Am I Really Good Enough?

Guest author Frances Wilson considers a question we all ask ourselves from time to time, sometimes more frequently than we should…

Am I Really Good Enough?

  • Am I good enough to pass this exam?
  • Good enough to compete in that festival?
  • Play in that concert?
  • To be a piano teacher?

Society sets targets for us which are ingrained from the moment we enter primary school. Will I make the grade? What if I get the answer wrong? From an early age we are programmed to measure ourselves and our progress against the expectations of others and unseen external forces.

As pianists we tend to spend a lot of time alone, with just the instrument and (mostly) dead composers for companions. Practising and studying alone, it is easy to start questioning our abilities: a bad practise session can leave one wondering,
“can I actually play the piano?”

In addition to our own self-doubt, the opinions of others (in particular teachers and mentors) can have a marked effect on our self-esteem which may colour the way we approach our music making. In extreme cases, when one is subjected to very negative feedback, this can lead to stress which manifests itself in both emotional and physical symptoms such as depression, tendonitis and focal dystonia. Even in less extreme instances, negative comments about our playing can affect our day-day-to relationship with the piano.

Learning confidence and to be trusting of one’s musical self are important aspects of one’s development as a musician. I see this in my students, most of whom are now teenagers who are beginning to make important decisions about future study and even post-school careers. Very used to being spoon-fed and “nudged” into the “right” direction by teachers and parents, they are less certain when asked to make decisions about their music. They want reassurance that they are playing in the “right” way, that they are “good enough” to pass their next grade exam. They want to know how their peers are progressing, who has passed this or that exam and with what mark. A Merit? A Distinction? They talk about others being “better” than them, while I hasten to point out that a student who is working towards Grade 7 or 8 is not “better”, simply more “advanced”.

Their anxieties cause them to lose sight of what I consider to be the most important aspect of music making:  communication.

My Story…

I shared many of my students’ anxieties; and many of the issues I’ve carried into adulthood stem from unhelpful comments by teachers at school and feeling at a disadvantage because I did not study music at university or conservatoire. Add to that, a long absence from the piano post-university when I was occupied with other things: career and family.

When I returned to the piano in my late 30s, I did so with a vengeance, soaking up repertoire, concerts, recordings, films and books on the subject. I even befriended a few professional pianists. And this is where the trouble started…

I began to compare myself to these people, to measure my own reasonably competent efforts at the piano against pianists who had the training, the mindset, and that magic secret ingredient which set them apart from the rest of us. I wanted to attempt the same repertoire, walk across the concert platform with the same special brand of sang-froid, and play beautifully. Just like they did. I assumed these people were unassailable, that they never suffered from self-doubt, nor ever asked “am I good enough”?

Of course, there is nothing wrong with drawing inspiration from these people and the music they make. Indeed, inspiration is a wondrous resource, which drives us to explore, create and achieve. But by constantly measuring myself against the achievements of others, I found I was continually frustrated by my own progress, or lack thereof, and regularly wondered if I was indeed “good enough”.

Recently, however, I’ve reached a state of acceptance, and I’ve stopped wishing I could do what they do. Because I am doing what they do, in my own way – through my varied musical activities from teaching to concert reviewing and blogging. I’ve performed in concerts, organised and promoted concerts. I make and share music in a way which suits me and my capabilities, and I get a tremendous amount of pleasure from doing so.

How to feel you are good enough……

  • Don’t constantly compare yourself to others
  • Don’t deify the composers, professional musicians, or the music
  • Don’t set yourself unrealistic targets – this can lead to over-practising, stress, tension and physical injury
  • Choose repertoire which you enjoy playing, not because someone said “you should learn this!”
  • Don’t blindly follow the advice of teachers, colleagues or friends. Be questioning and inquisitive. One person’s method may not suit you.
  • Enjoy and appreciate the positive endorsements of teachers, colleagues and friends
  • Cut yourself some slack: you don’t have to practise every day, you don’t have to use Hanon exercises just because Joe Bloggs next door does.
  • People are not necessarily “better”,  just “more advanced”
  • Remember that even top flight professional artists suffer from anxiety and stress. They are just better at dealing with it!
  • Above all love your music. Play, listen, go to concerts, share music with friends.

