Monday, January 16, 2012

Overcoming Ego for Musicians

What do we mean by the word “ego?” I would venture to say that if you asked most people (especially young people) they would tell you that having an “ego” would be on-par with being arrogant or a “know-it-all.” This is a fair assessment, but it doesn’t paint the entire picture for which we are looking. The truth is, the word is not without its baggage. If we were to take a Freudian look at it, we might define ego as: "a set of psychic functions such as judgment, tolerance, reality testing, control, planning, defence, synthesis of information, intellectual functioning, and memory." (Wikipedia). If we took a more philosophical approach, we might say that: "The ego is often associated with mind and the sense of time, which compulsively thinks in order to be assured of its future existence, rather than simply knowing its own self and the present." (also from Wikipedia).

For the purposes of this posting, though, we will use the word “ego” to refer to that part of you consciousness that tells you; you are worth only as much as you succeed or possess. Additionally, your ego may make you feel that if you don’t own the most current trends in fashion or electronics, you are somehow lesser, or the belief that you are defined by what other people think of you. In short; your ego is the part of you that makes you feel continually incomplete. Of course, the shedding of the ego (especially for musicians) is quite possibly one of the most difficult tasks that we may complete. I wanted to nonetheless share my own techniques for getting rid of this pesky nuisance below.

  • Stop comparing yourself with other musicians (and this includes your peers). OK, I wanted to get the big one out of the way from the get-go. No more reading about Sarah Chang or Van Cliburn and feeling old before your time. Yes, the world is taken with “prodigies,” they are impressive, and because they are so rare, they make for great press. But understand this: if you are able to play a piece of transcendent (meaning truly masterful playing) at age 25 or at age 50, people will take note. To be perfectly blunt: it is the sound that matters, not the vessel from which the sound comes. Therefore (and this is going to sound strange to those of us living in the western world) don’t rush, you have time to be great!

  • This one is kind of tied to the first: band together with your fellow musicians. I know, this is another tough one, especially for young people. I can’t tell you how many times I, as a teenager, sat in my student recitals comparing myself with my fellow singers/pianists hoping that they sang/played worse than I did. Really, what I should have been doing was appreciating them and cheering them on. In the long run this would have opened my mind up to what they were doing right – and provided me with an opportunity to learn from them, and vice-versa. In short, do your best to be likeable. There is nothing wrong with having allies and if you can keep these allies as you grow older, your chances of success will be much greater.

  • Do not judge yourself while you are performing. This includes performing for your instructor and in class in front of your classmates. Save all your evaluations until you are finished. Sometimes self-judgment seems like an involuntary occurrence, but the truth is; you have control over it. During your performance, for better or worse, just power through – improvise if you forget or lose your place, sing “la” instead of words… Do whatever you have to do to finish the performance with confidence and don’t let the audience ever see that you were shaken. Remember, the audience (for the most part) tends to take away the good things much more than the bad. If you fumble on a note, or forget a word but the rest of the performance is brilliant, than one error won’t even be a distant memory. And if you have a serious problem during your performance, but you keep your cool and you finish un-fazed; chances are that the audience will see you a pro who just had a bad night.

Finally, remember that keeping the ego in check is much more than just maintaining a level head, it is about knowing you are complete without praise, without fame and without doubt. Having no ego isn’t the defeat of self-esteem, it is the affirmation of it combined with the knowledge that you still have everything to learn, which is a good thing. It is also there to remind us that our abilities come with the great price of a monumental amount of time spent honing them. Remember: we should not let our egos grow into areas that could be taken up by knowledge. 

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