classical music

What Does Shame Have to Do With It?

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I’ve been thinking about shame a lot these days. That’s right-light, easy material.

I got inspired by psychologist Brené Brown and her Ted Talk on Vulnerability. (I’ve mentioned her before on this blog and you can find the link here.) Her work on shame and vulnerability has touched a nerve for many people.

On a related link, I found a fantastic Ted Radio podcast titled “What Happens When We Make Mistakes?” It is extraordinary. This talk explores the range of mistakes from doctors in the emergency room, to jazz musicians who believe mistakes don’t exist and includes an interview with Brené Brown about why mistakes are essential to growth.

Brené Brown defines vulnerability as the combination of intimacy, trust and connection. She also speaks of shame as the ultimate fear of disconnection and how as human beings, our deepest need beyond all else is connection. As humans we need connection to one another, to ourselves, to nature. She explains that we cannot even consider talking about success without exploring vulnerability and ultimately shame. She says that “vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change”.

So what does all of this have to do with performance and a career in music? EVERYTHING.

As concert musicians, we make a living by being vulnerable! We put ourselves out there night after night, audition after audition. We are vulnerable, exposed, in the limelight ready for praise and criticism. Somewhere along the line, live performance has taken on an obsessive drive for perfection almost like an Olympic sport. The drive for perfection in performance seems not to be from inspiration but from fear of making mistakes. Mistakes become the ultimate shaming experience. It can become an all or nothing self-imposed kind of torture where the big picture goal gets lost in the moment to moment criticism. Of course, as professional musicians we have a standard of playing that can’t be denied. We are human and mistakes no matter how small are part of the performance. Some of the most extraordinary performances that I have heard or given involved being imperfect, and involved mistakes. Great art is a LIVE experience, moment to moment. And it is a dance between mastery and vulnerability, inspiration and excellence, creativity and discipline.

So many of us feel that we can’t risk vulnerability on stage until we are perfect, mistake-free. But I have yet to hear a performance where that is the case. There is always SOMETHING! You might not make a mistake, but perhaps your pianist misses a page turn and skips a bar, or perhaps someone’s cell phone starts ringing in the middle of your cadenza?

If we change our standards to be fueled by inspiration instead of fear, then what kind of outcomes can be achieved? How can we stay open-hearted and present even in the face of our imperfection? What if instead of trying not to make a mistake, the goal in performance was to remain focused and committed to the most moving, creative, artistic expression possible while connecting to the audience no matter what happens?

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