The Self (Part 2)

From where we left off, in a nut shell, our perception of events, circumstances, and our reactions to them cause internal and external conflict that results in fear, doubt in one's abilities and other detrimental emotions and habits. These, if it regularly occurs, creates expected outcomes which write a narrative of ourselves that lowers our self perception and our positive outlook on anything and everything that we do. We know that changing the perception, rewriting the narrative to be positive and not allowing circumstances to inform our beliefs are all integral in creating a more positive, compassionate version of how we view ourselves and what we do. This, again in my particular case, was extremely helpful in controlling my anxiety and low self esteem when it came to my performance and even my life. This of course is very internal, dealing more with how you perceive yourself, but the other side is, of course, how you feel you are being perceived.

In most cases, we fear that people will perceive us in the way we think we are. Take for example the fear of missing a note. We usually think that the people listening to us think of missing a note in the same way that we have, "Oh no it's terrible. They must think it's terrible too." We are our biggest critic, and often we make more of certain things than outside listeners are even aware of. If you watch Arthur, there's an episode where he played a piano solo and made a mistake. He continually apologized to audience members but they all said they heard nothing wrong. A children's show just explained it perfectly. Don't be so hard on yourself for certain things that you know are splitting hairs. It's not until you do that that you can really see what really counts: was the phrasing right, was the character correct, was the overall execution correct? If you focus on the single note in the midst of the whole presentation you'll miss a whole lot more.

Along with the perception of outsiders as far as having the same view of us as we have for ourselves, usually in a negative way, the other side of that is having a desire to be seen a certain way, one that we either feel we have to be seen as or one that we think hides something about us that we don't want visible. In most cases it's the former of the two, and often, at least in my case for sure, the latter is mostly if not all "solved" when the internal struggle, from part 1, is dealt with and worked through. In the case of this desire for acceptance, it's really difficult to tackle because of the society we live in. For most of natural lives, we've always had someone looking at us in a certain way, or being "told" that someone like us is like this or that. Men are strong and work hard, women are emotional and motherly, things like that. This means that we not only have to tackle the internal desire of being accepted but the societal standards of what is acceptable as well.

First, we have to accept ourselves. No one can love you if you don't love yourself. This is the most important step in taking on the societal norms, having that grounded, proud vision of who you are and being confident in your uniqueness. There is only one of you and that's what makes you interesting, special, unique, and if you don't embrace that, embrace the whole you, you will never become the best you that you can be. You will always be holding something back. Don't, go all out, be as great as you can be. Don't try to make everyone happy, make yourself happy. They can take it or leave it, it's subjective, but you, you have to take it. You've heard the saying be yourself, but seriously, just be yourself. Don't try to be anything other than that. Of course we will always be improving, but as you are right now in this moment, you are perfect. Embrace it now, not later, not when you win a job, not when you get more money, not when you get into college, not when you get a significant other, not when you move to a new place. Love yourself now, with all the mistakes, with all the flaws. Only then can real change and growth take place be realized.

Second, after we have accepted ourselves, maintaining that confidence and self sufficiency in the midst of societal norms is the challenge. Again, we cannot allow outside forces to influence our internal narrative. Who do you say you are, not what did they tell you to say you were. Of course I don't mean it in the way of, "Oh they say I'm a novice at this, but I say I'm an expert" and you know you aren't an expert. Common sense of course. I'm talking about when you know, or even when you aren't completely sure, that they are wrong. With media nowadays, they are always pushing the new trend and fad: everyone should look this way, the new standard of living is this, these foods are the way to go. This is where we find ourselves, using or placing society's norms on our vocation, music. All we as musicians need to do is express the music. We don't have to be anything other than who we are and play the way we feel within the musical context. Anything else should enhance that, not diminish it. 

