Repetition creates reality

The article I mentioned in a previous post about the top three things undergraduates should do to maximize their time at university is now online at The print edition of the September 2013 issue featured this next to responses by some pretty big names–Atar Arad and Mimi Rabson–as well as a positively enormous photograph of yours truly. I blinked with amazement…

…and had one of those “I’m a fraud!” moments that professional women are apparently so prone to. I had to give myself quite a stern talking-to about believing in oneself and aiming high.

Having recovered some composure, I read the other interviewees’ thought-provoking responses. I particularly liked Rabson’s instruction that students should take care of themselves physically. I’ll be the first to admit that classical musicians are seldom athletes, and it’s so easy to fall into the traps of over-caffeination, sleep deprivation, and poor planning that you can end up an utter wreck.

This got me thinking that perhaps one of my three instructions should have been something about taking emotional care of oneself too. (Right after my attack of impostor syndrome… Teacher, teach thyself!) In my early twenties, when I was living first in London and then in Texas, I had a string of professional disappointments, one after another. I couldn’t figure out why, even though I practised assiduously, I kept flubbing audition after audition. Every blow to my ego seemed to make it more difficult to pick myself up and keep trying. It was an unpleasant cycle of failure, and left me feeling very glum indeed.

It took until my late twenties to figure out that even though I had a certain measure of self-confidence that kept me from junking the entire thing and going into a more employable profession, I wasn’t exactly being kind to myself. My interior monologue was a never-ending barrage of self-criticism and reproach. I almost don’t like to admit that reading self-help books brought me out of this relentlessly negative frame of mind, but they really did. After one of those all-night conversations about self-esteem that you can only have in your twenties when no one has a job, a mortgage or a child, a friend handed me a well-thumbed copy of You Can Heal Your Life by Louise L. Hay. Since she’d started practising Hay’s meditations, she told me, she’d won every audition she went for. This sounded too good to be true, but I took the book home all the same. The psychedelically-coloured cover nearly put me off, but I’m so glad I looked inside. I think we should probably disregard the sections where Hay claims you can heal actual medical conditions with the power of affirmations, but there’s a great deal of wisdom in her central proposition that changing our default way of speaking to ourselves can greatly improve our lives.

An affirmation, after all, is just something you repeat many times until you’ve learned it by heart. You might even say that cello practice, with its multiple repetitions of troublesome passages, is a kind of affirmation. This being the case, it stands to reason that repeating an idea will eventuate in our learning that idea as our own “truth.” As Sissy Spacek’s character remarks in the iconic Civil Rights film The Long Walk Home, if someone tells you something enough times when you’re seven years old, you start to believe it. Whether that thing is offensive racist hate speech or ugly self-torment, repetition will create your reality.

Cheesy yellow cover and all, did You Can Heal Your Life help me? Well, I’m sitting here with a job and a few other things I coveted greatly when I was younger, so it may have. In any case, I find that life is far happier when you replace “I screwed up this…and this…and this! Why can’t I play anything accurately?” with “I did wonderfully. Now, let’s just tweak a few things…what would happen if I changed this bowing here and this fingering here, and started building my crescendo a bit later? Great, I think this way really has possibilities!”

I tend to give out a lot of copies of You Can Heal Your Life, but there are two other books that have had equally profound effects on my career and general feelings of well-being: Energy Medicine by Donna Eden and The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal. The first was immensely helpful to me in getting into the right frame of mind for successful performances, and the second helped me break the addictive cycle of perfectionism and procrastination that so many of us suffer from. I recommend them to all musicians and…well, all human beings, really.


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