It is my pleasure once again to publish a brilliant article by Nora Krohn – her eighth one in the last two years.
This time Nora looks directly at a topic that many of us, musicians and others, have trouble with – our anger. She explains that although anger can definitely be intense and destructive, there are ways to handle with real intelligence so that we actually create a healthier situation for everyone involved, and make better music.
I am particularly delighted that Nora has tackled this fearsome topic so fearlessly. May it benefit everyone who reads it.
With warm wishes,
Editor of Fearless Performing E-zine
Founding Teacher of The Art of Practicing Institute
The Raw Wisdom of Anger
by Nora Krohn
Several weeks ago, as many freelance musicians must do from time to time, I chose to play a gig that really frustrated me. It paid decently, wasn’t that far away, the orchestra sounded great, and the music was wonderful. The problem was the conductor: though he meant well, he had a maddening habit of stopping the orchestra every few seconds to make a correction or insist that the players weren’t following him. He sought to control every detail of the music, forcing the players to render his idiosyncratic interpretation of the piece or risk being called out as incompetent or inattentive.
Not wanting to appear rude or unprofessional, the musicians did the best they could to tamp down their frustration. They laughed it off, tried to stay positive, drifted into their own thoughts, or stopped caring about playing well. I tried to take it in stride at first, but eventually I found myself veering from mere annoyance to fury. In an attempt to buoy my spirits, I ate a whole box of chocolate chip cookies on the way home, but it didn’t help very much!
The worst part was that the conductor genuinely wanted the music to sound good and couldn’t understand how his lack of trust demeaned the musicians and squandered their talent and their sincere desire to make beautiful music together. As grateful as I was for the paycheck, after the second rehearsal I vowed never to play the gig again.
One morning midway through the week I sat down to meditate, feeling irritated at the prospect of enduring yet another rehearsal obeying this conductor’s abrasive commands.
I decided to try a guided meditation on anger. When I began, what I noticed most was a feeling of burning tightness around my throat. As I sat with it as instructed, I slowly felt the sensation move into my upper abdomen, and it started to feel less like anger and more like despair. And that’s when I understood what was fueling the intensity of my anger toward the conductor: I had such a wealth of things to express through the music, but I didn’t feel I had any space to express them. It made me remember lessons where I was so frustrated by my inability to play exquisitely that every critical comment from the teacher just shut me down.
The Root of Anger
Anger is a tricky emotion, and it shows up in many forms for artists: frustration with colleagues, or the way our career is going, or where we are with our playing. When handled badly, anger can be extremely destructive. But while we are often told not to take out our aggression on others directly, many of us haven’t been taught what to do next. And if we feel we must contain our anger or else risk alienating others, we often turn that aggression on ourselves by becoming perfectionists, or developing addictions or depression. Or, we unwittingly take it out on other people through being critical or controlling. Although we may realize that these patterns take a toll, it can be hard to manage them when we don’t acknowledge their source.
However, when anger is handled skillfully, it is energy that can be put to good use. First of all, anger can be a very clear communication about places in our lives that feel out of balance. Recognizing those places can lead to wise action, such as declining to work in conditions where we are being demeaned, or speaking up for ourselves or others in a way that promotes greater sanity and justice, or taking better care of ourselves. At the most basic level, we are angry and frustrated because we care deeply about music and have an intense need to express our truth. Figuring out how to manage this profound need is one of the great challenges of being an artist.
Embracing the Unacceptable
As aggravating as the situation was, my anger toward the controlling conductor was only part of the story. The frustration I felt, when transmuted through my meditation into a longing to communicate, led me to a deeper question: While I felt so stifled by this tyrannical conductor, was I really allowing myself to express everything fully when I did have the chance? In other situations where I had greater creative latitude, did I explode with freedom and expressive power?
While I felt I’d made tremendous progress in this regard, I saw that, strangely, the performing opportunities that offered me the greatest freedom also aroused the greatest apprehension. My fear was that in trying to let truth fly free I would do or say something through my playing that was unacceptable. And there are so many ways to feel unacceptable that are conditioned through our musical training, our upbringing, and our broader culture, that avoiding all of them while trying to be artistically free was impossible. No wonder I felt so frustrated and stuck.
