The biggest demon of most musicians is a feeling of insecurity. It’s the creeping (or blatant) suspicion that you are literally the worst musician in the world — or at least nowhere near as good as you “should” be. It can also manifest as the idea that you’re going to: get laughed at by your peers, be a complete failure at everything you ever attempt, be revealed as a fraud, find out everyone is just humoring you, find out that your doubters were right, end up completely destitute and have to live in a cave, or possibly just spontaneously die the next time you have to perform. It turns out that all of these worries are 99.999% of the time completely baseless. No, you are not that 0.001 percent case where these thoughts are accurate. Bassoonist Georg, who has never actually touched a bassoon and likes living in caves, is an outlier adn should not have been counted.
The thing is that everyone feels like this, at least sometimes. I myself have, at the time of writing, complained at two different people a total of four times in the past week that I am going to end up living in a cave in the North Woods because no one will ever want to pay me for anything because I Suck. This is objectively not true. (You bought this book after all.) It may be a cliche, but there is a lot of truth to the thought that we are our own worst critics. There is no one else out there who knows your musical intent. If your trill doesn’t sound the way it did in your head, you are the only person who knows. Everyone else will think approximately this: “Hey, that was a trill. Cool.” If they’re especially persnickety, they might add “That was a little (better/worse) than when (you/someone else) sang a similar trill.” I don’t think there is a person out there who specifically goes to listen to a performance and thinks “This is awful and this performer is awful,” because most people are very nice. You are the only person there who thinks that you suck.
There are ways to battle insecurity, of course. Every performer develops a set of techniques to reaffirm their own self-worth, to calm themselves down, and essentially talk themselves down from the tree their anxiety has them hiding up. However, trial and error can take a long time, and you are going to need your self-esteem shored up a lot in the next year. With that in mind, here are suggestions from performers in college and beyond for how to manage insecurity.
Focus on things you’ve improved in the past year. When you start to worry about how obviously you’re no good and no one will ever want to listen to you etc. etc. etc., take a deep breath, then list three things you’ve improved in your playing in the past year. You have definitely improved at LEAST three, if not eight or nine aspects of your playing. Be as broad or as specific as you wish. This is about you acknowledging that you have grown and gotten better, so you choose the things on which to focus.
Listen to old recordings of yourself. If you absolutely CANNOT think of a SINGLE THING you’ve improved on in the past year (really? Not even your ability to play a single piece?), then go and listen to recordings of yourself from years ago. Find something you performed in when you were a freshman in high school (or, if you’re a freshman, see if you can find stuff from elementary school!). Go and listen to it, as critically as you can. It will probably make you cringe. That’s a good thing. Know why?
It’s because it shows you how much you’ve grown since then. If you fast-forward ten years from now, as long as you have kept playing, I can guarantee that future-you will listen to recordings of current-you with that same kinda cringey feeling. Because, in ten years, you will have improved so much that your current playing will be unrecognizable. And you will be proud.
Remember that the goal is improvement, not perfection. Music is not a race. Music is not a competition. Music is an art for self-fulfillment and self-expression. Perfection is impossible. Being “the best” is also impossible – there are seven billion people on Earth (and six in space (I checked!)). There’s always going to be someone out there who has practiced a little longer, or harder, or started earlier, or whose fingers are just a little closer to the perfect shape for your instrument. Your goal, then, should be to improve your own self – no comparisons to others, nothing like that.
Remember everyone comes from a different background. That person who sits to you in your ensemble, the one you’re envious of? You can’t know everything about their life. Maybe their parents started them on their instrument at age three. Maybe they haven’t gone out on the weekend in a year and a half because they practice then, or because they work to make up for not working during their practice time during the week. They could have a buttload of debt because of outside lessons. There’s no way to know what advantages or tradeoffs they’ve had to get where they are.
Once you’re at a certain point in life, there’s no way to add something to your life without sacrificing something else that you also like. If someone else practices X amount hours more a week then you do, then they spend X amount less doing something valuable to you – work, sleep, other homework, socializing, recharging, etc. They may simply have different priorities than you, and that’s okay.
Shut down the voice that compares people. Comparing yourself to someone else does nothing for you. Really. Unless you’re actively studying someone’s technique for educational purposes, comparing yourself to that 5th year senior, or that incredible freshman, does nothing for you. When you notice yourself doing the comparison thing, just shut it off. Practice rebuffing that voice.
“Sarah plays really well, yes. When I’ve played as long as she as, I’ll be better than I am now, too!”
“That freshman plays really well – I’m glad they had the opportunities they did.”
If all else fails, just look at these other people as motivation. Aspire to be as good as them, and use that to fuel your own practice. Just don’t let it spiral into beating yourself up. You’re worth more than that.
Directors have a vision. If you don’t match that vision, it’s not a personal failing.This is specifically in regards to auditions or chair seatings. Every musician has a different style and different technical abilities, and that’s okay. Sometimes your skill in a certain area may be amazing, but your tone just doesn’t match the rest of an ensemble. Or your sight-reading is great, but the director prefers someone else’s musical interpretation. That’s okay. There are ensembles where sight-reading is super important, and where your tone matches perfectly. You just have to find them, and you will eventually.
Make sure to take care of yourself. You can’t practice as efficiently if you’re sick. You can’t improve as much when you’re always exhausted. Trust me – due to an immune system that works about as well as a mall cop, I’ve spent on average eight weeks a school year feeling absolutely gross. I had to take an incomplete with my private teacher the first semester of my senior year of college, because I was so ill I could barely phonate (mono is a big ball of suck).
I’ve been better overall, however, since I started scheduling my sleep and food and socialization times. My calendar has nine hours of sleep scheduled in every night, I have phone calls and coffee dates with my best friends penciled in every week, and food is as regular as clockwork. Why? Because it prevents that nauseous, exhausted feeling of sleepwalking through a ten hour day. Hard days still happen, of course. However, I don’t spend nearly as much time cajoling myself to just keep putting one foot in front of the other anymore. Instead, I’m awake, engaged, and able to complain about things other than how tired I am. Progress!
Read up on Impostor Syndrome. Impostor Syndrome is when your brain’s resident jerkwad is constantly suggesting everyone you know is about to find out you’re a fraud. Who cares about any auditions you’ve successfully done. Who cares how good a grade you got last week. The jerkwad yells that you’re faking everything you’ve ever done, and people are going to figure that out, and then you’re going to end up living under a bridge and charging people tolls to cross it, and then they’ll figure out you aren’t even really a troll, and then you’re going to have join me in the cave in the North Woods and eat beetles and moss.
That jerkwad is a liar. Even I haven’t ended up in the North Woods yet, and I’m pretty sure I should list “Can BS Real Well” on my resume under Skills. You are a real musician – after all, you play music! That’s it. That’s all that’s required to call yourself a musician. I promise.