I have been thinking about dignity in music practice and performance. See if this makes sense to you:
I used to think that the purpose of being a musician was to transcend my humanness. I figured that if I practiced long enough and hard enough, I would be able to play perfectly and that being a perfect musician would mean I was worthy of love and acceptance. (Of course, at the time, I wouldn’t have articulated that way — I just thought I was striving for excellence like I was told I was supposed to. But, in hindsight, I can see that what was going on was a little more insidious than healthy aspiration.)
It didn’t work out so well. Despite years of trying, I did not learn to play perfectly and, eventually, I became disenchanted with the whole enterprise of being a musician. I felt myself growing cynical and small. I was ashamed that I had failed to reach the standard I had set for myself as a student and started to dread performing.
The thing was, even though I didn’t play perfectly, I played well enough to get a job! So now I was really stuck. I had to either figure it out or do something else. Or continue to muddle along, hoping things would get better… I chose to try and figure it out, both for myself and for my students, many of whom were wrestling with the same brand of perfectionism that had plagued me for so long.
Well, I haven’t figured much out, really. But, I have come to view my humanness as the raw material of my life as a musician rather than a liability and this has transformed both my playing and my approach to teaching. Now, instead of rigid perfectionism, I advocate for an approach that balances healthy aspiration with gentleness and self-compassion.
This can be a tough sell, though, especially in a musical culture in which discipline and gentleness are often viewed as polar opposites. For many musicians, there is no middle ground between relentless striving and “anything goes.”
When I started trying to bridge this perceived (but ultimately imaginary) gap in my own life, one of first the resources I encountered was the wonderful book, The Art of Practicing, by Madeline Bruser. In it, Madeline provides a richly detailed map for navigating the wilderness that is reclaiming humanness in the context of a musical life. Both the content of the book and the voice in which it was transmitted were deeply nourishing to me when I first read it several years ago.
I recently had the enormous pleasure of interviewing Madeline for the podcast. In preparation for the interview, I re-read her book in addition to exploring some of her other work, including her guided Performing Beyond Fear exercise.
Dignity is a theme that recurs in Madeline’s work, both explicitly and implicitly (see above re: voice). Here is an example from the Introduction to the Performing Beyond Fear exercise:
My feeling is that audiences are starved for the experience of being an uplifted human being and they get very inspired when somebody walks out in a gown or a tuxedo or whatever and manifest this tremendous human dignity and friendliness and generosity; bows and shows respect to the audience and accepts the applause graciously; takes their time to begin and then makes beautiful music. This is a ceremony that has incredible power.
This really resonated with me and, as I reflected, I began to wonder if the notion of dignity could offer a “middle way” between the hyper-vigilance of perfectionism and apathy and sloppiness that many musicians worry will result if they cut themselves even a little bit of slack.
Playing sloppily is undignified, yes. But, in my opinion, so is the grasping of perfectionism. Perfectionism is a rejection of the full expression of our humanness. As a recovering perfectionist, I know this all too well! And, in a sense, we can’t reject our own humanness without also rejecting others’. But when we embrace our our shared humanness — our capacity for greatness along with our foibles and failures — we enter into a different sort of relationship with ourselves, the music, and the audience. Through our sincere effort, clear purpose, and receptivity to the moment, we dignify each other.