“The inner critic can make you feel awful about yourself. With the inner critic watching, you begin to watch your every step, you become self-conscious, awkward and ever fearful of making a mistake.”
www.KaliMunro.com, accessed 1 August 2008
Battling with the Inner Critic can severely handicap your ability to just enjoy music and it can even stop you from pursuing your lifelong dream to play. Some people’s critics are more severe than others, but just about everyone has one. In order to make playing a much more positive experience, it is helpful to address this aspect of our personality and understand how it can hinder our advancement in music making.
Our Critic has been created throughout our life from a number of people who have influenced us such as parents, family and teachers. Sometimes when situations are similar to past experiences, voices or comments can ‘play back’ into our thoughts. For example, your father may have told you as a child to let the adults speak before you do and that you should listen to their opinions because they are more important than yours, and that adults are right. This comment may have been helpful for you to be accepted by adults as a child and therefore kept you safe, but when you become an adult yourself, you may unconsciously still believe that the opinions of others are more important than yours and that others know more than you do (even when they don’t), with the result that you don’t like to express yourself in case you are not accepted. When you think about it, such a belief can have a huge impact on your ability to play music, especially when it is an art form requiring you to express yourself, often in the company of other people.
Once you bring your Critic into the light by observing its voice, its influence and how it can ‘hijack’ your music, you can begin to give yourself over to the Inner Musician. The Inner Musician is not afraid to take musical ‘risks’ and is totally present when playing, the Inner Musician is authentic and trusts its ability. When you let your Inner Musician play, you will feel relaxed and connected, you won’t be thinking about how good or bad your music is, you won’t be thinking about hanging out the washing, you will be absorbed in the moment and when you finish playing you will feel as if you are waking from a very pleasant dream. Maybe this is why people play music instead of workmusic. How did it feel when you were playing as a child, absorbed in the moment and nothing else mattered but the game? This is the feeling we are aiming for when we play music.
THE INNER CRITIC
Imagine you are driving a car, navigating your way through a beautiful landscape called Music. You are captivated, focused and aware of what is around you and what is in front of you. The drive is enjoyable and effortless.
Next to you, in the passenger seat, is your Inner Critic. He or she (let’s call her Ms No-No for now) is talking to you non-stop, warning you of impending disasters, not to mention your shortcomings as a driver and a person. You turn your head to respond to her and in doing so, lose your concentration. Now you are not watching the road or the beautiful scenery, you are too busy engaging with Ms No-No and then…. you crash!
In the rubble of the aftermath, Ms No-No gets up, dusts herself down and says “See, I said you were no good at this!”
Unfortunately, Ms No-No likes to accompany you on all your beautiful drives (who wouldn’t!). She is always in the passenger seat, ready to give you advice or judgment and when she opens her mouth to speak, she is distracting and – don’t tell her this – hardly ever correct in what she says!
Here is how you may experience this story when you are playing music:
You are playing or singing and you strike a note that sounds ‘ugly’ to you. It may not even have been a bad note but your Critic has spoken and said “it didn’t sound good”. Now you begin to focus on this judgmental comment. Since you are listening to your Critic instead of the music, she continues to speak. “You know this music is no good, no one wants to listen to that. You can’t even do this properly!”. You begin to fear that your Critic is right and, consequently, you doubt the music, yourself and your capability. Your body becomes full of tension in response to this notion and you find it almost impossible to continue playing. Eventually you either stop or your playing becomes stilted and difficult and you end up feeling bruised and negative. In other words, you crash!
We have to learn to live with our Critic but not let it interfere with the act of playing. When we can do this, we can begin to really enjoy the experience of learning and performing. Simply by beginning to observe your Critic, you will notice that it won’t get in the way as much. By observing it, you separate from it and when you separate from it, you can make a choice about how you react to what it is saying, instead of just letting it make you feel bad.
So in order to enjoy playing music, get to know your Critic. Here’s how:
When you are playing music, whether it be at home or in a lesson, use your Practise Diary to make notes of what your Critic is saying to you. This means that when you make a mistake or stop playing, you need to take a moment to note what went through your head just before it happened. Some examples of this are thoughts such as:
“You’re going to make a mistake!” or “Are you doing this right?” or even “Oh, my God I can do this!”
You may notice the Critic is stronger in an activity such as free improvisation. It may say things like:
“This sounds awful!” or “You’re no good at music.”
Be observant of these statements in whatever activity you are practising. Once you begin to recognise your Critic’s voice speaking, you can choose to stay with the music, ‘the beautiful countryside’, instead of being distracted by the voice.
Sometimes, it may be difficult to refocus when you hear your Critic’s voice, but by turning your attention to your breath (something which you practise in your routine), you will be able to concentrate on the music again. It may take a little while at first, but you will get better at using breath to focus your attention.
