A friend recently asked what I thought about the connection between skill and happiness. I had just seen the Pixar movie “Soul,” which follows a pianist on his journey of understanding his purpose in life. It’s easy to think that a life devoted to a lofty principle such as Art would lead to contentment, but it turns out it’s tricky to balance constant internal critique, which an artist has running like a mental ticker tape, with any feelings of completion and joy.
As a musician, I’ve signed up for a life of putting myself under the microscope. Refinement and purification are my daily existence. Sometimes I wonder if the greatest violinists were able to regularly experience satisfaction. Musicians learn that every sound we make can be better. If we strive continually for perfection, we might be able to wring one more drop of beauty out of that phrase, a slightly more achingly beautiful vibrato on that top note, a more brilliant delivery of that fast passage.
It can always be better! It’s that unrelenting search for more that leads to moments of inspiration. But how does one learn to make space for gratitude and pleasure in the midst of that?
The great actor Sir Patrick Stewart says a teacher once told him, “You will never achieve success by ensuring against failure.” This is the paradox we live with in the arts; the poem, music or dance can never be full of power and lifeblood unless we are willing to open our hearts and risk being seen. We need to say to our fears, “Thank you for trying to save me from crashing and burning — now, let me jump and light the match.”
The secret I’m finally learning is that the joy part of this is as much a daily practice as the hours spent wrestling the violin. Learning to let go once the risk has been taken, to release my attachment to how a performance may be perceived, and make space in myself for joy that I get to be part of this process, is also the life I’ve signed up for.
• Denise Dillenbeck is Yakima Symphony Orchestra concertmaster. She and other symphony members write this weekly column for SCENE. Learn more about her and her role at www.ysomusic.org/about/concertmaster.