I was talking with my teacher about the recent apparition of Inner Critic, and thanking her for sending him back to his lair by transforming what I could play of The Cherry Tree Carol into music. In the course of our conversation she shared some advice for dealing with self-criticism that was given to her by her teacher: “Have the courage to give yourself honest feedback.”
She is so right. Honest feedback is a perfect charm against Inner Critic, who has only grandiose and hurtful adjectives to fling at me. “You’re terrible,” he shouts, after I once again fail to traverse measure four of The Cherry Tree Carol. But if I ask him to tell me in exactly what way I’m terrible, he can’t answer. If I ask him the specifics of what I did wrong, he sputters and snorts, is speechless. Was it my phrasing, or dynamics, or playing the incorrect notes? Was it problems with the rhythm or tempo, my fingering or hand position, a lapse of attention? He doesn’t know.
When I have the courage to step back from IC’s name-calling and from my feelings that arise in response, and honestly look at what happened in measure four, his power to immobilize me evaporates. The act of analyzing what I did and didn’t do in the measure ends my immobility and leaves no room for him in my thoughts. Once I figure out that I didn’t land on the C string for the second note, and that I held the first 8th note too long, I can begin to experiment with how to fix that measure. I know I need to nab the C string with my thumb, so perhaps I can practice grabbing that particular interval, so my thumb learns exactly where to go to find C. I know I’ve got to get off the initial 8th note faster, so perhaps I can use the metronome while I clap, count, and sing measure four, until I feel the note values and the rhythm in my body. Instead of trying to play the whole measure, perhaps I’ll work on only those first two notes, and drill just that half of the measure until I can play it easily.
It takes courage to give myself feedback about my performance, whether it be an entire piece played for others or a few measures played alone in my practice room. It’s hard to look at what I didn’t play as well as I thought I would, to look at what exactly fell short of my expectations, and then to analyze it bit by bit to figure out what I must do to make it better. It takes courage to experiment with strategies to correct my mistakes, for I know from experience that I’ll make even more mistakes as I weed out strategies that won’t be helpful as I search for the ones that will be. And it takes courage to admit that the responsibility for improving my playing is all mine, and to act accordingly.
It also takes courage to notice and name what I did well, and to acknowledge each accomplishment, however small it may seem in the face of IC’s large and sweeping accusations of musical incompetence. But for any sound to have come from my harp, something I did had to have worked. That initial fourth-measure 8th note was too long, but it was the correct pitch, I started it at the right time, I closed my fingers completely and created a beautiful sound. And there was nothing wrong with the first three measures I played.
Inner Critic does not want me to know these things. He does not want facts interfering with his pronouncements. The last thing he wants is for me to take action and figure out the problem, and then shoulder my responsibility for making my playing better, while I name and claim the playing I do well. He wants me to collapse in fear, to take the easy way out, to free-fall into his trap, and let the music in my heart die unplayed and unheard.
One of my first SoulCollage cards is named Courage. The woman in the card is worried, even afraid, but she faces her fears both big and small with resolve. She has courage. She is not afraid of being afraid. She epitomizes this quote from Mark Twain: “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.”
Her gifts to me include a strong heart, a quick wit, and stubbornness of purpose. She tells me that I have the courage to move forward with life and music, despite anything that Inner Critic might say to try to stop me. She reminds me that I have all the courage I need to give myself honest feedback, and stop Inner Critic in his tracks.