A self-forgetful musician?

I was sat in a flute studio class led by Christian Stüdler, former principal flautist of the Bern Symphony Orchestra in Switzerland. About ten flautists from around the world had gathered to learn from him at Crescendo Summer Institute in Hungary and now we were staring at one another across the room. He started by saying something along the lines of…

“I know what you’re all doing – you’ll be starting to compare yourselves to one another. And as you start playing – ooof! – it’ll be even worse! You’ll be thinking,

  • ‘Wow, her staccato is amazing and mine…well… it isn’t so good…now I feel bad’
  • ‘They move their fingers so fast! Bother them! I’ll never be good enough’
  • ‘Hmm, that intonation was a bit iffy… aha! Maybe I’m a bit better than them…’

You’ll start to rank yourselves. Well we’re not going to have any of that here. We are going to listen to each individual person’s uniqueness.”

His wit and wisdom have stuck in my mind and they tie in nicely with The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness  by Tim Keller and The Big Ego Trip  by Glynn Harrison. So, this is going to be a resource that pinches ideas from all three of these chaps, and the Bible, to explore how we can find freedom from our egos as young musicians. How can we be self-forgetful as we win - and fail at - competitions and auditions? How can we enjoy our peers’ performances without ranking ourselves? How can we focus on improving our playing and writing without being narcissistic?

Puffer fishes: egos

I imagine egos like puffer fishes. They can be swollen so that we look down on other people or don’t think of them at all because we are so absorbed with ourselves. But egos are also so fragile. One negative word or failed audition can deflate these fragile egos and leave us despairing because we fear that we are worthless – this can also mean that we don’t think of other people because we are so absorbed with ourselves. These puffer-fish egos can trap us in spirals of self-loving and self-loathing – sometimes simultaneously!

Egos are busy, competitive and hungry things. They hunger for praise and acceptance – but why? There are two big reasons why we have unquiet egos. Firstly, we have a deep need to be better or greater than we are, and of other people to acknowledge that we are better or greater, regardless of how good we currently are or of peoples’ current opinions. Secondly, we have a deep fear of being inadequate, or falling short, and of other people knowing it. We’re not only afraid of our technical inadequacies, we also fear that we aren’t enough. Enough for what – for a seat in the orchestra? for a first? for heaven? Let’s call this being insecure. We hunger for security in who we are and what our value is. What is our value in the light of this BIG BIG world filled with musicians who might be better than us, and, if we dare to think of it, in the light of eternity?

Our need for acceptance and affirmation can lead to stifling worries about what other people think of us and how we compare with other people. In order to free us from these worries some people advocate a different approach – that we should only care about our own opinion of ourselves. Ultimately, other people’s judgements of us, and our judgements of ourselves won’t satisfy our need for value and acceptance. I don’t have space to argue that big point here – think and read about it if you aren’t convinced. It is God’s opinion of us that really matters and that really satisfies – he is the only judge who really matters and he is eternal – his opinion does not shift like ours.

How would you summarise God’s opinion of you? The sum of his thoughts are more than the sand so we won’t manage a comprehensive list but here are some ideas. We are created, precious, unique, loved, fallen, broken, forgiven, accepted, rejoiced over with singing. Which of these truths do you find hardest to truly believe? Apply them to your heart and see if they will quieten your ego.

Here is my attempt to preach these truths to my ego:

  • Be quiet my ego, so hungry for compliments; rest in the knowledge that I am precious to the Almighty God who made me. That is enough.
  • Be still my ego, so fearful of being shamed; be honest that I am fallen and a sinner and stop striving to hide it. Confess and repent and know peace.
  • Be assured my ego, so busy striving to earn favour; I am accepted and forgiven because of what Jesus has done on my behalf. I can’t earn this status but it is mine through Christ.

