Sharing music requires vulnerability. But our performance spaces don’t always give us everything we need to feel supported enough to express our true selves.
I’ve seen some posts on social media lately on people talking about fighting the stigmas of how classical music has to be played a “certain way” or the impression that you need a recording to sound “perfect” in order to post it. I’ve also had a few conversations over the past couple months with other musicians about making room for others at the table, instead of cutting people down if they stand out too much. This is too complex of an issue to paraphrase into a comment on social media, but it’s a very real issue that deserves our full attention.
Even though changing the way that we think about our relationship with classical music can affect the way we feel on a daily level, this is a systemic problem that’s bigger than all of us – which means that we need to actively work together to create a cultural change in our industry in order to move forward. We don’t all need to be activists, but we all do need to be accountable for our own actions, and there are small things we all can help normalize through our regular activities by shifting the way that we interact with music in our daily lives.
Vulnerability, Stress, and Trauma
I’ve heard others talk about practice groups on social media where members are disrespectful and create a toxic environment, leading them to fear posting because they’re worried they’ll be attacked. Thankfully, I haven’t experienced that firsthand. However, I have seen practice accounts where people do post anyways, but only with an excess of over-apologetic or self-deprecating language in the captions that reflects the same fears and could be just as harmful to their self-esteem or mental health.
In many areas of life, especially if you’re coming from a privileged background, it can be all too easy to take for granted a feeling of safety. The world of western classical music is full of influences from elitist and patriarchal attitudes, among other things – and we don’t talk enough about things like safety (physical and mental/emotional) and consent. We teach others in the way that we’re taught and based on our own experiences – so I don’t think it’s necessarily our teachers’ fault that this isn’t part of standard training or curriculum – but I do think that these issues are too important not to do better.
Here’s the bottom line: however you feel about our culture and teaching practices, neuroscience demonstrates that there are four areas of the brain that process different functions, and are interconnected but organized in a kind of hierarchy. The cortex, the area that processes creative thinking, is at the very top but can only be accessed when our body’s needs at all the lower levels are met. At the bottom, foundational level, is the brain stem, which processes basic body functions, survival needs, and responses to fear like fight, flight and freeze.
Our society has evolved faster than our bodies can adapt, so we feel the same physical response to a harsh critique as our ancestors felt when being chased by a bear (that survival instinct is also the reason why we tend to zero in so closely on signals of danger, even if we’re surrounded by support). If we’re constantly afraid of judgement or failure, we get locked in a stress cycle that can not only manifest in physical symptoms in the body (because those processes aren’t meant to be continuously active) but also prevents us from accessing the area of the brain that processes creative ideas.
Several years ago, I worked with an organization that provided music education to children from low-income and at-risk demographics. During training, we had a separate session about things like body language, gauging kids’ comfort level in different types of interactions, and asking for their consent for things like reaching up to adjust their instrument while they’re playing or touching their body to correct their posture, because we had no way of knowing if our students had experienced trauma in their pasts. That was the first time I’d ever had that type of training, but it made me wonder about all of the lessons and masterclasses where I’d seen teachers get right up in the performer’s face and expect that they’d be ok with it because “that’s just the way things are done.”
What does it mean, to play music? The concept of “play” eludes a concrete definition, but there’s a general consensus around recreational activities done for enjoyment. However, classical musicians are often caught in a catch-22, having pursued music education because they enjoy playing their instrument but then experiencing intense pressure to conform to a strict and narrow ideal.
During lessons and practice time, classical musicians are trained to be hyper-critical of our own work and submit ourselves willingly to be judged by subjective standards. Our performances are more often framed by how far short they fall from the utopian ideal of “perfection” than by how much concrete progress we’ve demonstrated through our achievements. For many of us, impostor syndrome is a constant battle as a result.
But when was the last time you picked up your instrument and just… played? I’ve always thought that practice time should be a safe space to explore and experiment, but in order to do that, we need a space where we trust others enough to express our vulnerabilities. And an environment where you’re penalized for being wrong instead fosters shame and fear.
Outside the practice room, capitalism promotes a scarcity mindset that encourages competition to the point of toxic environments. The “starving artist” mentality certainly doesn’t help – the more we believe there’s a limited amount of jobs and pay available to musicians, the more likely we are to have negative reactions towards seeing others doing well out of fear for our own livelihoods. I think the individualistic mindset prevalent here in the States also gets in the way, encouraging people to put themselves first and devaluing connections with community, even so far as shaming a need for community support. In other cultures, music celebrates and shares collective group histories and identity and is something that brings communities together. It’s not about me vs. you; a feeling of community grows stronger the more we share it with others. Western music used to be like that too, centuries ago – but we’ve lost sight of that somewhere along the way.
