Thoughts on Musicality

Determining what turns notes into music has been confusing.  Everyone has different tastes for which interpretations of pieces they enjoy most.  There is no clear measure for how musical a performance is.  It is further perplexing because from my own experience and what others have told me, music education has not given us a fundamental understanding of what makes a performance musical.  We are given very useful information about technique, styles of music, and small details that can make a passage sound more interesting, but little comprehension of how this helps music communicate emotions and ideas.  Therefore, I believe it would be prudent to create guiding principles for making notes musical.  Some may question this, as what is valued most in creating music is subjective, and rationalizing music rather than experiencing it intuitively would be missing a large part of why music is meaningful.  While I agree that feeling music intuitively is essential, what I propose is that having a rational understanding of musicality provides irreplaceable knowledge of turning notes into music.  For example, if someone had the goal to attain a fulfilling and stable romantic relationship, many would agree it would be unwise to approach this only by emotion.  Someone who has logically sound philosophies and knows when these beliefs are more important than feeling good would have a greater understanding of what leads to a fulfilling and stable romantic relationship than someone guided only by emotion.  I propose that this mindset also applies to grasping musicality more clearly.  Also, subjectivity does not prevent rational guidelines to create musicality from being useful, as life philosophies can successfully influence humans to live moral and fulfilling lives, and they are perhaps even more subjective than views of what turns notes into music.

Next, I will discuss two major concepts I believe are crucial to producing musicality.  They are tools guided by interpretation to add meaning to music.

1) Lyricism

I define lyricism as the execution or imitation of the natural sung or spoken voice.  Lyricism is created through the breath to give notes contours, direction in phrasing, a sense of appropriate pauses or silences in the sound and adding a human quality to the sound.  I will now discuss what creates lyricism in music, with the components not being in any strict order.

A) Performing as if resources are finite

When speaking and singing, one must cadence and/or breathe to refill the lungs with air, and there is a cycle of inhaling and exhaling that allows the voice to be fully supported and sustained.  While it may seem like this is a constraint to getting the desired sound, imagine what would happen if one could speak or sing without having to pause or breathe.  It would sound incessant, jarring, and unnatural.  That is why breath being a limited resource is a blessing for creating musicality.  The breath affects how the body moves and feels, directly affecting sound and timing of when notes are played.  To create a sense of the breath creating a sound on piano, percussion, or a string instrument, the breath should fuel the motions of the body much like it would in yoga or Tai Chi.  Running out of breath can also be useful to guide how phrases end and notes are shaped.

B) Momentum

Strongly tied to how air must be inhaled and how it eventually runs out, momentum is essential for giving phrases direction and cadence.  Momentum must be progressively gathered and naturally decreases over time.  To increase momentum, some options are to crescendo, speed the tempo, make vibrato narrower and/or faster, gradually changing articulation, and breathing more air.  The opposite of some of these choices can be done to decrease momentum or by letting it automatically decay over time, which can be used to end phrases or naturally connect into other phrases.

C) Emotive friction

Emotive friction is the perceived intensity of the music, which replicates how words or song have a wide spectrum of intensity in their delivery.  It allows for many possibilities in creating specific moods in music.  For example, a quiet passage can be played with low emotive friction to create a serene atmosphere but played with high emotive friction to reflect internal pain.  Some tools to increase emotive tension are making vibrato faster and/or narrower, creating a heavier sound, adding glissandos and for string instruments, it can be increased by slowing down bow speed and moving the contact point closer to the bridge.  Doing the opposite to decrease emotive friction can also be an effective musical choice.

D) Rhythm

Rhythm gives a natural flow to music much like speaking.  Often good rhythm involves a consistent beat and accurate subdividing to create a sense of flow or groove.  When a steady rhythm is established, it allows for intentional speeding up or slowing of the beat to be comprehensible, as a tempo change is more meaningful when two or more tempos are juxtaposed.  It is important to note that consistent rhythm is not the same as robotically and precisely regular note lengths.  While we want rhythm to be accurate, not all subdivisions need to have the exact same length or emphasis.  If every syllable in a spoken sentence is the exact same length and receives equal emphasis, it would sound stilted.  Outside of a few exceptions, we want to avoid having music sound like a machine with every note having equal length and emphasis, as slight irregularities in the notes give them a more human-like expression of emotion.

2) Organic quality

I define organic quality as uninhibited sublimity that is enjoyable to hear because of how aesthetically pleasing it sounds.  Lyricism contributes to organic quality, but lyricism alone is not sufficient to create musicality.  Accurately imitating the voice does not inherently create musicality because the voice sounds exactly like the voice, and not all who sing are musical or even follow principles of lyricism well.  Organic quality includes other factors that create musicality, which I will list below.

A) Feeling emotion in the body through mindfulness

A musician that deeply feels the music helps the audience feel more engaged with the performance.  In addition to how visual movements can contribute to what the music communicates, feeling emotions also affects how the body moves and breathes, which directly affects the sound produced.  For example, when the goal is creating a triumphant mood, feeling powerful broad motions in the body can help create that sound in the music.  However, feeling the emotion in the music will not be communicated in the sound if technique is negatively affected as a result, such as an intense mood being felt in the body through tensing the shoulders.  Mindfulness, the state of conscious awareness of the present moment, helps the body move in its optimal and most natural form while still feeling emotions.  If one has properly and sufficiently prepared, any arising technical issues are often caused by being too much in one’s mind, and maintaining mindfulness helps deeply focus on creating the desired sound while being in a state of flow.

B) Optimal body usage

While mindfully feeling emotions is a part of optimal body usage, it also includes allowing for high potential for technical execution.  When the body is used to its fullest potential, it is relaxed, fluid, strong, and efficient, which is influenced by well-balanced dynamic posture and the whole body being involved and unified.  It is the ideal balance between control and freedom.  In addition to allowing for quickness, precision, and power, optimal body usage also helps communicate music by eliminating tension.  Even if the body is mindfully feeling the character of the music, tension acts as a blockage of letting the emotion flow throughout the body, such as tension in the shoulder preventing emotion from flowing to the arms, hands, and fingers from the rest of the body.

