Conquering external gratification and other musings…

By Nathan Michael Wright

One of the most challenging aspects of being a young musician is our inherent need for external gratification. But it isn’t our fault; our very discipline is built around a construct that forces the musician to chase external gratification. Will the audience like what you’ve played? Will your teacher rip you to shreds in your masterclass? Will you win that scholarship or award?

This somewhat toxic need for external gratification is reinforced by an ever-changing set of goals and benchmarks the musician has to try and achieve. I think it is worth remembering that there is no such thing as a true path to ‘perfection’ (because absolute perfection cannot possibly exist), and that you can find your own path to success. Since music is so subjective, every teacher you speak to will offer you different and often conflicting advice; a mentor who absolutely loved what you did last week will be challenged by a mentor the following week who absolutely despised that same approach. There is no specific benchmark, no concrete determinate of success and no definitive way to become an accomplished musician.

Within this musical proving ground, a musician’s mental health is what suffers most. Life for young musicians is a seemingly endless cycle of transition from the highest highs when you are receiving positive feedback, to the lowest of lows when you are completely picked apart the very next day. So, how can young musicians steel themselves against this most turbulent of performance cultures?

Nathan pictured during rehearsals for Victorian Opera’s 2018 production of Rossini’s William Tell.

I have recently begun the slow process of rewiring my brain to filter out and ignore negative feedback. Don’t get me wrong, technical feedback from mentors is important and is reflected upon and considered, but positive self-talk and the way in which I deliver that feedback to myself is far more important. Phrasing and how I speak to myself adds up over time. If a teacher tells me my phrasing is bad, my instinctual internal dialogue would be something along the lines of “You knew that and you should have done better. That wasn’t good enough.” I wouldn’t speak to someone else like that so why would I speak to myself in the same way? A better approach is to focus on the positives, what I have achieved in the process and the fact that the way to improving has been made clear. Something along the lines of “You performed optimally today and did the best you can. We have some opportunities that we can work on to be even better next time, but you should be very proud of what you achieved today.” One of these approaches is constructive.

Our internal dialogue and how we talk to ourselves is vital for long term success as a young musician. Your internal dialogue builds up over time, and making a conscious effort to be your own biggest supporter will do wonders for your mental health and your performance experience as a whole. There is some inherent truth in ‘what others think about me is none of my business’. Keep your eye on the prize and back yourself. If you’re a classical musician you can do something that a very small percentage of humanity can do, and you are already exceptional.

Nathan participating in radio station 3MBS’s performance program highlighting young musicians, The Talent.

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