Ways to maintain your artistic integrity while incorporating ideas from other musicians
As young musicians, we are taught to look outside of ourselves for answers to problems. We seek out master teachers, chamber music coaches, and conductors to guide our artistic development. That feedback is crucial for us as we grow into ourselves as musicians. It expands our imagination and opens up new neural pathways of learning.
However, many musicians (me included!) abandon their own sense of personal artistic authority in favor of conforming to their teacher’s opinion. We seek external approval from our guides, often morphing our playing to better fit their musical paradigm. Some teachers foster this type of dependence upon them, others value the development of individual voices within their studios.
Either way, though, it is our responsibility as artists to learn to hear and then trust our own interpretation of the music on our stand.
The world does not need an imitation of your teacher; the world needs your unique and beautiful voice. Even as you are in the midst of developing as an artist (which we are ALWAYS doing, our growth never stops no matter how much experience we have), your musical opinion is valid and contributes to the overall vision in whatever ensemble you perform with.
So, how do we do this? How do we receive feedback, guidance, or direction and integrate those ideas with our own without abandoning our artistic integrity?
1. Be open and willing to experiment.
Perhaps you are working with a principal player on your excerpts and they are teaching you their very specific interpretation of the music. Rather than placing a value judgment on their interpretation (good) and your interpretation (bad,) view their musical ideas as one of an infinite number of ideas that you could try. Their ideas could work beautifully in your overall approach, or they could feel a bit forced and inauthentic. Leave room for both possibilities. Experiment. Be playful. See what feels good and give yourself time to incorporate the ideas you like into your playing.
2. Understand there is not one right way.
Making music is full of depth and imagination and soul. That’s why we love it so desperately, right? Because every performance of La Mer is magical and every time we play a Beethoven string quartet we learn something new. For as much effort as we put into mastering technique on our instrument, music making is fluid and spontaneous and personal. There is not one correct way to play anything! And, beware of the musician who tells you there is.
3. Trust your subconscious.
Sometimes we want to have tangible plans to execute when we have learned something new. That can be helpful in the practice room, of course. However, there is value in allowing your brain to subconsciously integrate information before you begin the execution. It is the nature of art to exist beyond words - perhaps we need to allow the learning of art space beyond words as well? Give yourself time to fully absorb new information so that when you apply it, it has your unique stamp on it.
4. Remember that you can say NO.
Once you have tried an idea, played with it, sat with it - you have every right to say no, that doesn’t work for me. You can do that! You can choose your idea over someone else’s (even if they have a big job!) You can hold fast to your vision and to what resonates musically for you.
As a musician, you are bringing your art into this world. Art that is full of what you find to be beautiful, what you find to be intimate, what you find to be true. There is always going to be a place for that. You experience the world and synthesize it through sound. You have an aural history that informs your music-making and creativity. Your artistry is unique and evolving. Trust it! Give yourself plenty of helpful inputs from teachers and colleagues, and then allow those inputs to expand your imagination, never to inhibit it.
Next Steps and Additional Resources
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Founder of The Musician's Mindset
Katie is a certified life coach dedicated to helping musicians overcome stage fright and believe in their own unique artistic voice. She believes live classical music is a powerful antidote for the division, pain, and loneliness pervasive in the culture and strives to support all artists to confidently share their work with the world. She lives in Cincinnati with her husband, three kiddos, a dog, a snake, and a goldfish named Orca.