C) Tone Quality

Good tone quality involves maximizing resonance, fullness of sound and having clear projection regardless of dynamic range.  It is created by relaxed whole-body strength and polished technique that contribute to organic quality by allowing the unrestricted potential of an instrument’s sound to be heard.  High tone quality notes can bring about an emotional reaction even without a specific feeling put into them simply because they can sound enchanting.

D) Intonation

While there is some subjectivity to what good intonation is (such as what frequency an instrument is tuned to and when one uses Pythagorean Intonation, Just Intonation, Equal Temperament or Expressive Intonation), possible goals of intonation include contributing towards tone quality, clearly distinguishable intervals, and creating a recognizable system of tonality.  Accurate and consistent intonation is also essential for creating phrases, as a collection of notes played in tune are connected by their shared sense of tonality.  For example, a common musical idea, a scale, sounds very familiar because of its recognizable progression of notes, intervals, and tonality.  Intonation is a large part of the coherence of a scale or any musical idea, as out of tune or wrong notes would significantly reduce the cohesiveness and line of the musical idea.  Good intonation is also pleasant to hear.

Lyricism and organic quality in action

It is important to hear how these concepts contribute to a musical performance.  Attached is a link of my playing in which I practiced and performed with the goal of consciously implementing lyricism and organic quality.  I recommend listening to the section from 2:39 to 3:09 because it has the most dramatic changes in dynamics, tempo, and character.  One should consider listening with as little thinking and analyzing as possible if it helps one feel more engaged with the music.

1) My movement was fueled by breath, and I brought in more air as I wanted phrases to grow louder.  This also created a sense of momentum that either increased or decreased depending on how I was breathing, which gave phrases direction, created variation in my bow speed, and created a sense that my resources are limited, which helped phrases lead to specific notes or end lyrically.

2) Emotive friction was changed alongside momentum to create a range of emotions in the sound.  I did this by increasing bow weight, lowering the contact point, increasing vibrato speed, and speeding up the tempo to increase emotive friction, and did the opposite to decrease it.  The fluctuations in tempo reflect how the voice would vary the length of words and syllables and the rate in which they are said or sung.  This created a sense of flow that would not have been possible if the tempo stayed exactly regular.

3) Feeling the emotions of the piece mindfully was crucial for informing my breathing, exhaling, and bow speed choices.  It was also essential for entering a state of flow and allowing for my body to move organically, which helped with technical execution. 

Other benefits of seeing musicality as lyricism and organic quality

Defining the foundation of musicality with specific words and analyzing what makes these concepts audible can make musicality more understandable and attainable.  Here are some benefits of thinking of musicality as the result of lyricism, organic quality, and their components:

1) The harmful mystification of classical music can be removed

Classical music is sometimes held to a high standard of being incomprehensibly sublime perfection.  There is an allure of thinking about music like this, especially for musicians and music teachers so they can feel more purpose and power in their pursuit of music.  Unfortunately, this perspective has negative consequences of discouraging deeper logical understanding of music and limiting the amount of positive feedback musicians can be given.  For example, I have been told on separate occasions that I have a talent for musicality that cannot be taught or explained.  I was not fond of these comments because not only were they not very meaningful (positive comments are more impactful when they are specific and clear), it felt like it diminished the value of my work and experimentation and perpetuates the belief that I what I did cannot be attained with practice.  This perspective is harmful to the development of musicality by promoting a fixed mindset to moving listeners through music rather than thinking of it as a skill that anyone can develop.  Having clear guidelines of what creates musicality challenges the almost divine worship of musicality by bringing it down to earth and making it more achievable, and I believe this does not make it any less enjoyable or impactful.

2) It gives clearer goals to work towards musicality, benefitting teaching, rehearsals, and individual practice:

A recurring situation I noticed while I was a student at music conservatories was hearing others lacking in several areas of musicality.  Some of the most common issues included very little variation in bow speed, vibrato, and emotive friction, plus there did not seem to be demonstrated understanding of having the breath fuel the body movements, momentum, and adding a singing quality to the sound.  However, what was more surprising is that these holes in their musicality were largely unaddressed by most of the teachers and masterclass guest artists.  While the students would receive well thought-out feedback, often in certain areas of technique, bringing awareness towards the ensemble, how to phrase certain sections, and inspiration to commit to the music more, most of the components of lyricism described herein were never mentioned or only vaguely suggested.  The students continued to remain weak in these areas of musicality because the core issues of not understanding lyricism and organic quality were never brought up.  I believe this happened not because the teachers lacked understanding of musicality, but because the descriptions of musicality were not specific enough to be understood simply.  Defining musicality as the components of lyricism and organic quality can help alleviate this issue in teaching, but also when communicating ideas to fellow ensemble musicians and giving oneself feedback on making pieces more musical.

3) It helps give interpretation more meaning

I define interpretation as being how one uses one’s body and tools to express one’s personal vision of what a piece communicates.  Lyricism and organic quality can be those tools that connect one’s musical vision with technique and what must be done in the body.  My interpretations are based primarily on how I use lyricism and organic quality in a piece, and I put less time and energy into creating a story through the music.  I approach interpretation this way because I believe that lyricism and organic quality make musicality heard while the story, as helpful as it may be, does not.  Compare this to the goal of wanting to be more vulnerable in close relationships.  One can think and speak of the values of being vulnerable and be motivated by this, but these words are empty until one starts and continues difficult yet necessary conversations and speaks words that leave them open to emotional pain or risk conflict.  The story in an interpretation is like thinking and speaking of the values of vulnerability, but lyricism and organic quality are like the actions that truly make someone a strong vulnerable person.  While a story can also be important to guide the use of lyricism and organic quality, I often recommend first adding a high amount of lyricism and organic quality to a piece before creating a story because for many of us, it is easier to come up with interpretations of musicality than it is to make them a reality.  We should engage most with what truly makes a piece musical and likely needs more practice, which is usually lyricism and organic quality.

Closing

Despite my reasoning, I cannot ignore the subjectivity of music.  I can neither prove that seeing musicality as lyricism and organic quality is the most effective way to create music nor objectively determine the best way to use these tools.  Regardless, this approach has been the most effective for me in reliably creating musicality and I believe that others can benefit from these ideas.  I think of this framework as being a philosophy in that it is my attempt to coming as close as I can to universal guidelines for musicality.  There must certainly be disagreement with my ideas, but I welcome it.  Regardless of whether on agrees, the goal is to gain a deeper understanding of how musicality is formed, and I hope to encourage contemplation.