Further reading and resources

On Jealousy and True Belonging

Beyond Stage Fright – top professional musicians and teachers talk about how they cope with performance anxiety and stress

Music From the Inside Out (Charlotte Tomlinson) Not just for professional musicians, this book is applicable to anyone who suffers from the issues explored in this article. Charlotte’s clearsighted and down-to-earth approach equips you with the tools to unlock what is holding you back.

Frances Wilson

Frances Wilson is a London-based pianist, piano teacher, concert reviewer and blogger on music and pianism as The Cross-Eyed Pianist. She also writes a regular column on various aspects of piano playing for ‘Pianist’ magazine’s e-newsletter, and is a guest blogger at HelloStage, InterludeHK, Music Haven and The Sampler, the blog of SoundandMusic.org, the UK charity for new music.

Frances holds Licentiate and Associate Diplomas (both with distinction) in Performance, and currently studies with acclaimed pianist, teacher and writer Graham Fitch.

www.crosseyedpianist.com

www.franceswilson.co.uk

Twitter: @CrossEyedPiano

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Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a pianist, writer and teacher based in Milton Keynes UK. He runs a successful independent teaching studio and music education business, Keyquest Music.

4 thoughts on “Am I Really Good Enough?”

  1. I think the sentiment behind this post is great. We should all look inward for our assessments and goals. However the use of the phrase “magic ingredient” in reference to more advanced/pro pianists is I believe a misnomer. Nobody is so far ahead that we should label their abilities magic. That is unfair to those still struggling at lower levels who do look up to pros, quite reasonably I think, and it is especially unfair to the people at that higher, seemingly “magical,” level of facility who are all where they are for one reason–hard work.

    As someone who has repeatedly had my musical achievements chalked up to some inborn talent with people saying stuff like “oh if only I had your talent.” Or even “you are so lucky to do what you do.” Let me tell you it can be very spiritually demoralizing. I’m “lucky” in that my hands and brain haven’t been destroyed in an accident preventing me from playing. And what someone who craves or envies what they perceive as genetic talent should be saying is “oh if only I had your work ethic.” Not that talent doesn’t exist of course, simply that no matter who you are if you aren’t working and sacrificing enough for your craft then you won’t be making the progress you want to/can be making.

    And I think making comparisons between oneself and those who’ve already “made it” is a slippery slope but not necessarily a bad one to climb. I feel so sad every time I hear some story about someone who was living and working for their craft only to then go to a Horowitz (or whomever) concert and then immediately resign after “realizing” that they could never be as good. When in fact, they don’t know. For all they “know” they could’ve been better if they’d had the gumption to try a little longer. Its easy to give up when we hear the greats play, although in my experience its been just as easy to get even more inspired from a demonstration of superior abilities if you make the decision to be inspired and not demoralized. I think it really is that grotesquely simple a choice.

    No two people will ever play the same. Which is precisely why there are and should remain a large number of musicians all essentially doing the same thing because we are not interested in their speed or accuracy, whic arent unique, but rather their personality as reflected in their usage of such skills. Anyone can overcome any technical hurdle with enough effort. What the piano world needs isn’t more dead eyed speed demons who never miss a note. That’s cool and all but at this point, after all that’s come before and all that is preserved in recordings, it can never be something unique or even needed. Every piece there is to play has already been played by countless players with flawless techniques. There now is (should be) only room for unique artists to come to the fore crowd. People like Horowitz who went beyond their talent to achieve something unique and personal rather than something comparatively excellent. Incidentalky, Horowitz would be the first to say that he had off days and that on those days he could sound pretty, prettyy bad. But those aren’t the days we’ll remember him by.

    I say make comparisons between yourself and those you aspire to be like. Make tons of them. Just don’t focus on the disparate in a negative way but use it as fuel for your own practice. All anyone ever has is practice. Performance; competition etc. is meaningless on their own. Every time we sit down to play, no matter the setting, it’s just one more opportunity to play what we are going to play better than we have in the past. And if we don’t play it better, we analyze why and take that to the next opportunity, and the next and the next. There is no end point. I believe a successful artist dies (hopefully) with a last thought of how much there still is to do. I believe the greatest satisfaction possible could be had in such a moment.

    Liked by 1 person

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