As musicians, many of us have come up against frustrating, demotivating and depressing moments within our musical endeavours whether in practice or performance. Whether a poorly rehearsed gig, an embarrassing wrong note or an underconfident improvised solo these moments can sometimes be so overwhelming and most especially when the feedback is negative that they cause our confidence to plummet and even make us question the prospect of a career change.
Our responses to these incidents are almost always, however, governed by our perspective above anything else. I’ve learned from my own career how easy it is to project the negative times in our pursuits as the sum of all our musical ventures. And unfortunately, the knock-on effects when adopting this mindset can be catastrophic. In the past, not only have I allowed my projections of one isolated bad experience summarise my holistic musical potential, but I’d also project my discontent onto others. On occasions where my insecurities were triggered in a seemingly compromising situation I’ve responded both unnecessary and unjustly, giving the surrounding individuals a very hard time. Unsurprisingly, thereafter the respective victims were somewhat unwilling to build a fruitful relationship with me, let alone book me again for another gig.
Truthfully, the real issue in these situations wasn’t anything to do with anyone else but was to do with both a lack of self-awareness and poor judgement. I fell into bad habits where I would dismiss various opportunities to rectify a situation because I was too caught up in the problem instead of focusing on finding a solution. If I’d spent my energy trying to find solutions instead of wallowing in self-pity it would have elevated the circumstances and communicated good decorum. Bad reactions to undesired moments in gigs, performances, lessons, workshops and so on were guaranteed to catalyse and intensify situations the more I pursued self-interest. The Greek Stoic philosopher, Epictetus, once stated that ‘it’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters’. I recognise these days how positive reactions to difficult situations can really demonstrate respect towards oneself and others. It takes true strength of character to impart compassion and bring about prosperity when faced with challenging circumstances.
Whilst moments may make us feel in the short term as though it’s end of the world, they are in the long term integral to enabling musical growth and innovation. Bad happenings are inevitable, so there’s no point trying to fight them. If they’ve not happened to you yet then they will eventually. A useful thing to remember is that bad moments aren’t necessarily a bad thing for they often highlight key areas of our musicality that need more focus and attention which help inform and better our musical practices and performance. Above all, isolated moments that make us feel anything from embarrassment to remorse do not amount to or speak on behalf of our musical capcity as a whole.
A useful metaphor I use to help students both address difficulties and to overcome tricky personal and practical hurdles is fitness; when we commit to proper exercise we rip our muscle fibres. Our muscles are effectively ‘damaged’ and ache but heal over time and become stronger. As the saying goes: ‘if there’s no pain there’s no gain’. Similarly with our musical endeavours, if we commit fully to our activities we’ll naturally experience turmoil of some form. But like an aching muscle, we heal and develop. As a result we gain new insight and our perspective becomes more informed and wholesome giving us improved confidence. Both enable better practice and performance in addition to our other pursuits.
When the seemingly bad moments come around, practicing patience and compassion and staying receptive to resulting opportunities that can arise has enabled new challenges to amount to greater personal and musical success. To help me deal with and overcome challenging situations I remind myself that the more they happen the more prosperous and evolved my musicality becomes. I hope they continue to happen as they’re unlocking to all appearances limitless opportunities and potential.
Thomas Solomon Gray