, I've let myself internalize a rather awkward self-image of a beginning learner -- and this is the image that tends to come forward under stress! In my "learning" mentality, I tend not to trust my own musical judgments, but keep thinking in terms of what various of my musical mentors would think. I play a passage a certain way and think, "so and so would find that too sappy!" and then make the adjustments I think that person would want me to make. But I have been playing music just about all my life! Can I not start trusting my own musical instincts?

This realization seemed big. Too big for the time I had before I was "on"? "I can't just conjure up a positive, distinctive vision of myself as a performer in the next ten minutes, can I?" I asked myself, or God, in a new rise of panic.

Then I relaxed. "I don't have to do this all now. But I have performed well in the past, and there's simply no reason whatsoever that I should not be able to do so today. I don't have to be all the way to who I want to be. All I have to do is remember how much I love this music, and try to communicate its beauty to an audience already eager to hear it."

And this worked.

Since these concerts, my practicing has now taken on an entirely new spirit. I am starting to listen to myself in new ways -- directly, and no longer filtered through the imagined critiques of my mentors. (Well, those critiques still whisper in the background, but I am not paying as much attention to them.) I am acknowledging the fact that my having played for all of these years has built up something of a positive image that I just haven't consciously put together or let myself trust.

As I listen in new ways, it is my listening that now knits this image together into a consciously realized coherence that now I can start to trust.

It is astonishing to me to realize that I actually am a good musician, who has overlaid upon my good playing an awkward beginner-stance, and then tries on top of that to fake being pretty good when I am called upon to perform!

What a liberation to let go of pretending to be good, and then to let go of pretending to be awkward and uncertain, and finally get down to what is actually there musically at my core!

What is there is a deep and abiding love. I can lean into this. I can trust it.


  1. CS,

    My own musical accomplishments are meager. I do like to sing but never developed any kind of grace or comfort with a musical instrument. Still I can relate to your story. We are commanded to be perfect and we are haunted by images of ourselves as failures or at best mediocrities. Yet the command: "be perfect" says what it says. Is it impossible? Most of the time we listen to our worldly mind and agree that it is. then we start thinking that the command can't really mean what it says and we, as Fox put it, start "pleading for sin."

    My own attempt to deal with this mystery lies in the fact that I do find myself being perfect in little momentary snatches. Someone comes up to me needing my help and I put down what I am doing without a second thought and do what I can. In that moment I am obedient to the command. The rest of the day? Well, the rest of the day is another story. I suppose you might feel something like this when you perform. You might find that there are moments when you are totally in the music and performing the piece perfectly. Such moments are worth holding onto. It's a brief vision of living into the kingdom of God.

  2. Thank you Richard! Yes, I am glad that you can still relate to what I was saying -- I did hope that it had applicability beyond just the realm of musical performance.

    Part of what I so value about performing music is how it brings more general matters of life and our spiritual journeys into a special kind of concrete focus.