Recently I had a troubling experience that most musicians have probably also gone through. I played a concert (as an ensemble member) that I thought didn't go very well, but I was congratulated by various people on what a fine performance it was. The reception wasn't universally good — one person did agree with my negative assessment as we discussed the concert at length — but all the other feedback was positive.
Why was this troubling? It happened that this concert was followed closely by another event, a philosophy club meeting, that raised related questions and concerns in my mind. The topic at Philosophy for All was happiness and self-deception. Sample discussion item: Is it better to accept bitter reality than float along happily on delusions? As the conversation turned to the idea that sometimes others can judge us better than we can judge ourselves, I began thinking about how this could apply to music.
At first I felt encouraged. I struggle with performance anxiety at times, and the prospect of mitigating it by somehow getting objective judgments about my playing was appealing. Perhaps I could reach out to others in a clever, systematic way in order to get at the truth about how well I play. If others I trusted consistently said I was good, then I could believe them, feel more confident about performing, and suffer less from performance anxiety. If opinions turned out to be not so great, fine — I would at least know where I stand. But serious obstacles immediately sprung up against the idea.
First, there's the problem of finding people willing to tell you the truth. The older I get, more I discover that there are all kinds of reasons people lie and fib and sugarcoat on a routine basis. One is caring about someone and not wanting to hurt her feelings. I do feel that most of my musical colleagues would be reluctant to hurt my feelings, even if I assured them I wanted the truth.
Which is really "the truth," because how can people encapsulate their complex judgments about musical competence into statements like "You really are a good horn player, Gwen" without leaving out dozens or hundreds of nuances? To get the kind of thorough, thoughtful feedback that could actually combat the various niggling performance anxiety thoughts that pop up, I would have to construct long surveys or conduct long interviews.
("Section 7: Intonation. In general, on a scale of 1 to 10, how in tune do I play? Do I tend to play more or less in tune in an orchestral setting than a chamber setting? Please listen to the following recording, and rate my intonation a scale of 1 to 10. Remember that you have agreed to be as honest as you can.")
Two more complications involve whether knowing the truth is such a good idea after all. It's easy to say you just want honest answers about yourself, but when those answers align with your worse expectations, it can be quite a blow. Could I really recover from a detailed report of my weaknesses? Despite wanting to grow from adversity, look for silver linings, and so forth, I've had enough poor responses to criticism in the past that I have to question my ability to do this.
Perhaps even worse are discoveries not about yourself, but about those you are seeking critiques from. Let's say I play a recital I think is mediocre but am assured by a colleague that it was really quite good. Then several other colleagues whose opinions I trust admit to me that they found it mediocre, too. I go back to the first colleague and insist on the truth, only to be told again how wonderfully I played.
It seems that I can only conclude a few things, none of them flattering, about the first colleague: she secretly agrees with the others and has been untruthful all along, in which case I can't trust her honesty anymore, or she actually believes what she's saying, in which case I can't trust her musicianship. I suppose there's a third possibility: that my other colleagues and I are the inaccurate judges, not her. But that's not exactly reassuring, because how would I make that determination?
After all this, some readers may be thinking, "But this is music, a subjective art. Obsessing about 'the truth,' who's right, and who's wrong isn't the point." I get that, to a degree. "Concerning tastes one should not argue" is a maxim I believe in. But the idea of total subjectivity in evaluating a musical performance isn't very useful — not in a world where some people do win auditions and some don't, some people do sell more concert tickets than others, and I, for one, do deal with performance anxiety.
For now, though, I'll simply have to ponder this idea of finding out how I "truly" play in the abstract. Even if I haven't found another remedy for performance anxiety, and even if it's troubling to consider certain ramifications of truth-seeking and truth-telling, it's also absorbing to unpack these thoughts. The truth may yet be out there.
Gwendolyn Hoberg is an editor, writer, and classical musician. She lives in Moorhead, plays with the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra, and writes the Little Mouse fitness blog. She is also a co-author of The Walk Across North Dakota.