Handling the Results of a Performance with Grace

Being gracious is a very respectable trait.  It allows one to accept wins, losses, compliments, or criticisms with a courteous understanding of others’ perspectives.   A gracious person is pleasant to interact with, mature, and strong.  I will share my thoughts on how being gracious is demonstrated in a performer.

Gracious performers have compassionate objectivity

No one is perfect, especially in activities that are deep and require great skill.  Gracious performers understand and accept this, so they don’t become self-critical.  Maybe they could have prepared something better, made a mistake in something they typically do well, lost focus for a moment, didn’t take care of themselves sufficiently, or could have been in a healthier mindset.  They accept they’re not perfect beings and don’t let imperfections become a disproportionately large portion of their view.  Beyond the mistakes, they can also see the parts that went well, the enjoyment they or their audience had, and how the experience helps them grow.  They forgive themselves for flaws, the large and small, and overall they care about themselves with a mindful perspective.  This can help bring a more balanced perspective and combat the mindset of performances being judged almost entirely by mistakes.

Gracious performers consider the perspectives and wellbeing of others

Gracious performers respect others’ thoughts and feelings by not contesting or resisting them.  They won’t react defensively when others mention what could have been better, but what’s equally impressive is how they accept compliments.  Often motivated by a desire to appear modest or not become complacent with their improvement, many performers will counter positive words by downplaying their abilities (“but I messed up here”, “I wasn’t happy with how I played”, “I played bad/worse than expected”.)  It’s not comfortable to congratulate someone only to have him or her discount what you’ve said by responding with negativity.  The one giving the feedback could have thoughts such as “if that was terrible, now I feel even worse about what I’m doing”, “I still enjoyed it, and now I feel worse for saying that I did” or “that performer is too uptight.”  In the opposite situation, acting in others’ interests may involve giving an opinion not shackled by a front of positivity if that’s what’s requested.  The goal is to have a sense of what they are feeling and reciprocate in a complementary way.

In competition, gracious performers do what’s possible to let their opponents rejoice in victory or accept losing.  After losing, gracious performers don’t detract from their opponent’s win by making excuses or implying the win wasn’t fully deserved.  After winning, they allow their opponent to be freely angry or sad, or actively attempt to make them feel better.  This involves acknowledging the emotions of the opponent and being respectful.  They may engage in gestures such as a fist bump or hand shake before and after a competition to recognize that the opponent is a competitor and human like them. If appropriate, this may be followed by genuinely saying some variation of “good game” to either congratulate opponents for winning or give them credit for being a worthy competitor if they lose.  Their actions remind us both winning and losing are acceptable.

Gracious performers accept responsibility for their performance

Gracious performers demonstrate maturity and potential for growth by accepting responsibility rather than deflecting it.  They are at peace with the variability of being human in an unpredictable world, but don’t let outside circumstances distract them from noticing what they could have done better.  They take on as much accountability for their results as possible and use it to make them stronger, more focused, and look beyond short-term relief.  While the amount of responsibility one should take is not always clearly defined, in almost every situation, accepting more responsibility influences greater mastery, greater tolerance of undesirable situations, and less blaming  of others.

Accepting responsibility means not implying that a better performance was deserved through excuses such as “I normally do better than this”, “I wasn’t able to execute X because I was nervous”, or “I did worse because I was tired and in a bad mood”.  These statements may have truth to them, but all of them deflect responsibility and distract one from developing skills that will improve their skills further.  Making mistakes in areas that most of the time go well in practice means that those areas could have been prepared more solidly with almost no exceptions.  Being tired or nervous doesn’t automatically cause mistakes to happen, so it is still within the performer’s control to execute well.  These conditions simply increase inconsistency, so it’s best to use them as an indicator as what could be practiced more often or deeply and not overvalue the result of a single performance.  Furthermore, when one gives these excuses one fails to recognize that performing under adverse conditions is a skill to develop.  Also, accepting responsibility demonstrates consideration of others.  Everyone occasionally performs in unfortunate circumstances, so making excuses can be self-absorbed and trivializes other people’s struggles, especially when performing for colleagues.

While learning to accept more responsibility, it’s not important to not repress explanations and emotions, or inflict harsh self-criticism.  Explanations for why  performances fell short of expectations are helpful as long as they don’t decrease healthy responsibility, but doing so in private or when someone asks for it is usually more courteous than explaining it to someone who isn’t expecting it.  Accepting responsibility doesn’t require repressing emotions, but sometimes partial disclosure may be more appropriate to match someone else’s emotional state (we rarely fully express every single emotion we feel anyway, as we’d over-centralize conversations on ourselves and possibly talk forever).  It’s a difficult balancing act of being authentic and reflecting someone else’s feelings.  If one doesn’t feel fully satisfied with a post-performance conversation, it’s best to later find solitude and/or the right person to fully express all emotions after the performance.  Lastly, accepting responsibility may lead one to feeling insufficient or like a failure.  What should be remembered is that imperfection doesn’t make one unworthy of respect and appreciation, and it’s okay that we can always do better.  Realizing that there is room for improvement may lead to motivation, excitement, sadness, or frustration, but none of this is wrong and is a natural part of pursuing something challenging and worthwhile.

Gracious performers have a healthy view of competition

Competition can be beneficial or harmful, but graceful performers understand how to use it to increase growth and connection.  They see it as a means to improve themselves, often in ways that they couldn’t do alone.  Whether one wins or loses, competitors with a productive mindset know it’s about pushing oneself and others to greater accomplishments, and that all competitors are equally worthy as individuals regardless of skill level.  This helps one not be a sore winner or loser, care too much about the results, and allow for meaningful interactions through shared experience and understanding.  It also foster an encouraging and supportive environment.  Gracious performers want their opponents to do their best because this means a more satisfying win and/or greater inspiration and knowledge gained if victory isn’t attained.

As healthy as one’s perspective may be, losing can be painful.  It’s an unfortunate reality that competitors will feel hurt, especially after a disappointing or depressing loss.  This is why internal and external respect and empathy are very appreciated in competition.