No more pride, guilt or shame

Living within these truths leaves no space for pride – any good that is in me is from my good Creator, and my secure, wonderful eternal status is only through Christ. But pride isn’t the only ego-awakener that these truths dampen. My shame and guilt make me fearful that I am not enough, and this fear rouses our ego to crave praise and acceptance. If guilt is feeling bad about having done something wrong, shame is feeling bad about being the sort of person that does that sort of thing. Living in the grace of Jesus means that his forgiveness and acceptance can answer our fear of not being enough, of being flawed, blameworthy and unlovable.[1] It is amazing to say, ‘I am not enough, but I am forgiven and accepted anyway because of grace’. I love how Glynn Harrison puts this:

Guilt and shame try to propel us backwards into the old global sense of sin and wickedness: we feel that God has fled from us in disgust… we convince ourselves that we no longer belong…[BUT]…The Christian who has grasped grace refuses to let this verdict linger.[2]

i.e. our core identity as a child of God remains.

Of course, pride, shame, guilt and fear don’t just vanish for Christians, but we can expect sanctification and healing as the Holy Spirit is at work in our lives, applying God’s truths to our hearts until glory. Hallelujah!

What does this mean for my view of myself? Gospel humility

Tim Keller uses the useful phrase ‘gospel humility’ to describe how we can live when these truths are applied to our heart. Often the word humility sounds sickly or crushing – it conjures images of someone with a sickly smile refusing to take a compliment, or of someone with dreadfully low self-esteem believing that they ought to think badly of themselves because that is what being humble means. Thankfully that is not what gospel humility is at all! Living in gospel humility doesn’t mean false modesty or self-deprecation. It is not just an escape from pride, it is also an escape from self-loathing. To quote Keller:

The essence of gospel-humility is not thinking more of myself or thinking less of myself, it is thinking of myself less’.[3]

In his book The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness, Keller explores 1 Corinthians 3:21-4:7 where the apostle Paul writes (among other things) ‘I do not even judge myself’. If this sounds like something you would like to experience in your own life I would heartily recommend praying and reading Keller’s book (it’s extremely short – you definitely have time).

Sober judgement of my skills

While gospel humility does mean thinking of ourselves less, we cannot avoid thinking about ourselves altogether, particularly if we’re spending hours alone in a practice room trying to improve our technique, or in a studio full of mirrors, or getting graded for our submissions, or making our website. So how are we to consider ourselves? Glynn Harrison uses the phrase biblical self-compassion to describe how we can consider ourselves without evaluating, judging, boasting, or self-pitying.[4] By that he means we do not judge and evaluate ourselves on a big, whole-person, global scale. We can, and sometimes must, rate our specific skills as musicians, as well as as broader people. How is my articulation, or my willingness to do the washing up, or my giving? We can rate specific aspects of our lives without globalising the verdict. For example, when I arrived at university my rubato was fairly out of control and I still don’t have the metronomic sense of pulse that some musicians have. When I speed up without noticing and other musicians point it out, I can quickly believe that I am an omni-shambles whose whole way of living is an out-of-control mess. That is me globalising. I need to recognise my specific weakness and make friends with a metronome, not catastrophise it, or fall into self-loathing, or dismiss their critique by pretending that I’m incredibly immersed in a particularly Romantic style. I also need to hold on to God’s opinion of me in that moment – I do make a mess but I am forgiven and accepted and loved, and neither my rubato nor my shame at needing to be corrected affects those wonderful truths! We need to rate our skills, not our whole selves, and when we succeed or fail in particular areas of life will we let God’s view of us continue to trump our view of our entire self?

Questions to ponder

  1. What specific skills, weaknesses or gifts do you have that you have a habit of basing your global judgement of yourself on?
  2. How does God’s opinion of you compare to your own judgement?

