The day we came back from spring break, I asked the YAMA Philharmonia Orchestra students what goals they have for themselves as musicians as we finish out the year. Nearly half of them said they want to be more confident. Wow, I thought, how on earth do I support them in this goal?
Knowing that they carry the wisdom within themselves to answer this question, I asked them what they think it means to be confident in performance.
Many of them said it helps to ignore the audience, play just for yourself and hope the audience gets something out of the experience. Then Jaiden Cano, a ninth-grade bass player, said, “Why wouldn’t you feel confident? You are there to play music, the audience is there to listen, so just do what you’re there to do.”
The clarity of this statement felt like a cool drink of water on a hot day. Suddenly I could see more clearly one of our biggest obstacles to confidence: perfectionism, or the idea that we need to be absolutely spotless, even if it’s at the expense of our own experience.
This also illuminates a challenge we all face as music teachers; we want to equip our students with the skills they need to be competitive out in the world, yet we don’t want to sterilize them. Perfectionism, I’m coming to realize, is clean and sparkly and without the blemish of humanity. But who wants to go hear music that has no grit, no soul, no proof of human struggle?
There’s something outside of perfectionism that can drive our motivation for improvement, something deeper and more innately connective: expression. The majority of these students also share the goal to be more expressive and communicative as an ensemble, to know the music well enough that they can have fun with it and bring it to life.
Expression requires technical control and accuracy learned through disciplined practice, yet its core is human.
When the Philharmonia Orchestra accomplishes an expressive gesture that they’ve been working on, I can see every student’s eyes light up with the recognition that this is what it’s all about — all the years of hard work and practice and squeaks and frustrations are rewarded in the connection they feel in that moment. This connection is the gift they have to give to their audiences, a gift they can give confidently because they have worked hard to cultivate it.
After all, this is why we’re here, so let’s just do it.