When You Judge Your Self-Worth by How You Perform

by Madeline Bruser

When I was 27, I traveled from California to Warsaw to play in the International Chopin Competition. Although I didn’t get past the first round, I played pretty well and learned important things about myself and my performing. It was also my first trip to Europe, and I met some great people and had many wonderful experiences. After leaving Warsaw, I spent five exciting days in London. It was a memorable two weeks.

But when I got back home and visited my parents for dinner, they didn’t ask about my trip. After sitting there in shock for a while, I finally asked them why, and my mother said, “We know it must have been a painful experience for you, and we didn’t want to make you talk about it.” It was as though the only thing they could imagine that would matter to me was if I had won a prize—if I had received external validation as a pianist and could use that to advance my career. I tried to tell them that I’d actually had a great time and benefitted from the experience, but they seemed unable to hear it. I felt sad and disappointed that I couldn’t share my experience with them.

My parents meant well, and they had invested a lot, both emotionally and financially, in my musical education since I was five years old. They knew I’d worked hard, and they wanted me to be happy and successful. But they didn’t realize that they had given me something more important than my musical education: a basic belief in the value of my own heart and mind, regardless of whether society recognizes who I am.

Our Achievement-Oriented Culture

We live in an achievement-oriented culture, and like most of us, my parents were caught in it. In addition to overestimating my abilities, they didn’t see that they, and my teachers, had already ignited in me a sense of internal recognition of who I was as a musician. My confidence was not shattered when I didn’t place in the competition. Rather, the experience gave me a clearer picture of my strengths and weaknesses, which eventually led me to see that my particular path in the world did not fit the mold of the international star performer—not only because of how any judges or audiences reacted, but because of my own sense of not quite belonging in that place in the world.

Breaking Through

It was also part of a series of audition experiences that led me to seek greater wisdom and training, through mindfulness meditation, which resulted in a major breakthrough in my playing and teaching, and in my writing a book that has helped many musicians. Back then, neither my parents nor I could have imagined this wonderful fruition in my career.

Focusing Inward

We each have our own story, and I know from experience that winning a competition can feel great. Feedback from the world can mean a lot to us and can to guide us on our journey. But we also need a flame of inner wisdom to help light the way—to help us understand exactly how to interpret the feedback we get, and what to do about it.

Whether you are cut out for a major performing career or a less visible one, if you have felt continually frustrated in pursuing it, it can be helpful to look deeply into the root causes of the roadblocks you’re encountering. On the surface, you might see a hopeless picture for yourself. But there is always a deeper level of wisdom that you can gain about how your life is unfolding and how you can improve your situation.

Such wisdom may come from exploring technique and musicianship with a new teacher, or from exploring the territory of your own mind. These days there are many approaches to understanding and strengthening the mind, and pursuits like psychotherapy and meditation can be utterly transformative.

So much depends on how you habitually perceive yourself, your playing, and your possibilities, and on whether or not you can open your perceptions to include greater possibilities. Regardless of the fact that the world may not provide many opportunities to perform, it is up to you to create a fulfilling life and career.

The Roots of Our Confusion

Success as a musician comes from putting together so many things—including excellent  technique and musicianship and authentic confidence onstage, as well as an understanding of the nuts and bolts of crafting a career or running a business. In this article, I’d like to look at some of the psychological causes of failure and success.

Something happens to us growing up in this achievement-oriented culture that skews our idea of what personal and career fulfillment are about. Instead of focusing on gaining more confidence and insight through all of our experiences and on growing as an artist and person, we think things like, “If only I could win a major competition, I’d have plenty of concerts and could relax.” Or, “If I could just land a well-paying orchestra job, I could stop worrying about making a living.” Or, “If I could get onto the faculty of a good music school, I’d have the kind of students I want and could eventually get tenure.”

Goals like these can be inspiring. But in aiming for such outward success, we may fail to see a larger picture. We may not realize that the pressure and seduction of all those concert dates might adversely affect our playing or our personal life. Or that the orchestral job might end up draining our energy when a new conductor takes over and we aren’t happy playing his way. Or that politics and budget problems at the music school might become difficult and threaten our position there.

Performance-Based Self-Esteem in the Family

The roots of our confusion often go back to our childhoods. Many talented musicians grow up receiving a lot of attention for being gifted but not for being who they are as people. When parents and teachers focus narrowly on a child’s talent, they can become blind to the child’s need for human understanding and for unconditional love—a love that accommodates both their successes and their failures, their strengths and their weaknesses, their shining stage presence and their doubts and fears.

