Stand your sacred ground

A number of years ago I worked as an apprentice at a summer vocal program. One of my duties was playing for voice lessons every day. One of the teachers was intense and mean, to say the least. She would regularly scream at her students, all kind of profanities, and call them stupid, or fat, or anything else nasty. Sometimes she got really physical with them, yanking on their face or jaw or pushing with all her might on their abdomen.

I had major anxiety anytime I was scheduled to play for her, even though she mostly ignored me. Just being in the room with that kind of intense negative energy made me feel crazy -- shaky, nervous that her mean spotlight would be turned on me, and especially feeling bad for any singer that provoked her wrath. 

Most of us don’t experience this level of intensity (or abuse) in a lesson or coaching. Yet, many feel anxiety regardless of how nice the teacher or coach is.

As I've been writing about lately here and herefear is normal human behavior – we are hardwired to care what others think about us. It is part of our survival mechanism in our lizard brain to worry about judgment. In a lesson or coaching we expect feedback and criticism. The worry is that this criticism will be about us as a person, or that we will be judged and found lacking, either personally, or professionally. And if this one person thinks we are not good enough, well, they must truly know. At least, that is the way my fears work!

So, fear is normal. We all have similar fears, to varying degrees. We don’t need to push fear away or tell ourselves we are stupid for feeling this way. But we don’t want fear to inhibit us, from scheduling the coaching you need, taking the audition you are interested in, pursuing the work to get to the next level. Making choices based on fear are never satisfying in the long run.

Brené Brown advises:

“Don’t shrink. Don’t puff up. Stand your sacred ground.”

Unhook your value as a person from the opinion of the coach/teacher, and from the feedback you receive in the lesson. Regardless of whether you are in school, are making music for fun, or are a professional musician, anxiety will decrease significantly when you do this.

For those that tend to take feedback personally, here are some suggestions, based uponBrené Brown’s advice.

  1. Don’t shrink. Bring your whole human self to the coaching. It can feel like an act of courage to bring your whole self, mistakes and all, to a coaching or lesson. Be honest, both with yourself and the coach. It’s totally fine to walk in the door and say, “I’m nervous, and here’s why.” Be honest about where you are at in your study of the music, and make room to accept that fact.You can’t be anywhere but where you are in your process. Every single person must start at the beginning, in learning their craft and in learning a piece of music. Some people learn faster than others (I love this video of pianist Valentina Lisista about how she learns music), but everyone must start at note one.
  2. Don’t puff up. There is no need to prove yourself. You don’t have to defend your choices or insist that you know best, or that you already know everything. You don't know everything, and never will. Plus you're paying money to get feedback! Wouldn't it be terribly annoying if you actually know everything the coach is offering? What is the point in hiring this person? Make the choice to discern between the wisdom your coach or teacher offers and what you need to let roll away. Puffing up and proving ourselves comes into play when we feel like we have to agree or disagree with everything that our coach says. You don't. You can listen, melange, ruminate, and then absorb what is useful to you in this moment in time. 
  3. Stand your sacred ground. I really believe that being a musician is sacred work. Making music is no small matter, and music has the capacity to touch people’s lives in a way that words or math can’t. Music moves us. It brings healing. It amplifies joy. Karl Paulnack, Director of the Music Division at the Boston Conservatory, says this beautifully in this compelling speech. It is very worth taking the time to read.
  4. Your teacher is on an evolving journey as well. When I first started out as a coach, I assumed that what everyone wanted was for me to be as nit-picky as possible. It took me time to learn that this wasn’t always effective, as a person can only learn so much in one hour. I’ve gradually shifted my approach over time, now focusing on ‘what is the priority today? What will be most effective in achieving that priority today?’ I’m sure my philosophy and approach will continue to evolve. So will every coach and teacher you work with. Your teacher is not a finished product, just as you are not your finished product either.

By the way, this advice of Standing your Sacred Ground can be applied to anything in life that makes you nervous, ahem, like performing. Or a breakup. Or a job interview. Or auditions.

Thanks for reading!