So, when they say that you need a 3 bedroom home that's worth $100,000 to be happy, you don't have to accept that. You know within yourself that happiness is achieved through more than just a house. Don't think that just because you don't have a certain thing, or don't look or sound a certain way that people won't accept who you are by yourself, especially when you are actively performing or sharing your art. The feeling of being rejected while performing is extremely detrimental to the performance and its effectiveness. If you go out there with the mindset of, "Oh I do this differently than people usually do it. They aren't going to like it," you won't perform well. Yes, there are trends, there are traditions, but there's also you! If you can navigate between the three, accessing as much of "you" as possible, then you will perform well, taking all aspects into consideration and making strong choices. Go out and perform the pieces the way you would do them, not the way you think they want to hear them. Live the life you want to live, not the one you feel obligated or expected to live. Let go of the desire to be accepted and accept yourself. Yes, we all want to be liked, but we can't let that motivate our actions or influence how we feel about ourselves. We should love who we are and what we do no matter what anyone says. When we get cut from the audition round, we should still know that we did and performed the way we wanted to and executed exactly the way we wanted.

All of these parts of self esteem are intertwined in some form or fashion, but basically they boil down to how we perceive ourselves and how we perceive the outside world. We should see ourselves in as positive a light as possible. Even if we don't like certain things, thinking of them as, "I can improve," and not as, "I suck, I'm never going to get better" will better our chances of a positive and speedy improvement, rather than a slow or stagnant one. Similarly, the circumstances and influences of the outside cannot inhibit or contaminate these positive outlooks. If the trend is that only Caucasian Americans win orchestral jobs and you are a minority, you do not have to let that stereotype inform or influence what you think is possible. I wouldn't be playing with the Detroit Symphony had I let that stereotype keep me down, and I soon realized how untrue that stereotype really was the more I got into it. 

Again, this is an ongoing journey for us all as far as becoming comfortable with who we are in this world. Society will always be pushing some new agenda or norm, and situations will always come up that will make you doubt or question yourself, but in the midst of everything, keep hold of who you are and don't waver from that truth. We are all growing and we all can and will get better, but as we are right now, we are perfect. You don't need someone to tell you that, you don't need a certain circumstance to confirm your place in the world, and you don't need a certain item to validate your existence. Your existence validates your existence, your love for yourself validates the love you have, your performance and choices validate themselves, you validate you. Everything goes back to the internal. If you love yourself, everything else is possible. So love yourself and enjoy making the impossible a thing of the past.

The Self (Part 1)

As most musicians (all human beings really) learn or become aware of, there are a lot of pressures that can be perceived or "placed" onto our lives. From the demands of our education and technique, to the supply and acquisition of jobs, there's a lot we can be worried about. All these, in the end, are external circumstances which, if one allows it, can create and trigger imbalance or conflict within ourselves. I can't count how many times I've been frustrated during a practice session. In fact, I was playing timpani the other day and I got extremely frustrated. I even called my girlfriend to help me calm myself down. If you know this feeling then you may have or have not come up with ways of dealing with it; not ignoring it, dealing with it. I won't proclaim to have any of the answers, but I want to at least give you my personal answer. Maybe it can help lead to yours.

I personally think that dealing with these feelings of frustration with oneself, self doubt, self pity or self abuse, requires an objective look beyond the circumstances that trigger these feelings. In order for this to happen, you have to figure out why they trigger these feelings in the first place, become aware that the trigger is being activated and push passed it to regain your composure and sense of yourself. For me, and for most people I think, the first occurrences of self doubt comes during childhood at a very interesting time. It's not during the toddler years,  you feel pretty invincible then. It's not during pre-K or kindergarten, your pretty caring, friendly and outgoing, making tons of friends and playing freely. It started for me during the first grade, when my ability to do something was being judged as either perfect, imperfect, average, below average and failure. Yes, as soon as we entered into the education system, our sense of ourselves became jeopardized, left to be compared to the standard of a "good student". So, in my case, and it may be similar to yours or not, having to undo the years of comparing myself as a person to the standards of a perfect student was not easy, and I to this day still struggle with this, as many others do. Still, being aware of any type of comparison to your self and its effects on your self image and life is the first step to changing and retraining your brain to a more compassionate view of yourself.