Closing

The qualities and actions of the gracious performer mentioned are nearly impossible to maintain all the time.  One reason why is that giving into our impulses, thoughts, and emotions is how our ego defends itself.  For example, letting our inner critic make criticisms about how we or someone else performed is the ego’s way of saying “I have a higher sense of quality than what just happened.  My vision matters and deserves to be noticed.”  Another temptation of letting our thoughts and emotions control our behavior is that it helps us avoid deeper pain or discomfort.  The anger, sadness, happiness or pride we feel after assessing our performance is our mind’s attempt to validate what transpired, but without consciousness of others’ wellbeing and our long term meaningful desires, they can distract us from growth, connection, and fulfillment.  Feeling these emotions in the body without mind distractions is how we carry ourselves with poise without repressing them.  If we succeed, we handle life’s challenges with grace.

How Discarding the Sense of Self can Help Us Grow

When we perform our best, there’s a sense of “losing ourselves” in which our focus is entirely on the music we’re making rather than our nervousness or what others think of us.  While this intense awareness is reached by entering a state of flow, discarding the sense of self is crucial to attaining the optimal state of music making.  The benefits of discarding the sense of self are nearly impossible to overstate because besides helping us perform well under pressure, it allows us to live a more joyful, fulfilling, and productive life.

Discarding the sense of self is not just a music related endeavor, but a fully life-encompassing one.  Two ways I pursue this challenging and lofty goal is through decreasing my attachment to labels and identities and removing barriers between myself and others.

Decreasing Attachment to Labels and Identities

Undoing our tendency to label and create identities for ourselves is very difficult.  Labels and identities validate our emotions and make us feel special, but they can also hold us back.  Here is an example of how labels and identities formed a harmful sense of self in my life:

As illogical as it sounds, I formed an identity on the premise that I was a bad musician.  My early musical development was not designed to create a professional cellist, and given how competitive and high level classical music performance can be, there were many students my age or younger that played at a much higher level than me.  I created a distinction between the superstars from “normal” people like me, and there were several reasons why I did this.  I could make excuses for why I couldn’t play as well as the superstars and justify my failures and shortcomings.  If I had successes, my identity as a bad player helped me celebrate just how hard I had to work and struggle to accomplish anything.  I also thought it would prevent me from becoming overconfident.

Ultimately, viewing myself as a bad musician was far more harmful than helpful.  As one might expect, my growth was stifled because I created a potential-limiting mindset.  “Bad” musicians such as myself would not learn efficiently and wouldn’t have the skill to execute difficult aspects of cello playing.  Also, self-compassion was much harder to attain and I was less pleasant to interact with.  If others complimented me, I would not believe their kind words to be true and at worst, I would act defensively since my identity was being attacked.  Losing composure when one’s identity is attacked is understandable, but it was unfair to everyone for me to protect an identity that I didn’t truly want, refuse to accept the good intentions of my listeners, and dampen the otherwise positive mood.

The opposite approach of having an identity as a good musician has plenty of problems as well (as I wrote in “ Problems of Trying to be Good”) and even being an “average musician” doesn’t solve everything (it can still lead to having an identity to attack and may not inspire one to reach one’s full potential).  It is clear that labeling oneself is not the most effective way to improve or connect with others, so it’s best not have identities at all.  Instead, we should be focused enough on the task we’re currently engaged in that we lose our sense of self.  That way, we can become human beings more complete than our labels and can surpass the accomplishments that our identities would allow us to.

Removing Barriers Between Myself and Others

Creating less of a barrier means working towards an ideal in which we make no distinction between ourself and another person. That means in the scenario in which there are two people, someone else and myself, I would see two individuals rather than someone else and me.  The benefits of this is that we avoid the erroneous assumptions we make when there are discrepancies between how we evaluate ourselves compared with others.

Potential errors in self evaluation

1) Being overly critical of ourself

Because we have the potential to know everything about ourselves and that our internal monologue is not censored, there is plenty of ammunition for our self-critical side to be absolutely brutal to us.  Because we almost always have the most exposure to our flaws and shortcomings, we are more likely to be harsher and less likely to forgive and apologize to ourselves than we are for another person, even if he or she were to share the same imperfections and mistakes we have.

It’s important to remember that we are individuals that deserve empathy and compassion, and the most reliable and powerful source for both comes from ourself.  Our inner critic, while usually trying to help us improve, avoid a mistake or show concern towards an area of weakness, can cause a loss of self-empathy and self-compassion.  When our self critic becomes out of control, we feel discouraged, afraid, hurt, and depressed, all of which are counterproductive to achieving self critics’s goals.

To avoid this, we should “speak” to ourselves as if we were a good friend that we wish to provide emotional support or advice.  One method to give ourselves compassion when our self-critic is already inflicted is to treat both our self-critic and the side of us that feels hurt by the criticism as individuals we provide emotional support.  The first step is to understand the emotions and concerns behind the self-critic’s words and acknowledge the importance of the problem being address (do this without judging the self-critic, because criticizing your self-critic isn’t solving the problem).  The second is to provide empathy and compassion to the emotionally injured side to alleviate its pain.  After both of these steps, have the self-critic apologize by saying that it went too far in its judgement and will make the effort to not speak so harshly in the future.  Next, have the emotionally side forgive the self-critic, accept the validity of the self-critic’s concerns, and make the effort to become more emotionally resilient in the future.  This will help us return to a more joyous and productive state when we become paralyzed by our self-criticism.

When we’re much harder on ourselves than we are to others, there is a disconnect because our self-view is so drastically different than our external view.  This unintentionally creates a “I am so different than everybody else” perspective that is a significant barrier to discarding the sense of self.  The more we dissolve the distinction between ourselves and others, we can have more emotional connection and improve our ability to reach a state of flow in any cooperative activity.