Then I remembered a quote from Tara Brach, one of my favorite meditation teachers: “The limit to what we can accept is the limit of our freedom.”
And I finally saw something I’d been missing: that, far from being a way to prove to everyone how acceptable I was, music was my chance to say and be everything, including, and especially, what I felt was unacceptable.
Plenty of artists feel that their art is truly the only avenue for expressing what they fear is unacceptable; it is the only place they feel free to be fully themselves. But for me, this is such a radical shift that I am still letting myself absorb it. I ask myself, what is it that I most want and fear to say, and is there room for that in my playing? If you’re curious, I invite you to do the same. We owe ourselves, and each other, this measure of freedom.
P.S. from Madeline:
Nora will be at The Art of Practicing Institute’s summer program this July for the fourth year in a row, this time as an Assistant Teacher. I am very inspired by her and by how enormously her playing and teaching have developed since I first met her. If you don’t know Nora yet, I’d love to introduce you to her at the program. We will all be getting much more familiar with all of the emotions and other ingredients that go into the making of a wonderful performance. If you have any questions about how what happens at this amazing program and how it works, please feel free to contact me.
Q & A of the Month
My teacher at the conservatory wants me to learn a lot of new repertoire this summer so I can work on it in the fall with him and enter competitions. I’m glad he thinks highly of my ability, but some of the pieces he wants me to learn don’t excite me, and I don’t even know if I’m interested in entering some of these competitions. I’d really like to relax a little from all the pressure of the school year and then focus on practicing pieces I’ve been longing to learn. Do you have any suggestions for how I can handle this situation?
I certainly understand your desire to relax a little in the summer! We all need a change of pace after an intense year of work. And it’s also great that your teacher believes in you and has high hopes for you. Competitions can be great, providing wonderful experience, and winning a prize can do a lot for your confidence – and your resume. But you have to do them when the time is right.
Have you tried talking to your teacher about how you feel, and explaining it in terms of your long term goals? Expressing your appreciation for all he has already done for you would be a good first step. And you could tell him how much it means to you that he thinks you are worthy of these competitions. You might then say that you wish you could keep working at that intense level, but that you’re really tired and need a lighter load right now.
You could also tell him you’re very interested in some of the repertoire he’s suggested, but that you’d like to substitute some different pieces for his other suggestions.
Although some teachers might get upset if their students to disagree with them about what’s best for them, many teachers are genuinely interested in understanding their students’ needs and feelings and know that when a student is truly enthusiastic about learning a piece, they often end up playing it with special feeling, raising their chances of doing well with audiences and competition judges.
It’s important to remember that this is your education, and that you should have a say in it. Teachers are there to serve their students, and if they have different points of view, it’s ideal to talk it through and mutually agree on a compromise that meets both of their wishes.
I personally enjoy listening to what students want and encouraging them to follow their intuition, so that they grow in their own special way and develop increasing trust in themselves and in their ability to direct the course of their own lives.
We’re living in an age in which many people are questioning conventional ideas about how to lead their lives – including whether or not they should attend college, get married, or work for someone other than themselves. More and more people are looking within themselves for the true answers to what they should do next with their lives, rather than to general guidelines they may have grown up with. Either way, there is no guarantee about where you will end up by following a particular path. So if you take a path that excites you and makes you happy, you are likely to awaken your own mind and feelings on a new level and may discover a whole new territory that no one else has discovered.
Competitions can be helpful for your career, but many people have become discouraged after entering lots of competitions and not getting the results they wanted. I think that just as some high school seniors choose to defer college for a year, you can always defer competitions for a year. A friend of mine cancelled his New York debut years ago because he didn’t feel ready, even though he was already 37. When he played it a year later, an agent noticed his great review in the New York Times and signed him on. He ended up playing at the Kennedy Center and other prestigious places, and making some recordings.
I’ve noticed recently that several successful soloists are taking extended breaks from performing in order to create more balance in their lives. I think this is great news. It’s so healthy to nourish yourself first, and then use that nourishment to make music.
It takes courage to stick to what you feel is right for you, especially since you can’t know where it will lead. But look for support from people who understand how you feel and who can help you understand yourself better.
Thank you for writing, and feel free to write again if you have more questions.
Submit a question for possible inclusion in next month’s issue of Fearless Performing.