Perhaps you have a different trigger origin, but I believe that the end result is the same;comparison of yourself to a model imposed on you and despairing about your supposed inability to achieve the model's standard. Look at the circumstance objectively. Let's deal with the most dangerous comparison, perfection. Am I trying to be perfect because I choose to be or someone told me to be? So let's say, "I choose to be perfect." Objectively, is this possible? To what extent? How many people have done this? What is my definition of perfect? Is that definition possible and to what extent? These are all objective questions we can ask ourselves without getting into an emotional dissertation about how we aren't as perfect as someone else. Honestly, perfection isn't possible as far as the common definition is concerned. Really, to me, perfection is doing what I set out to do as efficiently and as accurately as I can in that moment. If I get my intention across, then I was "perfect". This recognition of impractical and practical definitions can help guide you to a better outlook on your life. If you let go of the harsh definition of perfection, achievement without errors, and replace with a positive one, achievement despite errors, you can reshape your reaction to that comparative trigger. It takes time, but with patience and will it is indeed possible with any circumstance. 

The other danger of these comparisons is the limitations it puts on us. Let's say that we were still using the harsh definition of perfection. If we felt that a certain piece of music, or any task for that matter, was too difficult or impossible to achieve that standard, we would place a limit on our ability and not go forward with learning that piece. It's all based on what we believe we are capable of. This limitation view not only keeps us down but also stagnant, unwilling to tread new ground, leaving us little to no space to grow and improve. If we maintain the ideal that, because it exists it is possible, there is always the opportunity for us to be able to accomplish it at some level. The false, negative definitions limit us and the true, positive ones are our liberation. Change the belief, change the outcome.  

Now, the more common and active our triggers are, the more we start to define ourselves by them. When I made several mistakes in biology tests and got C's I began to tell myself I wasn't good at biology. At that point I lost interest in the class and thought/accepted that I would probably fail. The same can be said of our music. If you know you have trouble with reaching that high note, usually the first reaction is to realized your incapability to do it at that time, assume its immense difficulty and assume your failure status at consecutive attempts. It is here where not only our definition of our success at something must be observed, but our definition of ourselves as well. We can't compare ourselves to something without having two things to compare. Who are you? Not who do people say you are, not what is expected of someone in your race or gender or sexual orientation or religion or age etc.? Who do you know yourself to be, right now, at this moment? Forget the past and don't look to the future, who are you right now? Is who you are right now being what or perceived as being what you want or think you to be? Doing or perceived as doing what you want or think you want you to do? Wanting or perceived as wanting what you want or think you want? If yes then great! If no, then why? The key here is to get to know who you are and to be proud of who you are right now! Forget if you aren't where you want to be in the future and recognize that you are who you are right now, in this moment, and that is just fine, even "perfect." Change and betterment are always welcome, but never at the expense of one's love and acceptance of themselves in that present moment. If you aren't where you want to be, recognize it, find the reason behind it, and look for the ways to change it.

So we have, so far, redefining what our standards of comparison are into positive, practical standards that are our own, and reshaping/rewriting our personal self story, our self image, into one that portrays our true selves, not what people say we are. If we can do this then we are pretty much at the apex of being self confident within any situation or circumstance. As long as we look at events objectively and deter them from effecting us on an emotional level, we can make clear judgments on whether react or not and how. Instead of assuming the high note is too hard, realize that because it exists it is possible to achieve and be encouraged by that truth. Why can't I hit this note, objectively? The answer cannot be, "Because I'm a clutz," if you look at it objectively. It could be that your fingers aren't fast enough. You embrace and take ownership of that inability and that informs your actions towards ability. Or maybe it's because the instrument is faulty. Then it's not even your fault, but you still embrace and take ownership of the inability (because the instrument obviously can't) and that informs you to buy a new instrument. From objective analysis you can organize yourself and begin to tackle the new standard for yourself. Still, one thing lingers over us, even if we are self confident and look at things objectively; fear of failure. You may feel that you can hit that note, but the presence of "what if I fail?" can paralyze you, stopping you from even trying. Failure is not your enemy.

