One common ailment that musicians go through is “not good enough”-ism. For non musicians this may be a new concept, as the media portrays most famous musicians as cocky and elitist. Although that definitely exists, there are quite a few musicians that have a problem accepting praise and with positive self-talk. Constant personal attacks on yourself is not humility.
Negative self-talk will hurt your self-esteem, make you look weak, hurt your musicianship, and even increase the frequency of mistakes. So why do you do it? You likely talk to yourself much worse than you would talk to a friend. If you learn how to be your own best friend, you’ll be a happier and better musician.
When Does This Happen?
When I was younger I was very critical of my playing. After a performance if someone complimented my playing, I would preempt them to make sure they knew how absolutely horribly I played. Most of the time the person giving the praise was completely oblivious to all of these errors in my playing. It didn’t matter though. I thought for sure they were just being nice. How could they NOT have heard it? I don’t need their pity. That’s the way I thought about it at least.
What a horrible attitude! Unfortunately I’ve seen this again and again with students. The music world is so competitive that a lot of students feel like they can never keep up. Even the best musicians feel somehow inadequate.
If you are having this problem, it needs to stop. Let’s go over why you’re feeling this way and what we can do about it.
What Did They Think About Your Performance?
There are a few different possibilities about what people in the audience thought about your performance. Understanding how your audience feels about your playing is the first step in the right direction for accepting compliments. Let’s go over each possible scenario.
They Heard Perfect Playing
You know you didn’t play perfectly. There is a lot you wish you could have done differently, but at least a number of people in the audience thought it was incredible. They thought you made no mistakes. If the audience members were not musically educated, then it’s very likely they didn’t hear any mistakes. People without musical training don’t know what to listen for. They don’t understand what even constitute mistakes. The only way they will know that you made a mistake is if you played a melody note that was obviously wrong, or you stopped. If you did neither of those two things, just assume 99% of the people listening thought you played perfectly.
You played a wrong note, and for some reason you want to make sure everyone knows it. So what do you do? You make a horrible face acknowledging to everyone watching that you made a mistake. This is a bad habit I had growing up, and often I remember people telling me they didn’t hear any mistakes, but they knew I made them because of the faces I was making.
Even though I knew I shouldn’t be making faces, I would still do it. I thought for sure I needed to let people know I didn’t think these mistakes were acceptable. But when you do this, you are just screaming to everyone “Oops! Oops! That was a bad one!” Not a very smart thing to do when no one noticed anyways.
They Heard a Couple Mistakes
What if you did stop, or you did miss an obvious note? Does it really matter? They likely aren’t going to tell you. This is art anyways. Everyone enjoyed your playing regardless of the mistakes you made.
Recently I went to a concert where a very well known pianist was playing Rhapsody in Blue by Gershwin. She was incredible. It wasn’t flawless though. There were definitely a few mistakes in the performance, and it made me wonder how she felt about it.
If she is like most musicians, I bet it really bothered her. For the sake of argument let’s assume that it did bother her. Why should it though?
The mistakes she made were extremely minor. I bet you could count on your hands how many people noticed in the audience. Those that didn’t notice were in absolute awe of her amazing playing, and really enjoyed the concert. Those that did notice, like me, were in absolute awe of her playing and really enjoyed the concert. She was fantastic, and the mistakes ruined absolutely nothing in the experience for me. So why should she be frustrated? She’s only human, and they won’t be the last mistakes she makes in a performance.
It was a Train Wreck and Everyone Knows It
So what about the case when it was just over the top bad. I’ve definitely had a train wreck performance or two in my life. So bad that it’s not something you could hide. You know it was horrible and everyone else does too. This is never a fun scenario, but in the big picture why does it matter? The only way that bad performance can hurt you, is if you let it.
Make your poor performance into a success. Learn from it. Become better. The key here is that everyone that heard the performance is on your side. They want you to do well.
Not only does everyone want you to succeed, but they will forget fast.