After writing down some of what your Critic has to say, you may be able to connect its statements to people from your past. If your Critic is particularly strong, you could draw a picture of him or her and stick it in your practise room. When you hear its voice or when it is messing with your work, simply look at the picture and know that your Critic is not you. What it has to say is not the truth and its opinion doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you stay relaxed and present with what you are doing, as practising music is not about engaging in a judgmental discussion.
These activities should give you the power to begin to deal with negative thoughts and feelings that can cause problems such as low self-esteem and avoiding situations in which you are the centre of attention or in which you can shine. You will also notice that the more attention you give to the above exercises, the less your Critic will bother you and the more you will be able to let your Inner Musician take over.
Just remember when you play music there really is no space for you to judge whether it is good or bad. In order to judge, you need to be on the outside, either listening back to a recording or as an audience member, but when you create music, if you are doing it properly, you should be on the inside, 100% present with every moment. When your Inner Critic takes control, you give it your energy and step outside the music; so who is creating? Who is ‘looking at the road’ or engrossed in ‘the beautiful countryside’? Nobody. What can you share or communicate in music when you are judging or fearful of making a mistake? Only fear and judgment and this is not something you or many other people really wish to experience.
THE INNER MUSICIAN
“Fear closes all doors to the true self, that brilliant centre where the ecstasy lies.” - Kenny Werner, “Effortless Mastery”, p51
Taking risks and making ‘mistakes’
There is no such thing as a wrong note. If you commit to every note you play, every note will sound as if it’s meant to be there.
Being a good musician is as much about how you deal with a mistake (which, if there are no wrong notes, is actually just dealing with your Critic) as it is about any other aspect of music. What matters is what is being created in the now, not the past and not the future.
Here are some ways you can develop your Inner Musician:
- Free improvisation is an excellent way for you to practise acceptance of every note you play, existing solely in the present.
- Playing with other musicians will also give you the experience of having to continue to play if you make a ‘mistake’. If you are part of a group and you stop, everyone suffers!
- Record yourself as much as possible and listen back to it. Try to realise that sometimes imperfections actually embellish your performance and it is only when you give energy to the notion of failure that your music will sound bad.
- Performing either at open mic nights, auditions or events organised by you or your teacher is also beneficial. Try to do this in a safe and supportive environment, especially in the early stages of your learning.
Sometimes your experiences in music will be uncomfortable but this is simply part of the learning process. In time, you will get to know that your Inner Musician accepts all sounds and uses every note to full advantage.
“… an individual is being authentic if they are being completely honest and participating in the here-and-now…. always being centered with themselves and others, living in a completely integrated fashion with their own values and principles, always feeling complete meaning or sense of purpose ….”
- www.managementhelp.org/prsn_wll/authentc.htm – accessed 13 August 2008
You are unique – no-one looks the same as you (unless, of course you are an identical twin!) and, more importantly, no-one will play music like you. When you can stand as you are, without pretence, and create, when you can be 100 percent honest and truly yourself, your music will be great and people will love listening to it. This is true even if you are not the world’s most technically brilliant musician.
As listeners, we know when a performance is authentic as sometimes the hairs on the back of our neck will stand up, or we’ll be moved to tears or laughter; we can simply feelthe artist’s intention. To deliver music in this way you need to be able to communicate to others how you really feel and show who you truly are, whether in a musical or social situation. We all know how difficult this can be, especially if we have a strong Inner Critic, but it is essential to cultivate the ability to express yourself if you wish to make a meaningful contribution to music.
Trusting your ability
When you can trust your practiced technical skills and don’t have to think about them, you will be able to lose yourself in the music, enjoy its rhythm and sentiment and let your Inner Musician shine through. So, although you may begin learning a song by trying to copy what you hear, including the phrasing and sound quality of a particular artist, it is important to build a solid foundation of knowledge regarding the music’s technical aspects if you are to make that song your own. This means breaking down the rhythm, harmony and melody of the song so that you can begin to master it. For example, singers will often use melodic devices such as slides and trills to cover up the fact that they are not really sure of a particular note’s pitch. They then have less choice over how they can express the music because they will be preoccupied with trying to ‘get through’ that particular section and cannot be truly in the moment when performing. When you learn a melody note for note (especially the ‘little’ notes) you always know where you are in the song and if you wander away from main melody, say in improvisation, you always have a place (the original melody) to come back to if need be.
Music, therefore, needs to be learned and repeated very mechanically at first, singing or playing with a strong tone and at a slow tempo with as little use of melodic devices as possible. Once you can sing or play in this way with confidence and ease, you can begin focusing on the music’s emotional content. It is then that you will naturally come up with your unique musical interpretation and be relaxed enough to let your Inner Musician play.
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