Application in the practice room

Hours spent finding my best sound might feel narcissistic, but if I am evaluating the specific ingredients of this sound (my posture, my embouchure, my tension, my attitude, my breath) rather than my global status (my worth, my ranking), I needn’t get het up about it any more than a craftsman evaluating and refining their tool kit and skills. The ingredients of our work are often inside ourselves which can make it necessary to look inwards to our physicality, imaginations and emotions. A singer might be extra concerned about their diaphragm and a mechanic might be concerned with having the best spanner - is one more narcissistic? Our challenge is not to let those necessarily inwards-looking thoughts become globalised such that they develop into habits that continue once we are no longer alone in the practice room and it is time to think outside of ourselves again. 

Feedback from others

I feel euphoric if a well-respected teacher says anything positive about my playing and devastated if they dismiss it as mediocre. Am I finding my assurance in their opinions rather than in my status before God? Of course it is human to respond emotionally to feedback, but I don’t want to find my identity and value in it.

Feedback from other people is vital for our development as musicians and people in general. When our egos are out of the way we can flourish from well-given feedback without being fearful, devastated, dismissive or puffed-up by it. On the other hand, when our egos are hungry and searching for assurance, we can be over-dependent on what other people think of us, leaving us fearful of a bad opinion or devastated by a criticism. Ideally, if we are secure in God’s opinion of us and our eternal status, we can flourish from feedback rather than anxiously needing it as assurance of our worth for our hungry egos.

We need not be devastated or fearful as a result of criticism, but a ‘who on earth cares what they think anyway?’ attitude doesn’t smack of gospel humility either, particularly if the criticism comes from authority figures such as teachers or judges. We can be respectful of their feedback or decisions but not fearful. I am not suggesting that we can always serenely float along feeling self-content, but rather that we have a core of contentment with our status as children of God that is not shaken by, and always trumps, the opinion of others.

Questions to ponder

  1. Whose feedback are you most likely to dismiss or to define yourself by?
  2. How can you remind yourself of your security in Christ when feedback leaves you euphoric or devastated?

Limited Good and Status Anxiety

It can seem like we’re all on see-saws or pulleys - if someone else goes up I must go down because there is a limited amount of good and if they get more I get less. The theory of ‘limited good’ was devised by an anthropologist called George Foster who studied rural peasant communities where all the desired things in life ‘exist in finite quantity and are always in short supply’.[5] This sounds similar to the music world where there are a limited number of salaried seats in professional orchestras, or a limited number of grants for community-music projects, or a limited number of places on a course. But life – the whole of life and life eternal – isn’t like that. God has an unlimited supply of goodness! This doesn’t mean that there are unlimited salaried seats for flautists, but failing to get a seat hurts less if it isn’t attached to our worth and chances of having a joyful life.

Living like there is ‘limited good’ contributes to our status anxiety – we are not just concerned with what we are achieving or how we are playing; we are concerned with what we are doing compared to other people, with our position or standing in college or the industry or the eyes of the world in general.[6] This makes it hard to really enjoy seeing our peers succeed and to mourn with our competitors when they don’t play their best – how contrary to the apostle Paul who writes that Christians are to ‘rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn’! (Romans 12:15)

It can feel impossible to escape this competitive status-bagging but Glynn Harrison reminds us that ‘in God’s economy importance isn’t in short supply, something to be fought over’.[7] Whether we are first or second fiddle our station has been given by God and is equally important to him. When we see our work and our roles as part of the creation mandate to keep the earth we see that all work has dignity, whether that be sweeping the opera house or being the prima donna. So if I have to earn money by teaching beginners rather than touring the world as a soloist I can rejoice that God has given me this work which has dignity because it is a role that he gave me, rather than squirm because I’m nearer the bottom of the musician’s pecking order. Likewise, if God gives me the role of conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic that does not puff up my own importance – I am still doing the job that God has given me, just like the person who polishes my podium and I am no more important than them. That sounds like madness but it is true because the story we are part of is not about us, Jesus is the main character and we joyfully honour him when we do the role he given us in obedience to him rather than in an attempt to climb the musician’s pecking order.

