When I began playing music it was solely for myself. I had few moments of self doubt or criticism, and I had little awareness for how something I played objectively sounded. It was in these moments when I had the purest passion and the wildest fantasies about sitting onstage and performing to my heart’s content for an appreciative audience.
As I got older and listened back to my own music in recordings, and received feedback from others, my performances moved out of my head and into reality. After many arduous years I was able to hear my improvement, but the focus on quality and not process fed the self doubt in my head.
Now, the creature (self doubt) seems to scream loudly and often when I am merely trying to play for fun. It is as if my brain can no longer separate a time for purely playing with no judgement, and a time for performing an objectively good performance. Another way to think about it is my brain won’t let me play for my own joy, and only wants me to play for others/the universe in the sense of playing well.
So what’s the solution? In treatment for many anxiety disorders, the notion of Exposure and Response Prevention Therapy is a cornerstone of overcoming fears and obsessions. Despite the fancy name, it boils down to simply facing a fear, or in the case of a fear of imperfection, to intentionally be imperfect.
So what does that mean here? It means that when that voice begins to scream at me about the quality of my performance even when I am only trying to play for fun, I intentionally perform poorly in exactly the opposite way it is telling me not to. So if the voice is reminding me to emphasize the bassline, I will intentionally play a poor bassline. If the voice is reminding me about how silly I currently look playing the piano, I intentionally look sillier.
Over time, this has allowed me to prove to my own mind that it is not a life or death situation in which one error will ruin my playing forever. In fact, if I feel the compulsion to be perfect every time I play the piano, I’ll stop playing altogether, which would absolutely stop my progress. And notice again I have returned again to the notion of progress in quality, but not the process of fun.
(A song like Fur Elise might seem to imply perfect attempts in performance, but a song like Man in Me seems almost to invite a performance emphasizing fun instead of perfection. The idea of a band leader yelling at the group to perform Man in Me absolutely perfectly just feels laughable, doesn’t it?)
Does That Imply Only Focusing on Fun?
When I started off playing music, it was because it was fun and I didn’t judge the outcomes. Focusing only on fun and not the objective result, however, didn’t get me to where I wanted to be. Suddenly, listening back to recordings of my voice made me realize that when the fun of the moment of performance is gone, I am left with only the sound to judge, leaving the only true quality of the song remaining. So for a half a decade I began to obsess instead with only the objective sound, and I quickly found I had lost the fun of music.
Now, when I performed at open mics in front of people, the applauses were louder, but I felt little joy in playing. I found that the quality of my performances improved greatly, as I now judged every moment of my performance as I played, but I was unable to turn off the thinking/judging mind. As a result, even when performing alone, I was unable to feel the words and the music that I used to. I also found I played music a lot less, because I had sucked the fun out of it by focusing only on the goals instead of the process.
But it’s worth noting the Beatles played their so-called 10,000 hours; Beethoven said playing without passion is unforgivable. Fun is what keeps us going in the long term, musically. To be able to recapture the feeling of doing something because we feel like it musically, and yet be able to retain the technical expertise from times of practice, might just be the combination that all these great artists have.
Don’t Forget to Play!
A Time to Play (for yourself) and a Time to Perform (for others)