I have spent much of my life being critiqued. As musicians, we never stop being on the receiving end of strong opinions from our instructors, conductors, snarky colleagues and music critics. Mostly, we vacillate between periods of balance and analysis (“Aha, I should work on the speed of my vibrato and sight reading”) and destroying ourselves with crushing narratives (“It doesn’t matter how much I do this, I will never be where I want to be nor do I deserve to be there”). Depending on my fragility, I can get over critique of my cello playing and/or teaching pretty easily. It’s the thing about which I am the most confident, so that makes sense. It still hurts, but causes no crisis in the way I see myself.

Last week, driving home from what I thought had been a successful student hockey scrimmage, P informs me that I looked “timid” and pointed out some flaws in my technique. While I will go to my grave contesting the allegation of timidity, I completely agree that I was being all weird with my arms, which was of little help to my puck handling and shooting. Still, it was the first time I hadn’t felt like a liability to my team, and I was cautiously optimistic that I had made some progress.

His words really put a dent me, as does the constant chatter coming from the other learners in the class. Can you imagine being in orchestra and having someone who can barely eek out a note suggest you push your bow further towards the bridge? It reminded me of the biblical epigram “…and why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” It’s not that I think I have any skill or knowledge whatsoever the others are overlooking. I just feel misunderstood in the context, and unwelcome as a learner. I am there to work, and to improve. And if I have a question, I will ask it. I will listen to what my instructors say and focus like crazy on those things. Why would I not have a million things to work on? Do they really need pointing out? At that moment? Don’t you have something you could be working on in your own technique? While you may be right, is it useful?

I get lots of emails from dispirited adult learners whose families tear them to shreds with unkind words about how they sound, or how silly their efforts are, or that they are selfish for taking up a hobby. I don’t usually advise them to blame their spouses, although I do ask them to consider what sensitivities may be at work in the situation. When I told P that I wasn’t after critique, he seemed to feel bad for a few days. Then when we talked about it again, he was frustrated that I wouldn’t let him “help” me. I was frustrated that fixing me came before caring about my feelings. I’m a person first, and a hockey enthusiast second. Do you want to win the argument or save the day, you know?

Then I got to thinking about why it summoned such dark feelings, and I turned once again to my musical training. I think teachers may have made me cry 3 or 4 times over the course of 15  years of lessons, master classes, competitions and such. Mostly, they were more like tour guides, excited to propel me onto the next thing and disappointed when I failed to apply myself to the extent they knew I was capable of. But once I got home, I was picked to pieces by the people around me who I looked to for support. After my first performance (on violin), I was informed that I “looked stupid”. Through high school and college, I would leave the stage and be greeted by “You can’t tell if the notes are right or wrong with that modern stuff” or “Maybe you should look at your standpartner’s bow technique if you want to improve.” They questioned the validity of my injuries and my resolve to get better. And from there, I learned how to eviscerate myself. It was like I was trying not to ever be surprised by the awful things people would say by believing them myself.

This blog constantly talks about embracing imperfections. In my teaching, I am struck by the beauty and vulnerability of the learning process. To learn, you have to admit ignorance- and that’s not always easy. This blog is also a bunch of advice to myself I really should try to follow. And this, dear friend, is a piece of advice I have not yet gotten around to following. I am not okay with my own imperfections. Instead, I find a way to spiral into this horrible mire that looks like this on a flow chart.

TRYING DIFFICULT THING >
FAILING AT DIFFICULT THING>
RESEARCH ON GETTING BETTER AT THING >
LESSONS AND/OR READING ABOUT THING >
TRYING THING AGAIN, MAYBE BETTER >
CRITICISM ABOUT THING >
YES I KNOW I AM TERRIBLE >
I ARE TERRIBLE PERSON AT EVERYTHING >
THIS IS WHY EMMY WILL DIE ALONE >
I NEED TO PRACTICE SCALES >
WITH WINE >
OR MAYBE SCOTCH >
OK THAT’S BETTER >
BUT EVERYONE HATES ME >
THE END.

I’m totally ok with everyone else’s frailties. Like, I can even look at the people who criticize me and recognize that they’re either fired up, or trying to be helpful, or even if they’re being jerks, sometimes you just act like a jerk, but it doesn’t define you. But I can’t get past any of my own stuff, primarily my reaction to the critique. Instead, I sharpen the words they offer and use them to make assumptions about my interaction with the world and the usefulness of my role in it. Then the lack of support makes sense. I can only luxuriate in these ridiculous ruminations for so long. I hate it even more for the self indulgence and lack of real introspection they represent. Still, I don’t see a way forward right now. So I’m just going to sit with it and see what happens. Very, very imperfectly.

