The Self-Compassionate Musician

IMG_4518I’ve been working on a project related to self-compassion and music-making. This is a new adventure for me as I am no poster child for self-compassion. For most of my life, I have denied myself the very things that I have given so freely to my students and colleagues: validation, encouragement and compassion. More often, I am overly self-critical, quick to judge and denigrate myself, overwhelmed by fear and anxiety, and unwilling to accept praise of any sort. I am not alone. So many musicians fall into these destructive traps, unable to free themselves from the tyranny of feelings of failure, fear and shame.

A recent health crisis led me to a mindfulness meditation class offered through my health care provider. The experience proved life changing for me, awakening new levels of awareness and helping me to examine old habits that compromise my ability to be present fully in the moment, without judgmentLikewise, learning about self-compassion has challenged me to try and be kinder and gentler with myself.

Kristin Neff, author of Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind, describes self-compassion in this way: “Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings – after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect?” I highly recommend this book as she actually is an expert on self-compassion and engages in all sorts of related research. Neff has created a questionnaire, “How Self-Compassionate Are You?” which helps you to determine your level of self-compassion at http://www.self-compassion.org.

Ahhh, perfection. While I have observed perfection in the natural world (every tree, flower, cat!), I have never experienced it while playing the piano (or listening to others play the piano for that matter). Although, a stunning performance by Schiff came incredibly close (but it was his vulnerability and attention to every moment that made it so moving). But, I digress (something I have elevated to an art form—another blog, perhaps). So here’s the thing about striving for perfection: it can inhibit growth and kill the creative process before it even has a chance to get going. Seeing ourselves clearly, without judgment, is incredibly powerful.

For most of us, it is incredibly difficult to acknowledge truthfully our limitations as musicians. This can trigger feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, shame, even impostor syndrome. We so often get enmeshed with our artist personas. Performing can feel like life or death (especially Schubert—is there anything more perfect than Schubert?). But here’s the thing: everyone is bound to mess up at some point, have a memory slip, choke under pressure. No one is immune to this human experience in our ephemeral art form.

Self-compassion, to quote Neff again, “does not try to capture and define the worth or essence of who we are. It is not a thought or a label, a judgment or an evaluation. Instead, self-compassion is a way of relating to the mystery of who we are.” Self-compassion frees us from labels of good or bad and allows us to become more aware of things as they are. Our sense of self-worth is not based on our temporary successes and failures.

So today when I sit down at the piano, I am going to try to just stay in the moment, relishing each sound and enjoying the process of putting those sounds together in ways that matter. I am going to tell that critical inner voice to take a hike. I am going to brainstorm and imagine and find joy in just being at the piano, with Schubert.

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