let's talk about self-doubt.
It's prescreening season.
The time of the year when you book a space to record your required repertoire, rehearse with a pianist, hire someone to record you or just DIY and use a Zoom recorder, hit the red button take after take after take because you weren't satisfied with the previous one, trim the videos, and submit through several applications thinking damn it I could have done that so much better and this could have been so much more in tune if I wasn't so tired and sweaty and I hope whoever's listening doesn't notice my memory slip at 1:42.
Am I gonna make it?
I don't know.
Is it convincing? Acceptable? Special? Interesting? Does it tick the boxes that they look for? Who are they? What do they know?
I don't know. We'll find out, sooner or later.
So how did we get to this point in our careers? When doubting ourselves goes past applications and recordings and impacts our live playing? From a lesson with a teacher or performer you admire to studio classes to masterclasses to auditions to competitions to recitals?
Maybe it's a fear of being ridiculed, insulted, criticized, embarrassed. Maybe it's happened to many of us along the way. There seems to be this old-school method of teaching in conservatories that if a student's playing isn't up to par, you bully them. Tell them it's more boring than the beige paint on the wall. Tell them that if they're just here to be capable, they should quit while they can and find a new job.
And while that also induces stress, it gives us this black cloud of self-doubt that we carry with us from the time that we were told we weren't good enough.
Don't apply for this competition - you're not ready.
Don't send tapes to this festival - you probably won't get in.
It gives a voice and a face to that invisible being in your head criticizing everything that you do. So we stop trying. I mean, what's the point of practicing if it's not gonna be good anyway, right? If it doesn't mean anything, right? We stop sending stuff. We stop taking auditions. We don't enjoy performing anymore because it's always a problem. When will we enjoy that again?
We did at some point. I know I did. That was one of my favorite things back in the day. I played my first recital when I was 3 years old because I knew that this made me happy. I wasn't afraid. I wasn't nervous. I knew on the piano that if I made a mistake, well I could make something up in the left hand that would get me back on track, because that's how I started getting to know it. And somehow, from having the party trick of perfect pitch - and knowing the exact note of the hum of the LIRR train that slept next to my doorstep - to knowing all the makes and models of the cars on my block, I felt special in my small Long Island town.
Special is something that we try to maintain for our entire careers. Have you noticed? We put phrases like “one of the most outstanding musicians of our generation” in our bios (guilty) and list every single accomplishment that we’ve ever earned in life to somehow paint ourselves a different color from every other classical musician in the book. And instead, we’ve put ourselves into this box of sameness rather than try to jump out of it. So it’s no wonder that as we ask ourselves whether or not we’re worth it, we compare ourselves to the others in the box - social media, websites, bios, videos, live performance, competitions, general “busy-ness” - hoping that we’re just as impressive as the rest of them. And just like that, self-doubt gets mixed with envy.
It’s something that I think about, too. I know sometimes it looks like I’m above that and I don’t really care what people think about my image or playing or personality or whatever, but I’m aware, and I actually care a lot. Thing is, I used to care SO much more. I wanted everyone to like me and what I had to bring to the table. I remember the early days of playing in studio class. I felt like I was in a room full of salivating Rottweilers. I felt like people were fiercely judging me, well, because they were. I mean, who’s this brown kid who looks like he plays in a Mariachi band - what does he know about anything? Shit, he did a year at Berklee and then transfers to NEC just like that - what does he know about Bach? Or Beethoven? Or any actual piece no less?
So I got nervous on stage. And it never really happened before I got there. Shaky hands, cold fingers, sweaty palms, tightness everywhere, not to mention missed shifts, intonation issues, lack of projection - a general inability to express what I wanted to. I felt like I was disappointing my teacher. I felt like I was disappointing myself. Every single time. I was frustrated. There was a bar that I was never really able to jump over because how could I possibly be great? In a building full of competition winners and people making their mark in the real world - where was I? So when I heard that I wasn’t that good, I eventually believed it. There was a year when I applied to so many places and didn’t get into anything. Nothing. So I went to California and taught music to eager little kids at a church, and you know what? That summer, I felt value. I felt a sense of community. I felt that people actually listened. I mean, they tried - it was a Korean church.
It’s gotten better since then. Partly I think it’s because by the time the end of my Bachelor’s rolled around, I had stopped caring, because I wanted to be an individual and not a clone, because I felt I had my own language and gestures and quirks and I wanted to be in a cocoon with those things and grow into maybe a beautiful monarch. And one way or another, I found that in New York.