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7 thoughts on “my mind, the penalty box”

  1. Emily, I can totally sympathize with how you feel when you judge yourself being frail, imperfect. Just thought I share a book title with you that has been useful to me, although I am still hurting from not being perfect, weak, frail and what have you.
    The book is by Brené Brown, and the title is “The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are”. Perhaps…

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  2. What I read from this: Emily is getting better and suddenly P feels threatened unless he can cut Emily down and then claim credit for the improvement.

    Some people are like that. P’s reaction isn’t about Emily, it’s all about P. Imperfections may come and go, but the P’s in this world will always be with us. P on them is what I say.

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  3. Terry: while that is a valid argument, I don’t know that P (who has been the single most supportive person in my life during some radical and unglamorous moments) is looking to minimize my progress by cutting me down. I think it’s possible for there to be an impasse here, where two good people still manage to get it wrong. I’m not worried about what it means for us. I’m worried about my ability to bounce back when people rightly or wrongly serve up words that cut me. There is a serious attachment/ego issue here, steeped in deep hurt that has been fermenting for a very long time. I think I’m feeling all of it more acutely because life has been a little more pointy than normal of late. This is definitely a trough in terms of luck and feeling relevant in the professional and artistic sense. Without the distraction of prosperity and other vainglorious pursuits, I’ve been distilled down to two things: the raw desire to recapture a life of my own choosing, and this pile of pain and issues that is likely (along with a tough economy) responsible for much of my despair. This will be a blessing to me. Let’s hope it’s sooner than later.

    Love to you and yours in the OC! What are you playing these days?

    Reply
    • Emily, as an aside, I’ve been seeing a counselor recently regarding some issues that are in some ways related to what you are talking about. I was under high stress for a few months (not cello or work or marriage-related), but which resolved favorably for me last week, maybe attributable to the counseling which helped me put it in perspective. Anyway, one of the strategies she related about facing a lot of criticism and discouragement is to take oneself out of oneself for a moment, and suppose you are watching a movie, and that you are the main character in that movie. The main character faces lots of troubles. Sometimes, even, despair. The main character makes some mistakes but keeps on trying to do his/her best. The main character wins some, and loses some. The main character is sometimes falsely accused. The main character sometimes fails. But the main character keeps on doing what he/she can to make things right, for himself and other people.

      Wouldn’t you feel supportive of that main character? Wouldn’t you cheer for that character, and even love that character, just like one in a movie? So why be harder on oneself than one would be for the star in that movie?

      Back to cello — I’m still playing, but also working on tenor banjo, and a little on guitar. This last summer I did more banjo practice than cello, but now I’m back to mostly cello. I’m in two bands, both featuring hammer dulcimer, and between the two bands, have at least six gigs lined up for Christmas season. It’s a very different sort of thing than most hobby cellists, I guess, but I found a local niche for myself.

      Besides my own movie, like the rest of us here, we like watching your movie, too!!!

      Reply
  4. Wow I love your blog – so honest, so up front! Bravo! Completely engaging, vulnerable, and brave.
    Anyway – forgive P – fixing things is what guys do. It is our way of offering support and friendship. Of course it has to be sideways because guys aren’t allowed to admit they need emotional support. Sad, huh? And of course completely frustrating to women – sorry. We can learn to give emotional support directly, instead of sideways, but even after practice and many years of marriage it still feels weird to us.
    Giving P compassion will help with giving yourself more and more and more compassion. Do you have anything but compassion and love for the little girl you used to be? So maybe picture yourself thirty years older giving the current you all the love and compassion you deserve.
    And in the meantime I send you mine. It is, after all, what we owe each other, and ourselves.

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  5. Oh, and give yourself some points for enjoying things that are difficult. I know four other hockey playing cellist, (including me), and I finally figured out that liking things that are difficult is the commonality. My own opinion is that if you have learned to play the cello well, there is absolutely nothing you can’t accomplish.

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  6. Even though this post is 3 weeks old, I stumbled on it at exactly the right time. Your flow chart – god! I laughed out loud reading it. I have been there a hundred times, most recently a few days ago 🙂 I’m not glad that you go through this, but makes me feel better to know that other people – professional musicians, even – can get immersed in self-criticism, can have well-meaning friends who damn with faint praise, etc. I always enjoy reading your blog, but thanks especially for posting this.

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