Long story short, ever since I went to college I've dreaded auditions. It wasn't until last year that I finally shook that feeling off of myself. Still, that trigger still hovers if left unchecked. So what are we afraid of? Again, it goes back to our first two issues. The circumstance/standard and the self image. Usually we tend to think, because of our current society, that our actions and achievements permanently define us as people. "Once a thief always a thief", "You can't teach an old dog new tricks", "You can take the man out of the street but you can't take the street out of the man", etc. The fact is that your actions don't permanently define you. Remember, you are who you are a this moment. If something happened in the past it is not occurring right now! Yes, past events may inform and influence decisions or pathways but they don't define your existence. Also, negative views of the future do you no good because they haven't occurred yet, and very often never do. "Oh here comes that note I always miss." How do you know you always miss it? Did you travel into the future and see yourself miss it every time? These negative influences on your "now", your present moment, imprint fear on you which inhibits your actions, judgment and choices. Fear of the known or the unknown must be looked at objectively in order for you to see that it is just an illusion, a mirage, that doesn't exist. Yes there's a possibility of failure, but assuming its imminence does more damage than anything else.

Finally, we must accept the existence and possibility of failure. Everything in this world has an opposite, you can't have or know one without the other. So, without failure, you will never know success. Without loss you won't know gain, without turmoil you won't know peace. As bad as we may feel in that present moment, we must regain our awareness that these feelings are temporary. If you stop avoiding failure, acknowledge its presence, it can lead you to more correct actions and choices that lead you to success. So what your snare drum dropped during a tacet movement where the strings were playing pianissimo, a few moments later no one will be talking about it. Maybe because of this you buy a better snare drum stand. So what you missed the high note, the panel will be talking about the entire audition, not just one moment of error, and actually that's the key right there. Maybe you even win the job! Our lives are built out of moments. Moment to moment to moment. We cannot define all based on one specific moment. As long as we acknowledge it's existence and be honest with ourselves on whether it's because of our personal actions or not, embrace the possibility of it occurring and accept it when it does, we can always learn from whatever happens and improve because of it.

Again, this is the way I found peace of mind and gained more self confidence. I don't pretend to have all the answers because no one does. It takes everyone to share their experiences and knowledge to even come close to that. I will say that we all have similar things in common. We've all felt inadequate or some version of it at some point and probably have even been afraid to fail at something. Knowing you're not alone in these feelings is indeed a helpful thing and even seeking and confiding in close friends or relatives about these feelings can be a great method of release and empowerment. Still, the confidence must come from within yourself. Know that you have the power to change any aspect of your life, all it takes is the willingness to start and make steps towards that change. Yes, we might fall and fail, but we never learn unless we become aware of the mistakes and failures that are possible. Maybe you'll find that you don't have the answer you're looking for. Instead of viewing that negatively, that awareness can lead you to a teacher or a mentor. It's all about how you perceive it, how you perceive yourself in that moment, and how you react to that perception. I know from experience that it is not easy to retrain yourself to not fear failure, especially after you've been doing it most of your childhood, but it is possible! Free yourself from fear of failure. Realize your greatness and ability to grow, adapt and persevere. Be aware that your circumstances or from the past do not fine your existence, nor influence your future. Go for your dreams, go for your happiness, go for your confidence, go for your goals and standards. "Take chances, make mistakes and get messy!" - Magic School Bus When you do find your way, I hope you to will share your story to help others find theirs.

