I have been brought back, once again, to pondering this question by a young pianist who says she is giving up the piano because she has been told that she doesn’t have the ability to excel as a performer, or even to pass advanced grade exams. My response was that, if she plays the piano just to be better at it than other people, she should give it up and find some channel for competition outside of the arts. However, if she plays because she loves music and wants to share it with other people, she should just get on and do that and her love will communicate itself to others.
We often do not play well in auditions, competitions and exams because we are conscious of being judged. It’s not like taking a driving test or a maths test: communicating through music is much more personal and we find it hard to separate our innermost self from its physical expression. But we will never find joy in sincere music-making unless we have a sense of self-worth that is not dependent on an assessment of our musical skills. In other words, we have to accept that we may fail and make music anyway. Paradoxically, once we embrace the ‘death’ of failure, we can begin to live and grow as musicians.
I find it really hard to put all this into words but I recommended to the disappointed young pianist the book entitled “Effortless Mastery” by jazz musician, Kenny Werner, in which he explores the failure/success paradox and its implications for musicians. Many have found reading this deeply spiritual book a really life-changing experience and Kenny is ever generous in responding to his readers, encouraging them to put its principles into practice. In recent weeks, he has been running a series of tele-seminars on his website, answering readers’ questions and these are available for replay. See Effortless Mastery