I have realized after many years that taking time to acknowledge success is just as important as striving to be better. If you never stop to acknowledge yourself, it’s like taking a hike and never stopping to enjoy the view.
There is not a conflict between being grateful for what you have and where you are at and wanting more and to be better. Where the disconnect lies is in the constant criticizing. It is important, not a waste of time, to celebrate.
I was brought up in a family that never gave praise. When I was in kindergarten I brought home my coloring book (which I still have) to show mom. I was proud of my colors and staying within the lines. She remarked that it wasn’t shaded and showed me how to make something look more three-dimensional by making the colors thicker at the edges and lighter in the middle. So, I practiced that and then showed my teacher who remarked negatively, “you couldn’t have done that. Someone else colored it.” That is my first memory of nothing is enough.
I once went to play with my grade school friend, who had long curly blond hair. I had to wait while her mom took time brushing her hair before she braided it. I went home and asked mom to brush my hair. “Why do I need to do that? You know how to brush your own hair.” I thought it was because my hair was brown and straight that she didn’t want to brush it. Later that friend and I drew horses and took it to my mom to see which one was “better.” Of course she picked the one that the blond girl did. She told me that it wouldn’t have been fair to pick me because I was her daughter. Even then, she had to explain how I could have drawn my horse better. In hindsight I wish she could have said that they both were good. There were many school parent-teacher meetings where my art teacher tried to show my mom something that I did that was good, and mom commented that my work was just that of a preteen or she had to point to the painting next to mine and say what was better in that one. I remember going to the elementary school office to see my artwork up on their wall to feel a personal sense of pride.
My dad on the other hand was always critical of my flute playing. He once showed me on his recording equipment (he recorded medical meetings for a living) how a recording of Jean-Pierre Rampal stayed at the same volume level and had me record a song or scale of something and showed me how the level jumped all over. (At that time, I didn’t know that they adjusted the levels in post.) One holiday, I was playing a simple Baroque gig that my niece was dancing to. We were laughing and having a good time, but Dad had to tell me the one wrong note he heard. When my friends were having parties and getting presents for graduating high school, Dad said, “We’ll celebrate when you get your masters.”
They were brought up to believe that pride was wrong and that by telling me everything that wasn’t good enough would not only make me better, but save me from the humiliation of someone on the outside world telling me I wasn’t good enough. Dad even once claimed, “you are as good as you are because I kept pushing you.” He couldn’t even acknowledge that it was my work or, dare I say, “talent” that helped me become accomplished. I think that the constant comments to be better without taking any time to acknowledge what was good made me insecure. I always think I am the one at fault when a non-specific adjustment is suggested to a group of musicians or actors. Sometimes I can’t focus on what I’m playing because a part of my consciousness is always looking for what is wrong or what could be better. (Please don’t think I consider myself a victim. I will discuss how this upbringing: seeing what I do NOT what to do, has made me a better teacher and person in another blog post.)
I believe that acknowledging what is successful fuels the desire and objectivity to fully appreciate your expressions.
I have a student that kept trying to guess how to play something. When I finally got her to believe that when she could accept what was wrong, she could make it better. She first had to accept that what she was playing was not the rhythm that was written. I took the time to tell her when it was wrong AND right, so that she could tell the difference on her own. Now, she can sight read a page long piece almost completely accurate AND we celebrate that!
In my thirties I went through a stage of performance anxiety. That felt strange as I always liked to perform. Then one Sunday, I played a piece for a church service’s communion and I wasn’t nervous at all. I realized it was because I was playing to help the congregants feel a connection to spirit and when I was getting nervous it was because I was looking for approval from others. When I acknowledged that I was a conduit for a greater good I felt it was about more than myself and I relaxed.
So, now I play to give something, rather than look for approval. Sometimes, the giving is just to me or the other musicians. Sometimes it’s to serve the music by expressing the emotion that I think is there. There is a fine line between giving to the audience to have them enjoy the melody and groove and not to have them approve of me giving them that enjoyment.
Life seems to be a constant balancing act—like the teeter-totters of youth.
I remember trying to get the tetter-totters to be perfectly balanced between the two of us. It never was perfectly still, and then at times when we seemed to have the stasis all of a sudden focus was lost and it lurched to one or the other’s side and then we enjoyed the ups and downs again. I always want to enjoy and celebrate all aspects of life, and remember that celebrating is as important as striving.