It doesn't serve the music, the audience, or you!
Over the weekend, like thousands of others, I attended a concert. I needed to hear music so I could process grief, quietly connect with myself in community, and experience sound that could articulate my human experience where words were falling short.
I get that this is a tall order. And, that one of the reasons I sought refuge in the concert hall is because I have dedicated my life to classical music and genuinely believe in its power.
Unfortunately, this performance met none of my hopes. It was a sad, poorly executed version of a bad recording. Maybe it was the conductor, maybe it was because the musicians had played the piece so many times it lost its magic for them, maybe the performance wasn’t taken as seriously because it wasn’t a subscription concert… I have no idea.
From the audience’s perspective, the performance felt SAFE. It felt contained, phoned in, and completely irrelevant. One of the great pieces in our orchestral repertoire was reduced to sleepy, elevator music.
Y’all, it was rough.
Why do musicians play SAFE?
1. We don’t want to fail.
We have defined failure as “making a mistake.” Playing out of tune, missing an entrance, or not subdividing our dotted eighth/sixteenth rhythm. It’s like we’ve become defensive drivers, playing through our part by constantly surveilling for mistakes (or the potential for mistakes) in ourselves and others. Don’t play flat on my pp, COUNT!, listen to the bassoons, watch the concertmaster… We try to control everything, account for every possibility that could go wrong, and beat ourselves up in the process.
This is NOT music-making. This is helicopter parenting and micro-managing. It is anxiety and fear. It’s technical, not artistic.
I encourage you to redefine the word failure for yourself in the context of performance. I would argue that, once you put on your concert black, failure happens when you are absorbed with yourself and the nuances of your own personal performance. When you step on stage, you contribute to something much bigger and more beautiful than yourself. Your job is to enter into a state of collective flow where your skills, intuition, and experience synthesize as you create within community.
2. We don’t respect our audience.
I say this next point IN LOVE. I know it’s a reason musicians play it safe because I’ve done it, too. Phoned in a kiddie concert, been dismissive of a pops concert program, or felt resentful of having to play another holiday show. We’re not thinking about:
the students hearing their beloved Star Wars music live for the first time and how exciting it feels to have those sounds consume you;
the sweet retired couple who have been planning to experience the music of Broadway for their anniversary so they can relive their first date in NYC;
the veteran subscriber who has sat in that same seat for 30 years - through different music directors, new concertmasters, and evolving programming - because they just love hearing the orchestra.
We’re only thinking about ourselves and our own personal satisfaction.
For most of us, it is infinitely more fun and personally satisfying to play Berlioz or a new commission than it is to play a Chanukah medley 12 concerts in a row. I get it. We can feel like the thousands of hours of practice, study, and personal sacrifice warrant the delight of playing music that lights our souls on fire.
In those moments, remember that this is not about you. This is about your audience. It’s about the humans sitting in the hall who want a reprieve from the stressors of their life, who want to experience something that makes them happy and hopeful, who love going to the orchestra and being your biggest fan.
3. We feel bitter.
Maybe you never landed your dream job or you have a toxic musician you sit next to or there are contentious negotiations happening with the administration. Situations like this are challenging and truly can turn making music into a joyless job.
We can feel unappreciated for our efforts on stage and in the practice room, and we can be stressed because of complex interpersonal dynamics that affect how well we can collaborate. Unless we are intentional about how to deal with these challenges, our feelings will most certainly come up through our instruments on stage.
Just as a data processor needs to come to terms with the (potentially?) repetitive work of processing data or the daycare worker needs to understand how to manage their feelings when 5 kids are crying at the same time, so too does the classical musician need to develop emotional skills in order to succeed within their job. Being a musician is high pressure, high stakes, elite work and we MUST have tools in place to support us.
Exercises to Beat Playing It Safe
*based on the work over at positivepsychology.com
Set clear personal goals. When you are headed into a performance that you’re feeling a little less than inspired about, write down 2 or 3 things that you would like to achieve within that performance. Veer away from technical goals and lean into what you’d like to experience emotionally or artistically.
Create your own mission statement. Your purpose as a musician is bigger and broader than any program you perform. Big picture, what are you doing, and why are you doing it? What will drive you when you’re performing your 200th Nutcracker? What keeps you engaged and excited about performing?
Rather than looking outside of yourself for validation or inspiration, find internal measures that give you a sense of satisfaction and of a job well done. There will always be sour, bitter musicians who are phoning a concert in. What do you believe in? How do you want to show up for yourself and for the music? How are you contributing to the overall concert experience?
I know that playing it safe and phoning it in are not strategies that any musician would advocate for themselves or their ensemble. And I also know that there are a lot of stressors and complexities involved in making music; sometimes we buy into a culture without even realizing it.
If you notice times when you aren’t giving your best on stage and have the bandwidth to address it, I encourage you to work through a couple of these exercises. They’ll reconnect you with why you became a musician and they’ll support you in becoming a better version of yourself.
Next Steps and Additional Resources
Here at The Musician's Mindset, we have some incredible resources for developing and implementing mindset practices that will transform how you perform on stage.
Founder of The Musician's Mindset
Katie is 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.