2) Mistaking our Potential for our Consistent Results

Much like how we can know the most about our flaws, we can know the most about our strengths.  The vast amount of knowledge we can have about ourself can give us the information to be both overly self-critical and overconfident.  Our minds can constantly feed us thoughts of how great our musical ideas could be, and in the practice room when no one else is around, we may sound close to our potential at times.  Because we are exposed to what could be perhaps more than anyone else, we might become excited enough by our potential that we lose sense of our most probable results in a performance situation, in which we’ll encounter difficulties such as adrenaline, potentially less warmup, a less familiar performance space, and having only one chance to play a passage.  Living too much in the fantasy of our best playing can lead to disappointment and distraction from what we actually sound like, so it’s beneficial to maintain a neutral perspective of our ability and consistency.  For example, when one gets very excited about one’s potential sound or technical prowess in the practice room, I recommend envisioning one’s emotions as an observable sensation that’s not the defining characteristic of one’s existence in the moment.  In this state, one can appreciate the feeling of excitement and use it for inspiration, but not become overcome by it and distract one from the present, the time in which one’s potential is reached in reality.  Plus, a present-focused state of flow is more enjoyable than a possibility of good performance in the future.

Potential Errors in Evaluating Others

On a universal and arguably moral level, we as individuals are equal to anyone else and  should treat everyone equally well as much as possible.  Realistically, this is impossible because another person comes from different life circumstances and we have much more information on our own thoughts, feelings, and experiences than we do on anyone else.  Regardless, eliminating faulty assumptions about others and viewing everyone similarly helps us discard the sense of self.

The mistakes we make in evaluating others are very similar to the ones we make for ourselves, but because of a lack of information rather than an abundance of it.  We unintentionally make huge leaps in logic when assessing a person because our brain attempts to evaluate others based on the information it has, despite only understanding a minuscule percentage of that person’s existence.  We are prone to make conclusions based on biased and extremely insufficient data, such as assessing someone based on a few interactions and performances.  This makes it easy to overestimate others’ imperfections and underestimate their strengths.  It is also possible to overestimate others’ positive qualities, leading us to dehumanize them, prevent us from empathizing with them, or let their accomplishments and character make us feel ashamed about ourself.  Not even those we know well are safe from our inaccurate evaluation.

What we can learn from this is the benefit of taking the positives of our internal and external views and applying them to the opposite perspective.  The advantage of how we view ourselves is the wealth of information we have and an increased ability to see why we felt or acted in a certain way.  Using our inward context as a guide, we can work towards having a similar amount of data on others and understanding their humanity.  For evaluating others, the advantage is having an external view, which is a useful template for observing ourself mindfully, not becoming overconfident, and forgiving ourself for our imperfections.

Closing

Pursuing the depths of any activity involves plenty of work outside that specific activity.  The dedication to discarding the sense of self won’t always automatically make one a better musician, but at the very least it will improve one’s interaction with others and allow for more inner peace, both of which will be helpful to being a better musician at some point.  In the long term, developing the ability to discard the sense of self will allow one to reach a higher potential than musical skill alone.

What I’ve Learned from Being a Competitive SSBM Player

My experience as a competitive Super Smash Brothers Melee (SSBM) player has been one of the most enriching parts of my life.  It’s been full of self-improvement, self-discovery, triumph, disappointment, challenges, learning, excitement and unforgettable interactions with other gamers.  I feel most my positive qualities resulted or were strengthened by being a competitive SSBM player.  My thought process and character are largely influenced by SSBM, and what I’ve gained from it has been very relevant in my pursuit of music as well.  Here are some invaluable lessons that competitive SSBM has taught me:

1) Purity of Motivation

While SSBM has gained significant popularity as an e-sport, it’s still known for its grassroots upbringing.  Despite the influence of competitive SSBM being far more widespread than it used to be and that pursuing it professionally is much more feasible than before, it is not a pursuit in which money and fame is abundant.  Compared to many other professions, the proportion of skill in the activity to money earned is miniscule.  Even if this changes in the future, competitive SSBM has still had a history of providing very little money and fame.

The lack of these external rewards has been a large part of what has made SSBM so rewarding.  Gamers become competitive SSBM players primarily because they love the game and community.  If they were seeking money or fame there are much better options.  This was especially true for me when I became a tournament player in 2009, since competitive SSBM was a very esoteric and small scale pursuit at this time.  Being a serious gamer in general involved immersing oneself in a very deep and time-consuming activity that most would be indifferent or even hostile towards.  There has been a stigma against hardcore gamers, with them being accused of being socially inept, being obsessive, and “having no life.”  Even if most people would not think less of me for being a serious gamer, I would often feel hesitant to share my interest in competitive SSBM because I would occasionally encounter others who would act disrespectfully towards me and tell me that I was wasting my time.  In 2009, I had a hobby that had very little potential towards developing a career and was not very appreciated, but since I was passionate enough about the game, I became a competitive SSBM player anyway.

From this experience, I learned passion towards an activity is powerful and life-changing.  With little to no positive feedback or reward, my motivation to pursue SSBM was fueled almost entirely by my fervor for the game.  My enthusiasm to strengthen my SSBM skills helped me learn the joy of learning and self-improvement, and allowed me to focus on intrinsic motivation uninhibited by less fulfilling extrinsic rewards.  This discovery has been relevant to every other aspect of my life and has given me optimism about my potential to develop and mature as a person.

2) The Concepts of Playing to Learn and Playing to Win

In a broader sense, playing to win can be seen as prioritizing a short term victory over learning more about the subject.  These two ideas can often conflict, as explained in the following simplified example:

Dan plays SSBM and is the best among his group of friends.  He primarily uses Tactic X to win consistently, but he becomes unsatisfied simply by winning and wants to advance his playing to the next level.  However, to improve he will have to implement Tactic Y into his gameplay, which is more difficult to execute than Tactic X.  He also has to polish his usage of Tactic Z, an important skill to work on that he is not as proficient in as he is in Tactic X.  So the next time he plays matches against his friends, Dan concentrates on using and practicing Tactics Y and Z, but since it’s impossible to be completely focused on everything, he uses Tactic X less even though it’s his strongest and most reliable aspect of his gameplay.  In his effort to develop his playing, Dan starts to lose more to players he could normally beat.  He might even get discouraged since he believes he is playing at a lower level than he used to be.  Despite this setback, he continues to focus on enhancing his ability in using Tactics Y and Z and becomes a more solid and skilled player than he would have if he simply stuck to relying on his tried and true Tactic X.  Becoming adept in Tactics X, Y, and Z, he eventually wins games against his friends even more convincingly than before and also beats players that used to defeat him regularly.