Making Room for Others
So, what can we do about it? You can’t just tell others “it’s ok to post if it’s not perfect” and leave it at that, because we’re also talking about learned behaviors that are wired into the brain from a series of previous interactions over time. On top of the initial fears and insecurities that make people reluctant to share their work, this can create an additional layer of shame for feeling those feelings. In order to re-train ourselves, it’s going to take a lot of practice, patience, and positive reinforcement. You need to follow through by helping to create a space where others feel safe enough to share and be vulnerable, to build trust among your community and your peers.
If you’re not brave enough to share your work, that’s totally ok – you can still support others by following their accounts and cheer them on by leaving supportive comments on their posts. Don’t leave comments that you wouldn’t feel comfortable receiving yourself. If you’re feeling confident, use an aesthetic for social media posts that doesn’t feel overly edited or staged or filtered, to help normalize the idea that things don’t need to be perfect and help lead the way for others who may not feel so brave yet. If you’re hosting discussions on a social media platform, establish and enforce a clear set of group rules to help others feel comfortable enough to share.
We also need to normalize giving and receiving help – I think this is also related to that perfectionist mindset. If we’re supposed to be “experts” at playing our instruments, then to need help is to have a weakness. Years ago I was playing at a summer festival, and tried to offer help to one of my colleagues who was struggling to work through a tough passage in a style of music I’d played more often than her. However, she interpreted my offer as an insult to her playing abilities, when I was actually trying to help support her by sharing my resources.
This can be complicated in situations where the position of giving aid is associated with power, but it’s also cultural – I lived in Fiji for a couple years, and people there have a much more communal way of life. Resources of any kind are considered community property, and go to whoever has the most need for them, because “your problems are our problems, and we’re all family.” (There is literally no way to express that you “have” something in the Fijian language).
It gives me hope to know that these power structures aren’t universal, and while it’s difficult to challenge your mindset when you’re immersed in them, it doesn’t have to be this way and we can strive to do better.
We’re All Musicians Here ♡
I play in a flute choir where our members have different levels of playing proficiency, but everyone contributes in a way that fits best with their interests and skill set. Not only does this avoid the problem of one person burdened with too much work managing the ensemble, but it also allows everyone to have equal ownership in what we do. Those of us with more musical training help to lead rehearsals, someone who enjoys event planning organizes our performances, and another ensemble member hosts rehearsals at her house. Our official section leader coordinates the more administrative tasks, and another friend in the ensemble manages our music library.
This level of collaboration is only possible when we see each other as whole people, in addition to our identity as musicians. And when our impressions of each other don’t come solely from isolated performances, we worry less about what others will think of us as a result of a wrong note, because we have a more solid rapport with them. We can encourage this by sharing our own stories with others, being more open about our lives outside of music, and acknowledging and valuing all types of helpful skills, because you need more than just performance skills to be a successful musician.
I’ve always believed that the most magical thing about music is the opportunity to collaborate and share all of our unique stories and perspectives in a way that doesn’t just tell the stories, but reaches the hearts of others. One of my favorite quotes about music says that musicians are like tour guides – we weave a story and take the audience on a journey, but whether we leave them feeling content or with more questions than answers, we are responsible for guiding them safely back home (I don’t actually remember where this came from or the exact wording – so if this sounds familiar, please let me know!).
But we cannot do our jobs if we do not feel supported ourselves. And that support, first and foremost, comes from our community of musicians. You’re enough just the way you are, and valid as a musician regardless of your level of technical skills, because music, at its core, celebrates our common humanity. Please join me in helping to create a safe space to protect our musical world.
What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing – Oprah Winfrey and Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D.
The beginning of this book has a great explanation about how our brains process information and what happens when we experience trauma that you don’t need to have a prior understanding of neuroscience to understand.
This is the book that I wish I’d had when I was in college. Emily is a health educator and Amelia is a choral director, and many of the stories that they share really resonated with me. They open with a discussion of the stress response in the body, and have worksheets & activities to help you apply the things that they discuss in real life. They also include a discussion of the unique stressors that women experience in Western society that contribute to burnout.
Brené Brown has done a lot of great research into shame, and I love how her books are well-researched but also written in an accessible manner. The world of classical music is full of perfectionism and impostor syndrome, and this book is a great place to start in learning more about where those feelings can come from and how to start moving past them.
PS – This article does not include links for affiliates or sponsors. I’m just passing on some resources that I’ve enjoyed & found informative, to help spread the word 🙂