Getting to Know You

"All type of knowledge ultimately means self knowledge" - Bruce Lee At some point in our lives music gave us some sort of feeling inside that drew us to it. It's this feeling that we can always return to keeping us motivated or reminding us why we started in the first place. For me, when I was a child I watched the Lion King often and my least favorite scene was when Simba finds Mufasa after Scar kills him. The scene starts off dead silent with Simba crying out for his father. No music plays, only the sounds of Simba and another animal running away. As soon as he sees his father the music starts. I can still remember my ears widening, trying to hear anything that might give some hope of a happy outcome. As you know, that is not the case in this scene and the music definitely would not let you forget it. So, on one particular night after watching the movie again, I woke up in the middle of the night and the silence of the apartment brought me right back to that scene with Simba. Then, clear as day the entire score from that scene started to play in my head and ring in my ears. I started reciting Simba's lines and just started bawling in the middle of the living room. Once the scene was over i went back to bed and cried myself to sleep.

Now, I'm not saying that everyone's experience is just as, more or less dramatic, but whatever it was it hit us in a memorable way. To me, I've been trying to get to that emotional state ever since I consciously and unconsciously pursued music. I still listen to childhood favorites to keep me connected to my younger self; Christmas music is always a great source of that. I practice while in that state and practice going in and out of that state. It's hard sometimes because certain things I hear or see remind me of triggers for the state and I can unintentionally go in and react emotionally to it. It is also hard because if it's an effective reminder my mind will hold onto that sound or image even if I don't want it to. Just now, even, my girlfriend was watching a movie that had a child crying out his sister's name because she got hit by a car in the rain. She was ok, thank God. I don't think I could've handled any other outcome at the time I was writing this, but when I heard that scream I almost lost it. Playing musical notes and things, you don't necessarily need emotion to do that. Being a musician, you need to be in touch with every aspect of your emotional spectrum in order to connect with people.

Actors have to do this or else their characters seem fake, so they subject themselves to feeling all ranges of emotions to relate to the audience. We have to allow ourselves to do the same. I can't connect with someone who's lost someone close to them if I haven't experienced that feeling or allowed myself to connect to someone or an event that emulates that. I'm not saying make yourself cry all the time but do be open to feeling all emotions, even if they don't feel good. No, I don't only practice in a state of emotional sadness. Mostly it's a state of the hearing that I experienced as a child, hearing the vastness of the space around me, the depth and expansive quality of even the smallest room, feeling completely connected to the environment as if it were an extension of myself. It's there that all my practice becomes enhanced, stimulated, and meaningful.

So, when the emotional state is on, all I think about is the feeling itself. Yes, I might be listening to what I'm doing but really all I'm thinking about is portraying the feeling or the character itself. You know the feeling at Christmas where you get that warm fuzzy feeling, being with friends or family, anyone who's dear or close to you? Picture that plus the feeling of being under a warm blanket on a cold winter night. Picture both of those plus the feeling of hearing a nostalgic song you used to listen to all the time. Now add the way your mouth waters at your favorite food, and the feeling of a nice cold drink after you just finished eating. Did I mention the feeling of getting something you were really excited to buy or receive from a friend. Let's not forget that feeling of seeing someone you haven't seen for a very long time, a close friend, relative or significant other. Lastly, for now, picture yourself in an open field, standing, looking up at the warm night sky. It's filled with stars, only the quiet sound of crickets chirping in the background. You feel your eyes trying to capture the vastness of space, and feel yourself falling backwards, even though you're not moving at all. That's how I feel whenever I play music in that complete space of emotion.

People would ask me why I'm so excited about music. It's because all of those feelings, and many more, are mixed together, stored, let out and continually replenished moment by moment, whether I'm physically playing music or not. I can slip into this space at any time I want, with or without a stick in my hand. With all the technique I've managed to acquire, I don't even need it anymore to get to the place I want, but I'm trying everyday to get more of it to express the new things the space introduces to me. Basically, I'm still that five year old kid, crying in the middle of the living room, with music in his ears and uncontrollable emotions spewing out of his heart, making any sound necessary in order to express the unspeakable. I hope you can find your reasons and motivations for anything you do and really explore every aspect of it. Free yourself to be adventurous and learn about yourself more. The more you know you, the easier it will be to show yourself through your music. Happy searching!