The Musician’s Vulnerability

sticking-plaster-on-a-finger-cristina-pedrazziniPlease don’t shoot at the pianist; he’s doing his best
(attributed to Oscar Wilde)

I sometimes get the feeling people think musicians are invincible… We engage in a highly complex, technical and artistic activity which requires huge physical and mental agility and concentration. When we perform, our meticulous preparation enables us to make everything we do look effortless, synthesised and beautiful. In the moments of performing, we offer the music to the audience as a cultural gift to be shared between us in the wondrous experience that is live performance. On stage we dissemble, we act, to maintain a veneer of confidence and poise. Because no one can know how many goddam hours you put in in the practice room or that your journey to the venue was delayed, how tired you are feeling from working all week without a break, or how much that recurrent shoulder problem has been troubling you. To publicly admit to these vulnerabilities would quickly destroy the mystique of the performer.

As performers, vulnerability is integral to the profession. By performing we choose to put ourselves out there, hold our music, and ourselves, up for scrutiny, for praise and criticism. It can be a lonely, masochistic activity, never more so in an age where live performance has become almost an Olympic sport in its obsessive need for perfection and the general competitiveness of the profession.

Vulnerability develops early on in the musician’s life, usually at an age when we are not yet fully formed, barely aware of our individual self or identity. The special training musicians undergo can engender multiple emotional problems – the autocractic teacher who constantly breaks down the student’s confidence, for example, or the competitive atmosphere of specialist educational institutions. We are taught how and why to practice and perform by more senior practitioners who cannot possibly know what our individual strengths and weaknesses really are, and who may not offer enough concern or advice on managing the complex aspects of the musician’s life. In addition, where one may have excelled at school, a “gifted pupil”, on arriving at music college one may face the uncomfortable fact that one is now just another among equals, and so begins the toxic habit of looking at what others are doing and constantly comparing oneself to them. The training then becomes a kind of rat race or “musical anorexia”, played out in cloistered, rarefied surroundings. Despite all of this, we find we can achieve great things, and so we carry these learnt habits, and vulnerabilities, into adulthood and career, reluctant to give them up.

Get a bunch of musicians together in a “safe space” and they will talk of their vulnerabilities, their anxieties and fears. In researching this article, I inadvertently created such a safe space and the discussion became a kind of help group where people could talk honestly about their vulnerabilities: it was eye-opening and humbling.

Like physical injury and performance anxiety, admitting to emotional vulnerability is a taboo area, an admittance of weakness or lack of ability which may lead to less work. Musicians have a precarious, peripatetic existence at the best of times. The good news is that musicians are beginning to feel more confident about discussing these issues, and some educational establishments now offer specialist support, including mindfulness training, Alexander Technique and counselling. Opening up and discussing your vulnerabilities with others can be remarkably reassuring and often cathartic: you realise you are “not alone” – because many of us share the same anxieties.

In addition, growing maturity and confidence encourages us to discover and implement personal innate methods and motivation, which allows us to reject those early, sometimes toxic, influences or processes, and we become better able to manage and even appreciate our vulnerabilities.

each experience, good and bad…..has potential for helping my overall development
– Carla, flautist

Debussy: Syrinx
Paradoxically, vulnerability makes us better musicians. Without the emotional sensitivity of our vulnerability, we would not be able to develop, create and play music in a meaningful way; nor would we be able to forge connections and unspoken lines of communication between colleagues and audience in performance. Vulnerability also keeps us humble in the face of the greatness of the music. Asking oneself “Am I good enough?” can be curiously empowering too, if one chooses to avoid comparing oneself to others and instead focuses on one’s own work, forging an individual path through growing maturity, self-determination, musical understanding, and mastery with a willingness to embrace setbacks and cul-de-sacs along the way and to learn and move on from these. Acknowledging and accepting the Inner Critic, without allowing its voice to overwhelm us, is also essential to the creative process and should not be regarded as a sign of weakness. It also prevents our ego getting in the way of our creativity.

Janáček: In the Mists: Andantino (Rolf Hind)
openness to the full spectrum of our experience is the starting point for compelling and mature musicianship. Suffering and joy are equally endemic to the human condition, and sharing the full range of our emotions with our audiences, through our presence and through the music we make, is not a selfish act, but a generous one
– Nora Krohn, violist

It’s vital: vulnerability, doubt, openness – how else to communicate with any vestige of meaning?
– Rolf Hind, pianist & composer

I honestly don’t think you can play meaningful music without being at least a little bit vulnerable somewhere – it’s about caring a lot, taking risks and being human
– Carla, flautist

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