Questions to ponder

  1. When do we live as if our importance was determined by our status in the musicians' pecking order?
  2. How might remembering that we are part of God’s story change our view of our importance?

Listening

  • ‘Wow, her staccato is amazing and mine…well… it isn’t so good…now I feel bad’
  • ‘They move their fingers so fast! Bother them! I’ll never be good enough’
  • ‘Hmm, that intonation was a bit iffy… aha! maybe I’m a bit better than them…’

Do any of these thoughts sound familiar? Particularly when we listen to our peers or competitors? We compare ourselves to other people all the time and all too quickly we turn these comparisons into indicators of our own status. Our egos draw our attention back to ourselves even when we are trying to enjoy other people playing.

Ideally we would be so secure in our grace-given identity, our God-given status, that we wouldn’t need comparisons to make us feel better about ourselves, but most of us don’t have the mental rigour to dispel any thought of comparison, envy or jealousy. Thankfully we can pray in this situation! Pray that we would rest and delight in how God sees us and be so secure in his grace that we don’t strive for worth through comparisons. We can also pray that God would give us eyes and ears to see and hear the performers as he sees them. This is another idea from Christian Stüdler; he asked us to listen out for each others’ uniqueness and it completely changes how I listen to other flute players. It really is self-forgetful listening.

Auditions and competitions

Our successes and failures do not change our worth or our eternal status. It is easy to understand this with our heads but harder to feel it in our hearts when that medal or that kick-in-the-teeth comes our way, particularly when most short biographies or artists’ websites flash competition wins like sparkly jewels, as if they are tickets to being a valuable musician. Of course we can celebrate successes as good gifts from God and mourn failures as disappointments, but unlike in an artist’s bio, these results do not give us our identity. Competitions and auditions breed status anxiety because there are limited prizes or places on offer. Sometimes only your pride or reputation is at stake but sometimes it might also be your career and your finances. There are two helpful things to take into this environment and we need both of them. The first I’ve already written about: the reminder that there is no limited good in God’s economy and that your worth, value and eternal status are secure in him. The second is trust in God’s providence – he is in control whether you achieve what you want or not and the role he gives you is the best one for you to serve him in. I’m going to finish with some examples of what this can look like – please think of your own real or hypothetical examples and feel free to add them to this resource by leaving a comment to encourage others who will read this.

  • I have mastered a difficult passage in a sonata and that is something I can really enjoy and be grateful to God for. Now the temptation is for me to feel superior and to imagine I’m climbing a rung higher than my peer who hasn’t had the time to practise it yet. I need to remind myself that my worth is based on God’s grace and let that speak into my competitive pride.
  • I have come second in a competition. I am disappointed – I wanted to be first - but I am not worthless as a result.
  • I did not get into the college orchestra and now I am attending their concert where the girl who did get in has a prominent solo. I am fighting to try and enjoy her playing rather than constantly comparing it to mine, trying to dispel thoughts that I could do it better or that I am nothing. I am praying that God would help me guard my heart throughout this concert.

_____________________________________________________________________________________

[1] Mark Meynell, When Darkness Seems My Closest Friend, (IVP: London, 2018), 85. If the idea of shame has particularly struck you, I really recommend Mark Meynell’s chapter in this book entitled ‘The Invisibility Cloak’.

[2] Glynn Harrison, The Big Ego Trip, (IVP: Nottingham, 2013), 177.

[3] Tim Keller, The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness, (10Publishing, 2012), 32.

[4] Glynn Harrison, The Big Ego Trip, 166-167.

[5] George M. Foster, ‘Peasant Society and the Image of Limited Good’, American Anthropologist 67 (196), pp. 293-315, quoted in Glynn Harrison, The Big Ego Trip, 187.

[6] Glynn Harrison, The Big Ego Trip, 188.

[7] Glynn Harrison, The Big Ego Trip, 192.

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