Addled Perceptions

I don’t know how true this might be for other performers, but I know that I often feel a kind of loathing for my own performances. I remember every mistake, every slip, every moment when the magic wasn’t there and the sound was thin. It is sadly natural for me to leave a performance remembering mostly what I think went wrong.

Because I do this to myself (it’s ridiculous, I know, but I do it anyway), I often find myself very uncomfortable with praise from the audience. I mean, I’d be pissed off if all I got from them were the same nitpicky criticisms I level at myself, but there’s this little part of me that simply cannot believe that they didn’t hear every error and cringe, and that vicious little part of me feels stupidly patronized sometimes by their praise.

Did I mention that this is kind of a stupid way to think? It is. I know it is. I wrestle with it. I know that some self-criticism is not only worthwhile but necessary. I do not want to be lazy or complacent. I want to play well, and doing that requires the ability to recognize errors and to correct them.

Here’s the thing, though: The sound that violin makes up under your chin is not really the sound your audience hears. While I’m constantly comparing my output to whatever ideal version of the tune I hear in my head, the people listening are in a different space entirely. They are affected by the sounds according to their own ears and their own minds and their own preferences and histories. I sometimes love flawed voices and broken, slightly off sounds — as an audience member, that is. As a player, I struggle against all of these things, even when I know that the resulting breakage and weirdness might sound incredible. It’s quite impossible to be sure of one’s reception, and equally foolish to judge the audience for liking you. You just don’t know where they are.

All of which is a really wordy sort of mea culpa in response to a phone message. One of the family members who heard me play at that funeral Saturday called to tell me how happy she was with the music, how beautiful she found it, and how right it was relative to her desires and expectations (the tune and performance had been her special request). It was really the sweetest phone message I’ve had in a long while, made all the sweeter (and a little bittersweet, too) by the fact that I left that performance remembering only my imperfections and feeling a bit sorry that I hadn’t given the family something better, something more magical.

Sacred Geometry (2)

I’m really glad she liked it. Her liking it kind of makes me like it, too. It means I did my job right, and the magic was there, even if I might not always have felt it.


About L. M. Bernhardt

For a good long while (15 years or so), I taught philosophy at a little private university in northwest IA, and occasionally branched out into playing music, dabbling in photography, experimenting with food, and writing nonsense on my blog. The philosophy teaching part ended in 2017 (program elimination via prioritization), but never fear! I've just finished my MLIS at San Jose State University, and I'm currently on the market looking for new adventures in either philosophy or LIS. For now, I labor at a fairly interesting administrative job in order to support my dogs in the lavish manner to which they've become accustomed.
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