When I was a student there was one performance I’ll never forget. It was pretty horrible. I mean really, it was a train wreck. Years later a friend who attended that performance came up to me and said “I remember I went to your recital, you were so good. Are you playing again anytime soon?” I know exactly which performance he saw because I will never forget how I played. It was so bad I know at the time this friend realized it. But he sincerely had no recollection of it being bad.
People have busy lives. They’re not going to remember your train wreck for the rest of their lives. You’re the only one that will remember. So don’t let it hurt you forever.
What Does This All Mean?
Imagine that someone comes up to you after a performance and tells you how great you did. You may think you did horribly so you say “NO! It was horrible!”. You may be thinking it makes you look humble, but it actually just makes you look weak. You then end up becoming weak in reality.
You are What You Think
If you think you’re a bad musician, your subconscious mind will make sure that you are. It goes one step further when you constantly tell other people that you are bad. Your words and thoughts will be made into reality. Thinking is just as effective as doing.
In a study done in 2013, women with anorexia were studied. The researchers watched the women as they walked through doorways. Even though they had plenty of room they would squeeze past the doorways as if they could barely fit. They created an image in their minds that was being physically represented by the way they moved.
If you think you’re a bad musician, you’ll play like a bad musician. Don’t treat yourself so poorly.
What to Do Instead
“For better or for worse, your perceptions of what it takes to be competent, has a powerful impact on how you measure yourself and therefore how you approach achievement itself. Chronic self-doubt robs you of your successes and ultimately your own happiness and fulfillment.” – Dr. Valerie Young
You must replace all this negativity with positive self-talk. It’s not quite as easy as it sounds, but it starts with being gracious to compliments. The next time you perform and you start receiving compliments left and right. You need to stop. Look the person in the eye, put a big smile on your face and sincerely thank them for their kind words. Let them know that it means a lot to you.
This is a much more attractive response, and it will only build your self-esteem, not destroy it.
Be a Friend to Yourself
You would never say half of the stuff you say to yourself to a friend would you? “That was a horrible performance, you made mistakes everywhere! Everyone is thinking you’re a horrible musician.” Has a friend ever said something like that to you? If they have, I bet they’re not your friend anymore.
Have you ever said anything like that to yourself? I bet you have. If a friend would never say it to you, why are you saying it to yourself?
You must be a friend to yourself. Never say, or think, anything about yourself that a friend wouldn’t say about you.
Don’t Talk to Yourself in the First Person
My three year old is a great example of this. The other day the lights in our kitchen were off, and she wanted some water from the refrigerator.
She said “Daddy, please get me water!” Normally she gets herself water, so I told her she can just get it herself.
She said “But it’s dark and scary in there!” So I told her to go turn on the light. In order to turn the lights on she would have to walk a little bit in the dark room.
My brave little girl timidly said “ok…” and she started her walk slowly to the kitchen light switch. As she was walking over I heard he say under her breath “You can do it Sophia. It’s not scary. You can do it Sophia. It’s not scary.” I’m not sure where she learned to do that from, but I was so proud of her.
What I absolutely loved about it was she was talking to herself in the third person. You can do it Sophia. She didn’t say “I can do it.” In her mind this encouragement was coming from someone else. She may have been scared, but that other person encouraging her wasn’t. It gave her power.
Psychologists say that this is exactly how we should talk to ourselves. Don’t say “Why am I having difficulty with this passage?” When you talk to yourself that way it sounds and feels accusatory. If you instead say, “Why are you having difficulty with this passage?” All of the sudden it changes the whole tone of the question. Use your name if ever possible. You’ll find that when you speak to yourself in the third person it makes criticism less criticizing. Studies have found that you’ll be less likely to think or say negative comments about yourself as well.
We know mental practice works, but learning to love yourself and your musicianship can also be a form of mental practice.
Talk to yourself like your friends would talk to you. Understand that everyone wants you to succeed. Stop attacking yourself, and receive compliments graciously. If this is something that you have a problem with, consider it something you need to practice, just like you would practice that technically difficult passage you have to work on next. You’ll be glad you did.
What do you think? Do you have any techniques for staying positive and avoiding negative self-talk?