We often forget that although talented people may have extraordinary abilities, they are ordinary human beings like everyone else: They’re vulnerable. They need love, support, compassion, and wisdom to develop the courage to express themselves in the world.

Generally, we understand that ignoring a child’s talent and her longing for music lessons can damage her confidence and her chances for success. But making too big a deal out of a child’s talent can also have unfortunate consequences. Many highly accomplished musicians did not receive enough love and understanding early in life, and as a result are somewhat lost in their personal lives. I have seen some of them eventually find more of a balance between personal and professional satisfaction, and when they do, their increased joy and freedom come through in their playing, which then garners more positive reactions from their audiences.

We may easily ascribe such an improvement to artistic maturity. But we may forget that the artist in us is fed not only by a deeper knowledge of the score but also by a deeper knowledge of ourselves. As we grow inside, our ability to connect with a composer’s heart and mind also grows.

What Happens If You Cut Yourself Down

Often when a musician grows up in an achievement-oriented family and culture, they view every performance they give as an indicator of their self-worth. If they play up to their own highest standards, they feel great about themselves. If they don’t, they become depressed. “You’re only as good as your last performance,” the saying goes.

They can’t even celebrate a great success onstage for more than a short time before they start worrying about measuring up the next time.

The famous actor Rex Harrison was once asked how many times in his decades-long career he was totally happy with a performance. He immediately replied, “Seventeen.” He had kept track of those stellar moments that he felt most proud of, and he had counted only 17 times—out of the thousands of times he’d been onstage—as his best acting. That is a very small percentage. And I imagine that most fine performers might come up with a similar percentage. No one can be beyond-belief phenomenal very many times. And yet so many of us tend to berate ourselves 99.9 percent of the time for whatever faults we find in our performances.

I remember doing this when I was 25. I had played a duo recital with a wonderful cellist in Berkeley, and it was recorded for radio broadcast. When I heard the tape a few days later, all I could focus on was the five mistakes I heard in my playing. My joy over the concert diminished immediately. But a week or so later, I listened to the tape again and was surprised to discover that I was really happy with my performance. It was warm, expressive, and refined. Whew! Now I could think better of myself. I could be happy again. Clearly, both times I listened to the tape, I was caught in judging my own worth by how well I thought I’d performed.

Self-Worth Is Our Birthright

When we nitpick and suffer like this over our faults, we are unaware of a fundamental fact about our worthiness as human beings: We are worthy to be on this planet simply because we are on it. Nothing we do—no matter how great or how terrible it may be—can alter this fundamental worthiness that we always have. When we forget that we’re worthy—or if we’ve never received the message in the first place—we work against ourselves: Every small mistake makes us shrink and hide. We lose heart, and our life force weakens. Our playing thus becomes less vibrant, so our career possibilities diminish. We create a downward spiral and head toward failure.

The Real Top Prize

It’s great to be ambitious and to have high standards and big goals. But we need to think more about the most important goal: a deeply rewarding life in which we fulfill our true musical and personal potential. If, instead of getting caught in self-denigration every time you meet with an imperfection or failing in your musical endeavors, you choose to learn and grow from your experience, you will create an upward spiral in your playing and career.

How can you do this?

You can start by finding the courage to face painful feelings of embarrassment or shame about things you’ve done that you’re not proud of. Letting yourself fully feel the pain can help it dissolve, and you can come through feeling good about yourself for bravely facing negative emotions and for freeing yourself from them. This can be a truly empowering experience that can add to your confidence as a person and performer.

If you feel you can’t accomplish this kind of inner work on your own, I encourage you to seek support from a trusted friend, coach, or therapist. Life is too short to be spent mired in negativity. We owe it to ourselves to move forward through difficult experiences so we can fulfill our gifts and give them to others. It is always well worth the effort.

As you gain more strength and vitality from working through negative feelings or beliefs about yourself, that new positive energy will come through in your playing and bring you closer to the success you want and deserve.

But What If the World Really Doesn’t See?

It’s true that many wonderful artists, including musicians, just don’t get much recognition for who they are. Vincent van Gogh, one of the greatest painters in history, sold only one painting in his lifetime. The magnificent paintings of Vermeer were forgotten for two hundred years after he died, until people recognized their greatness again. And, like that of many other great composers, Beethoven’s music often met with extreme negative reactions from critics, such as the one who said he was “deficient in esthetic imagery and lacked the sense of beauty.”