The above is an example of how playing to learn can lead to more improvement in the long term than playing to win.  Focusing primarily on playing to learn promotes a mindset of caring more about growth than about winning and not being too hard on ourselves when we lose.  However, playing to win can be a productive approach to improvement if used in moderation.  Putting all of our effort into doing our best at a single endeavor strengthens our ability to focus and execute in the moment and is very effective for revealing what skills we need to strengthen.  In fact, playing to learn to the greatest extent possible requires moments of playing to win, as the triumphs over one endeavor can open up opportunities in the future that will lead to the greater improvement than solely playing to learn can accomplish (e.g. creating the best singular performance possible to help lead to us getting a position we desire, which in turn stimulates further improvement).

I discovered these important concepts through my experience as a competitive SSBM player.  It provides an excellent opportunity to strive for the ideal balance of playing to win and playing to learn that maximizes improvement.  What I’ve gained from reflecting on the short term vs. the long term goals has been applied to every aspect of my life, as it has led to a great deal of self-improvement and helps me keep a positive perspective when undesirable results occur.

3) Eliminating Excuses

Since SSBM tournaments are competitions, good sportsmanship is strongly encouraged and requires crediting your opponents with outplaying you when they win.  Competing is a more pleasant experience when your opponents allow you or even encourage you to happy when you win.  If you win and your opponents starts making excuses about how they were playing badly, that they were not warmed up yet, or any other explanation that makes your win seem less rightfully earned, it can put a damper on any good feelings you might have after victory.  To promote healthy competition and gracious acceptance of losses, the phrase “no johns” (meaning “no excuses”) has become popular among SSBM tournament gamers.  The mindset of “no excuses” makes us realize that the victors are competitors just like us and that they would appreciate if they are allowed to enjoy their win without the loser making excuses that discredit or cheapen their triumph.  Being dedicated to making no excuses promotes empathy even within a highly competitive environment.

In addition to being harmful in our interaction with others, excuses are also harmful to ourselves.  Excuses can be a hinderance to growth and improvement, as they allow us to blame circumstances outside of ourselves instead of taking responsibility for our actions and accepting that we could have done better.  Not making excuses is especially important when we are performing considerably below our potential.  Variation in an individual’s performance is inevitable, but it is within the control of the individual to be solid and still well-polished even during their weaker performances.  Here is a common scenario that anyone that has to perform challenging tasks must face and how it is easy, yet detrimental to start making excuses:

Dan is able to execute Technique A 98% of the time when he practices it.  However, during a tense, high stakes, and very close tournament set, he makes a mistake doing Technique A, and this error ultimately contributes to victory narrowly escaping his grasp.  Here are two potential responses to the situation:

1)Making excuses: Dan could feel like he got unlucky, that his opponent got lucky, that he made that mistake randomly and for no reason, that if he had slept more or ate better he wouldn’t have made the same error, etc.

2) Holding oneself accountable: Realizing that there are potential reasons why that rare mistake happened.  It’s possible that he made the mistake because he let the high pressure of the situation cause him to lose focus and/or tense up.  Perhaps his practicing methods didn’t account for everything, because even though he could do Technique A 98% of the time, he could only do it 90% of the time when he does Technique B immediately beforehand.  Maybe since he needs to be aware of more activity in a tournament match when compared to practice sessions, his overall percentage of how often he can do Technique A is actually 80%

The explanations in #2 have much more potential for stimulating productive change than #1.  After such a loss, Dan might feel angry or sad, but if he verbally made excuses, it would likely increase his negative emotions and make his opponent frustrated and uncomfortable.  If he held himself accountable, it would help him cope with his anger or sadness more effectively because it would give him the belief that there are ways to make sure that error doesn’t happen again.  Perhaps after the thoughts in #2, Dan would be inspired to work on mental strategies to strengthen his focus in high pressure competitions or his form with his controller so he remains relaxed and precise.  He could practice solidifying the transition between Technique B to Technique A.  He could think about how to allocate his attention in a way that is more conducive to winning.  Or even if the excuse of not eating or sleeping enough is legitimate, Dan could change his habits so he can sleep or eat more, or he could find time to relax or eat while at the tournament.  In the case that his performance was negatively affected by not having enough sleep or food despite his full effort, he can use this as a learning opportunity to test how practiced each aspect of his gameplay is, seeing which skills remain solid or falter when he is in unideal playing conditions.  The less he makes excuses and admits he could have done better, the more Dan will handle his losses and mistakes productively and grow.

Seeing how much the competitive SSBM community encourages its member to avoid making excuses inspires me to become a respectable and admirable competitor.  It has instilled this ideal in me with enormous impact, and I will spend my entire life attempting to eliminate my excuses.  The goal of never making excuses is practically impossible to attain, but reaching towards it can help us progress in whatever we do and can make us happier.  As scary as it can be to take full responsibility for our faults and relatively weak performances, it is ultimately a relief to see that we are in control of how we function and don’t have to be vulnerable to outside hinderances.

Closing:

My experience with being a competitive SSBM player is an example of how having a deep passion or serious hobby can have lasting influence on one’s life.  I hope that everyone has at least one activity that sparks a joyful desire to learn and improve.  In the case that your passion is or becomes your career, I hope that you can frequently recall the most important reasons of what makes it so engaging to you.  To do this, I recommend having another enjoyable hobby that has little to no impact on your income as an intrinsic motivation measuring stick for passion in your career.  It can help you examine the motives for staying with your career, and if you feel you’ve lost your way, it can serve as a reminder or model for what you want your passion-career to be like.  Whether you believe in the effectiveness of my suggestion, I wish you to have activities that are powered by as much intrinsic motivation as possible and all of the great benefits that come with them.

Problems with Trying to be Good

Many musicians have a strong desire to be good at what they do, but what does “good” mean?  Being good is a nebulous concept, as what constitutes “good” changes constantly depending on context, shifts of perspective, and one’s mood.  Is it productive to place so much energy and emotional investment in pursuing something as vague as being good?  I believe not.

We have a limited amount of mental capacity to focus on and care for various aspects of our life, and I argue that directing focus and care towards trying to be good will not lead to the maximum enjoyment and improvement in music.  To present my reasoning, I will define what I believe good to mean in two categories, external and internal.

