I spent Sunday adjudicating the concerto competition of a large state university in the region, and as always on such occasions, I reflected on how much I prefer judging such events to competing in them.
Between the ages of 16 and 30, I played in a lot of competitions because everyone said that’s what you had to do to succeed in the profession, and I’d give the same advice today. Competitions opened a lot of doors for me, and even when I didn’t win them, I made lifelong friends and learned some important lessons.
That doesn’t mean I enjoyed it, though. Many musicians thrive in a competitive environment, but for me, I always felt doubly conscious of flaws in my playing, and assumed that they would rule me out of advancement or prizes. The love of music that envelops me in normal performing occasions was somehow harder to conjure up on the competition stage, and I never felt the enjoyment that I usually experience when making music.
It occurred to me, as I wrote detailed comments for each competitor, that I probably forgave the odd frack, missed shift, or fumbled chord far faster than they did. I also felt that since I didn’t intimately understand the instrumental technique for any instruments other than strings and piano, my criteria for ranking competitors should focus on the whole performance, including presentation, and whether the interpretation moved my heart or not.
That led me to wonder whether the adjudicators of competitions I’d played in might have been using the same general criteria, and whether my anxieties about hard double stops, large shifts, or my old bugbear the spiccato stroke might have been far more important to me than they were to anyone else. I saw the looks on competitors’ faces when they flubbed notes that had no doubt gone perfectly in the practice room, or when something wasn’t in tune, and how it made them turn inwards with shame.
And that’s when I started wondering if it was the shame, not the mistake, that’s our true enemy on the stage. Surely the hardest thing about performing isn’t to play the piece itself, but to allow ourselves the vulnerability of knowing that something may go wrong up there, something that might never have gone wrong before, and that we have to keep going no matter what. You can’t slink off the stage and hide–you have to see it through to the end.
And to me, it’s the person who is able to forgive herself instantly and move on with communicating music to the audience who is the most successful performer.
If you can forgive yourself as soon as the mistake happens, you get to remain in your own present. If you don’t forgive yourself, you stay in the past with your shameful mistake. That’s when the shoulders go forwards, the face crumples into a grimace of self-disgust, and the sound goes inwards into the instrument instead of outwards to the audience.
Self-forgiveness is terribly hard to master, of course. I sometimes even wonder if I should preach it to others, considering that I still go into cringing agonies when I remember things I played out of tune at the age of 15 or 16! But maybe that crucial step of crossing the divide between “good student” and “competition winner” is feeling that desire to hunch over with shame after a mistake, but not giving into it. Keeping your body language open, keeping your communication open, letting your love of making music override your fear of doing it wrong.