It takes a very courageous and confident person indeed to be self-possessed in the face of such blindness or deafness from others

Determination and Openness

How do you know whether your career frustrations are due to your own failings or to the world’s failure to see your excellence? Sometimes you don’t. Sometimes it takes great persistence and intelligence to stay with what you’re doing and to question it from many angles.

Research has shown that the single most important factor in success is determination. And very few of the world’s most successful people have made it to the top without going through painful lessons and serious soul-searching. We each have to make sense of our own life, follow our own intuition, and find the help we need from others to navigate the twisting road to genuine success. We have to read the road signs, keep our highest ideals in mind, and not give up when we feel lost or when the going gets rough.

Part of determination is a willingness to continually look deeper for the causes of our frustration—to ask ourselves hard questions about what we truly want, to get advice from those who have already traveled a tough road and succeeded, and to be as open-minded as we can in looking at possible missing pieces in the puzzle of our particular situation.

Some Key Questions

This is a very tall order. For now, here are a few questions to help illuminate your path:

  1. What are your particular gifts or strengths?
  2. How sure are you that your technique is as efficient and reliable as it could be?
  3. How much faith do you have in your ability to make sense out of complicated pieces of music and to play them with conviction?
  4. Do you have a deep confidence in your communicative power as a musician and person that gives you the courage you need to perform under pressure without taking a pill?
  5. If you want to improve in any of the above areas, do you have the support and help you need?
  6. If not, are you willing to look for it, and do you know where to look?

These are big questions, and they may require a lot of thought and bring up many emotions and further questions. But I hope that in formulating your answers you will gain insight into yourself and your musical journey that can lead you away from self-judgment and toward a more courageous and fulfilling musical life

I wish you much joy and success.

Madeline Bruser

P.S. If you are ready to really go forward with what  you want as a musician, I invite you to attend the Art of Practicing Insitute’s upcoming summer program, Mindfulness, Confidence, & Performance: A Transformative Program for Musicians, from July 22 to 29. We have room for one more performing participant, and there is also room for non-performing participants, who can opt to work with one of the teachers-in-training. This program provides amazing practical tools for taking your playing to a new level, in the company of a fantastic community of supportive, non-judgmental musicians. Not sure if it’s right for you? Feel free to contact me with any questions.

Q & A of the Month

I’m a conservatory student, and I’m not expecting to make much of a living performing. I know I’ll have to make most of my income from teaching, but I don’t want to just teach little kids. Do you have any advice for how to become successful teaching interesting adults who have some real ability?

The best I can do is to describe my own experience. I taught my first student when I was 19, and at a certain point in my 20’s I realized that since teaching was my main source of income, I needed to learn to enjoy it as much as I could.

First of all, I recommend that you choose a place to live that you feel happy in. I had a few teenage piano students while I was studying at Juilliard, but I officially opened my teaching studio in Berkeley, California, where I’d always wanted to live. I liked the atmosphere of the university community, with intelligent people and interesting activities, and I’d always loved the physical beauty of the place. It was a great choice, because I also had a lot of performing opportunities there. And many of my students were university students, who were quite wonderful.

By making friends with other teachers who referred students to me, advertising on university bulletin boards, and becoming somewhat known as a performer, I was able to attract a variety of fine students. Also, however, since I’m a relaxed and person who genuinely likes people, teaching has always been a natural fit for me.

The real turning point came in my late 20s, when two things happened that really woke me up to the great possibilities for fulfillment that teaching offers. One of these things was reading Freedom to Learn, by Carl Rogers. I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in teaching any subject. Until reading it, I had no idea that every student already comes in with so much wisdom of their own, and that if you talk less and listen more, to their ideas and interests, the whole learning experience becomes creative and exciting. I feel incredibly lucky to be a teacher.

The second thing that revolutionized my teaching experience was discovering mindfulness meditation. Practicing became a shockingly rich and powerful experience, which opened up both my playing and my teaching into a whole new world of musical possibilities. It’s tremendously gratifying to see how beautifully people can really play.

When I moved back to New York at 30, I brought those two new aspects of my teaching with me, and things developed organically, as they continue to do. Giving seminars on the Art of Practicing, and later writing the book, became the beginning of a whole new level of teaching activity.

You have to trust that your particular interests will lead you to the kind of teaching career that suits you. The most important thing is to go as deeply as you can into your musical devotion, and to put artistry and humanness above any commercial focus. Then you will bring something of true value to students, and they will recognize it and want to excel.

Submit a question for possible inclusion in next month’s issue of Fearless Performing.