External Good

  1. Comparative: Being seen as one of the better players when compared to others in a certain category, such as being good for one’s age, being one of the stronger players in a school or ensemble, being more skilled than a perceived average level of ability, etc.
  2. Level-Determined: A standard that is used to judge how good a musician is; it is formed by hearing the playing/singing/composing of other musicians and judging how impressive their accomplishments are based on which music programs have accepted them, what jobs they have won, where they’ve placed in competitions, what repertoire they’ve played, etc.

Both of these versions of external good are harmful and unproductive to have as a goal, as they can lead to one being extrinsically motivated in an unhealthy way.

  1. Pursuing comparative external good leads to one having a toxic mindset that may negatively affect everyone.  Since in this situation, seeing oneself as good is in relation to others, one will think less of oneself simply because others are playing well or having success.  It will likely make one unhappy about one’s musical ability and place one’s sense of contentment outside of one’s control.  At worst, it encourages one to find ways to think less of others to feel better about oneself or see oneself as superior to others.
  2. Pursing level-determined external good makes one overly results-oriented at the cost of enjoying the process of learning and improving.  As one gains a deeper understanding of music and learns more about skilled and accomplished musicians, one trying to reach level-determined external good will increase one’s standards of what makes a musician good.  As one changes one’s standard of what good is, there will be inevitable disappointment as one realizes that one is not as good as one initially thought.  This will trap one in an endless cycle of failure and discouragement, as the sense that one is good will constantly be shattered as one’s standards increase.  If one always feels one has attained level-determined external good, then overconfidence and a slower rate of improvement will result.

Internal Good

  1. Comparative: Judging one’s current ability in relation to one’s musical work in the past and to one’s perceived potential
  2. Level-Determined: A subjectively conceived level of musical ability that once reached, will allow one to feel that one is good; this applies only to the individual that created it

While striving towards internal good is usually more process oriented and more beneficial than external good, I still believe internal good is not the goal most conducive for enjoyment and improvement.  Both versions of internal good can lead one to being more results oriented than is productive.

  1. Comparative internal good distracts one from the process of learning and has one place more focus on judging one’s musicality rather than improving it.  For example, if one were to feel disappointed since one practiced a piece for hours and still felt very far from one’s potential, one would be missing a crucial part of what it takes to improve.  Polishing a piece takes more than simply devoting hours to it, as finding the most ideal perspective and way to practice the music takes a great deal of trial and error.  Discovering what the less effective approaches are is essential to guiding oneself towards becoming a more developed, knowledgable, and skilled musician.  Another result of paying too much attention to comparative internal good is discouragement caused by the “I’m playing badly right now” syndrome.  One plays worse than usual from a variety of reasons such as fatigue, lack of motivation or focus, pain, or most commonly, not enough understanding or conditioning to execute something at a high level consistently.  One pursuing internal comparative good is prone to think “I am playing badly right now.  This is because I am actually not as good as I thought I am” or “I should be playing better than I am right now” instead of more beneficial thoughts such as “perhaps I should do something else right now and return to practicing when I’m more productive” or “I am not playing as well as expected right now because I am overlooking something.  Now I will work towards discovering what I am missing.”  The former examples involving judging oneself negatively (and often unfairly) while in the latter examples one does not berate oneself unnecessarily and creates a more constructive mindset.
  2. For one who is improving, level-determined good is practically impossible to maintain and trying to do so will frequently cause one to feel one is a bad musician.  Musicians dedicated to improving will continuously increase their standards as they become more skilled, and their opinion on what level-determined internal good means will also  become more challenging to attain.  This creates a a situation which one labels oneself as bad (or at least not good) for not meeting a certain level of musicianship.  Even if that level of musicianship is reached, one will later elevate one’s sense of level-determined internal good to new heights, causing one to feel bad about one’s playing once again, motivating them to improve further.  While this process of improvement works for several musicians, the effectiveness of calling oneself “not good” is questionable.  It seems strange for one to want to characterize oneself negatively in order to enjoy and improve in music when having a more positive mindset would have better results.  The other issue with level-determined internal good is that it discourages one from learning through experimentation.  If one cares too much about being good, one will be afraid to risk temporarily lowering one’s level of musicianship even if it leads to overall superior skill in the future.  The focus becomes more about feeling good about oneself in the short term than it does about playing to learn, and the latter will result in greater improvement, satisfaction and enrichment than the former.

If We Don’t Strive to Be Good, Then What Do We Work Towards?

While there are plenty of problems with trying to be good, I am not suggesting that we should not have high standards, make great strides in improvement, and pursue challenging and worthwhile ambitions.  These goals are not the same thing as being good and having them does not require being good or feeling like we are.  Here is what I believe is an area of focus that will have more effective results than working towards being good:

Develop a clear idea of what your musical vision is, and simply aim to get closer to it.  When practicing, assess what you’re doing in terms of how it is getting you closer to or further from your musical ideal (note: assess what you’re doing rather than assessing yourself).  Constantly discover ways to make your artistic vision clearer, more developed, and more nuanced.

The purpose of this mindset is to promote the psychological state of flow as much as possible.  When in flow, we’re fully engaged, energized, and focused towards achieving a particular performance or goal, and it allows us to channel our emotions in a productive and deeply satisfying way.  To attain flow, it is essential that we’re passionate towards achieving our goal and that we discard our sense of self, and thinking about being good is counterproductive to having flow and performing at our maximum potential for these reasons:

  1. The more interested you are in performing and/or composing music, the more you will find actualizing your musical ideas profoundly gratifying, and the more invested you are in getting closer to your musical idea, the more you will are be able access flow.  Musicians who truly like music will care more about creating an emotionally engaging experience than they will about being called good.  Trying to be good will take your limited amount of attention away from the most powerful and inspiring motivation to pursuing music and direct towards something much less substantial.  In addition, using “sound good” as your objective is not specific enough to help you very much in making your musical vision a reality.
  2. Discarding our sense of self is crucial to reaching flow, as the more we are aware of ourselves when we’re practicing or performing music, the more mental distractions we face and the less engaged we are.  The word “good” is inherently comparative, and as soon as we start using the words “good” or “bad” to describe our music, we will start measuring our current ability in relation to others and to our potential.  This is detrimental to being in flow.