I’ve done some exciting things here and have accomplished quite a bit recently, which I still can’t really believe. But something that I’ve been thinking about recently is, now that I have a reputation and more people are noticing, what happens when I screw up? Was this all just luck? Did I actually earn it? What if I’m not upholding this very high standard? Am I working hard enough? Is this all in my head and I’m just pushing myself too hard? Ok sure, I’ve lost some auditions and didn’t do great in some major competitions and stuff, but that has nothing to do with me as an artist, right? But then I think about how during those moments I wanted to walk off stage and pretend I never even entered, and you know, maybe I shouldn’t have, because I wasn’t that good. And it brings me to my undergrad self again.
The cycle continues.
It’s something that we have to live with. Because when asked what we wanted to be when we grew up, we chose a career in which we take our most vulnerable selves, our darkest secrets, our happiest memories, our intimate moments, combine it with the mechanics that we slave over in a dirty, hot, stuffy, gross practice space, and put them on display. And then when we’re told “no,” or “we regret to inform you,” (yeah, right) it hurts like hell. We see it in emails. We hear it in voicemails. We’re told that in person. Sometimes we have feedback sessions where a jury member is like, Sorry - here’s why. And sometimes that feedback session is utterly meaningless, and sometimes it’s X is out of tune and Y was not musical and Z was generally boring, and then you take it personally.
Which fuels this thing.
But give up? Nah. You just keep finding opportunities. And you might get a no from them too. And you’ll keep getting no’s until they start rolling off your back like sweat, or tears, or hot showers of disappointment. Is that what’s called, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger? I guess so. Maybe you won’t feel it so bad anymore.
I still get very nervous before performances. Getting on stage and starting a piece exactly the way I hear it in my head is a challenge that sometimes I beat, and sometimes it beats me, but I know I’m not the only one. Have you heard Menuhin in his later years? Still a brilliant musician, but hey, it gets everybody.
I’ve also begun noticing other people’s pre-performance jitters. Some people talk a LOT backstage. Some people are so bubbly and outgoing everyday but completely shut everything out in the green room. Some start shaking. Some wonder if they’ve practiced enough. Some people tune and tune and tune because nothing is ever in tune but what's intonation anyway? Some are worse. Some drink to ease the self-deprecation. Some take a moment to vomit everything that they can't stomach. And right before it’s time, it’s usually “have I used the bathroom?” (LOL, that’s me.) Even those I admire, and look up to so much, get jittery backstage.
But we all want to do a good job. Our egos are tightly wrapped around the finger of what's good and what's not in terms of performing. And some of us want to be that artist that makes people go, “Mmmm mmm mmmm.” Some of us want to be that lightbulb. That delicious plate of food and a Corona at a summertime cookout. The smell of a fantastic cup of coffee. The feeling of a warm embrace by the fireplace while it's snowing outside. Some of us want to be that perfect specimen of amazingness that tickles all of your senses.
Perfection is stupid. It's Utopian. It's subjective. What does it even mean? It's just an ideal that people have in their heads and of course we get upset when we're unable to attain that. There seems to be a thing where each subsequent generation of players needs to be better than the last. How? And more importantly, why? We're different people. We have a different culture, different values. This world and these places where we live in have different problems, new issues, a different buzz. So why strive for something that isn't real? How many more players will upload videos of themselves playing the Sibelius Concerto as “perfectly” as possible? I know the self-doubt behind that, believe me, but will it make a difference? Why not try something new?
I'd much rather feel uncertainty. That dangerous and exhilarating feeling of what's-going-to-happen AHHH!. It comforts me a little listening to the most admirable artists make mistakes. It's a gentle reminder that they're human and they get nervous, too; that they'll miss notes or do something far more disastrous and beat themselves up over it afterwards but they'll get over it and play an even better concert next time because it's just art. We're here to create art. Art is a very human thing, not a perfect thing. And I know it feels like we're not sure if we'll ever make a living doing this and if we'll ever make it somehow without defaulting on our student loans or if people will love what we do and how we do it, but if it means something to us and it feels right from way way way deep in our gut, then that's it, fam. That’s it.
Self-doubt is a disease, but only just. It’s like a little parasite, or something else that just eats away at what could be the best time of your life. And sometimes it does feel like you had such a good time up there and maybe you’ve conquered the war. Not really. It comes back, unfortunately. But we do have hope. And hope just might give us the right motivation to continue searching, to be true to ourselves, to be authentic, to be honest.
To brush off the bad audition or the shitty review.
To wash off negative comments.
To know that you do in fact have valid ideas and opinions and instincts.
To understand and remind yourself that you have a place here.
And no, we’re not better. We’re just something else. And we’ll evolve just like the art and the world around us, and we can do anything.
Stick around for the ride. It’ll be a long and beautiful journey.