The most useful musical vision is very specific about the ideal artistic sound that we wish to create.  After clearly determining what we’re trying to evoke from the music, it’s necessary to be as detailed and explicit as possible in what needs to be done to make the musical goal a reality.  For string players, this would mean knowing what intonation to use, how the rhythm should be felt, where the phrases are and how they should be felt, what contact point should be used, what type of vibrato to employ, and many other factors.  In the perfect scenario, we can answer any questions about our musical vision and how we should achieve it for the entirety of a piece, but having an ideal to work towards will not automatically solve every problem.  We will constantly discover that our musical vision is not as specific or clear as we’d like, that we don’t know enough about how to execute our ideas, or that our approach to a piece has problems we didn’t foresee.  Making our musical vision more developed and comprehensive is one of the most enjoyable and productive uses of our time and focus.

Conclusion:

Musicians have gotten some benefits out of trying to be good, but it may not be the best way to improve and does not lead to deep or lasting enjoyment.  I think it’s best to abandon the concept of good as much as possible, as it is vague, impossible to maintain, and leads to conflict with oneself and others.  Compared to the “try to be good” approach, working towards a clear musical vision and being passionate about striving for an artistic ideal makes music much more satisfying.  Completely attaining our musical vision may also be practically impossible, but it is for the best that we can always learn and improve.

Author’s Note: This was written after my post “Shame and Isolation: What I Experienced When I Didn’t Discuss Rejection”, which gives a personal description how of caring about being good can have destructive effects.  After months of feeling like I was a terrible musician, I realized that I needed a significant change in mindset, resulting in the creation of this post here.

Shame and Isolation: What I Experienced When I Didn’t Discuss Rejection

In the classical music world, we are constantly reminded of success stories. We hear about musicians in their teens that are far more skilled than most of us were at that age, and listen to the playing of the most accomplished performers and ensembles in the world. We experience our peers getting accepted into excellent music schools or winning competitions or jobs. We feel the need to show off our accomplishments on our résumés and musician biographies. All of this is very understandable however. It’s inspiring to see skilled musicians at an early age or hear the top level musicians interpret pieces beautifully. It’s nice to see people we know be happy from their successes. It’s required to tell our potential teachers or employers about our accomplishments. This is influenced by social norms of how we display ourselves, which often have us be cautious of saying anything that might lower the mood of others significantly. Because of these norms, we will usually not talk about the times when we fall short of our goals and expectations, and as a result, we rarely discuss a difficult, yet common experience, rejection.

I believe the classical music culture should spend more time confronting rejection, but the first step towards this goal is for individuals to share their experiences. For this reason, here are some of my experiences with rejection:

I’ve been frequently rejected so the percentage of my acceptances is very low, and since music is a personal activity that requires a lot of hard work, these rejections have been very painful. Hearing what others said about auditions made me feel even worse about it. Besides hearing comments such as “the prescreening stage is easy” and “[Music Festival X] and [Music Festival Y] are not that competitive” (I have yet to pass a prescreening stage of audition and I have been rejected to these “not that competitive” music festivals), the most troubling part of these rejections is how isolated I feel as a result of them.

If I were to assume what I have heard from each individual was the totality of their audition experience, people are getting accepted around 99% of the time, whereas I am accepted much less frequently. Obviously, what I am hearing is a microscopic portion of these musicians‘ musical lives that does not reveal their struggles or entire musical background. Unfortunately, this assumption (despite being completely illogical) is what life looks like from my perspective. I feel isolated and lonely because it looks like these great music schools and festivals accepted 99% of people, but not me because I’m unworthy and not wanted despite everything I put into improving my cello playing.

I’ve found it very hard to be open about my experience with rejection. In the vast majority of times speaking with others, describing my rejections in detail is very out of place with the flow of the conversation, so my emotions from the struggle have been frequently repressed. As a result, the shame I felt became much more apparent. Thoughts such as “I’m an awful cellist”, “I’m an incompetent person” and “I’m stupid for thinking that I had any chance of being accepted” entered my mind repeatedly. It didn’t matter that I applied to very competitive music programs that inevitably have to turn away many respectable applicants. In my shame I saw myself as unlikeable and unworthy of respect and appreciation.

As of this writing, I feel much better and my shame has been greatly reduced. I know that I am not completely free from the shame of rejection and believing that I am not good enough, but finding purpose in my rejections has put me in a positive mental state. For me, being someone who is happy pursuing a career in music despite being rejected many times is far more important than being a good musician who is admired for his accomplishments. I work towards this because we don’t need to hear more stories that focus on the “superhuman” aspects of musical achievement at the cost of “normal” musical experiences. What’s more important is the experiences and life lessons musicians have regardless of their apparent accomplishments.

Being open about my rejections has helped me confront my shame and isolation. It is my hope that rejection becomes an easier and more common topic to share, and by revealing my shortcomings and vulnerabilities, I have discovered that experiencing rejection is so acceptable that I can feel comfortable being completely upfront with all of the times I was rejected.

Here is a table that lists the music schools, festivals, and orchestras that I have been rejected to. I will keep it updated:

Places I’ve been rejected from # of times rejected
Oberlin Conservatory 1

 

Indiana University Bloomington 1
Manhattan School of Music (prescreening state) 1
USC Thornton School (prescreening state) 1
New England Conservatory (prescreening stage)

 

2

 

Stony Brook University 2

 

Rice University Shepherd School (prescreening stage) 1

 

Music Academy of the West 3

 

Mendocino Music Festival 3
Round Top Music Festival 2

 

National Repertory Orchestra 3
Kent Blossom Music Festival 2
YMF Debut Orchestra 2
American Youth Symphony 1
Chicago Civic Orchestra 1
New World Symphony (prescreening stage) 1
Bard College The Orchestra Now 1
Calgary Philharmonic (first round) 1

 

New West Symphony (first round) 1
San Diego Symphony (first round) 1
Total 31

 

Author’s Note: From my experiences with rejection, I learned that my outlook towards improving in music was unhealthy in some ways, so I spent a good amount of time reflecting on how to have a more positive and constructive mindset. This introspection formed several important realizations that helped inspire the creation of my post “Problems with Trying to be Good”.