This article is part of the Psychology section.

The single most important factor that will determine our “success” as a performing musician, apart from our mechanical mastery of the instrument, is our ability as a communicator. The ease with which we establish genuine relationships, the comfort we feel with other people, and the pleasure we find in company – at all different levels of intimacy from partner, family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances to unknown strangers – will to a large extent determine our communicative ability as a performing musician. The actor Dustin Hoffmann has described how at his acting school there were basically two types of students: the “serious actors” and those who just wanted to have a good time. Well, you guessed it ……. the best actors almost always came from the “good time” group. Having a “good time” is something we normally do in company ……………. and this group were obviously the best communicators!

Music is a very powerful non-verbal language, but it is a “virtual” communication: there is no eye contact or physical contact with the listeners, and also no real audience participation. Musical performance is very much a monologue coming from the stage: it is only when the music has finished that the audience can finally get a word in, by patting us on the back symbolically (clapping). For shy people, the temptation for music to become a substitute for “real” human communication can be a strong one, but this is a dangerous temptation, as musical performance is very much a “one-way” communication and can never replace the healthy delights (and conflicts) of a real two-way (or multiple-way) dialogue.

Being a good musical communicator is not only about being a protagonist, a “soloist”, deeply immersed in our own private world. It is probable that the greatest quality of a good communicator is actually the ability to be a good listener. Not a passive listener but rather an active, supportive listener: attentive, aware and responsive, giving feedback. This awareness and sensitivity as a listener are what really distinguishes a good communicator, and these qualities can help us very much to assume comfortably the role of protagonist when necessary. Good listeners don’t feel alone and isolated on stage because they can put themselves in the place of their audience. Somebody who needs to be always the protagonist, the “star” – the “perpetual soloist”  – often lacks this capacity to listen, to accompany, to “receive”, to adapt flexibly to others. The excessive narcissism or ego-centeredness that sometimes accompanies high-level musical training can separate us from others, not only can making us less interesting musicians, communicators and people, but also leading us into emotional problems.

Fortunately, to break up this bleak panorama of self-absorption we have our own special type of musical “group therapy”: chamber music. Here, at last, the monologue is broken and we can have some real human contact, if not with the listeners then at least with our fellow players.

Let’s look now at a very revealing psychological game that emulates musical communication. Three people sit together in a circle. One is the “protagonist” – the “talker”, the “doer”. This person directs their communication (preferably an important, emotionally charged personal story) exclusively towards another who is the receiver, who listens attentively and responsively. The third person is the observer. In this game, we take turns occupying different roles and notice how we behave and how we feel in each role. We have spoken already about the roles of protagonist and attentive listener. Let’s talk now about “the observer”.

The observer doesn’t actually participate emotionally in the communication. In the musician’s world, this corresponds to the role of “the critic” – not just the external critic but also the one we all have inside ourselves. Critics are often frustrated and lonely. They are excluded from the shared pleasures of both the “doer” and the listener. But they will often get their revenge, converting themselves into the final protagonist, the closing act, the judge, commanding the exclusive attention of both doers and listeners when they declare their final (often cruel) verdict.

Critics are often neither good performing artists (because they can’t be generous emotionally) nor good listeners (they are always adding their own point of view). Playing to an audience of critics is what we do in an exam, a competition, an audition. With no applause and no emotional feedback, there is only judgement. These situations are probably the most unpleasant musical performance settings imaginable. The critic is the enemy of sincere, free-flowing, spontaneous communication as he creates self-consciousness and fear. The best cure for our nasty critic (internal or external) is to make him get up on stage and do something sincere and emotional. This will immediately put his cutting intellect in the place it deserves, and hopefully create the empathy necessary to turn him into a responsive listener, a humble protagonist  …….. and a kind and helpful critic.

Inside our psyche, we all have “the protagonist”, “the listener”, “the critic” and many other characters (notably “the child”, “the adult”, “the male”, “the female” etc). This is important because we mustn’t forget that, in order to be comfortable with others we first need to be comfortable with ourselves. The relationships we create with others are the mirror of the relationships we have inside ourselves. The dialogues we have with other people reflect to a large extent our own internal dialogues. If we are tolerant, respectful and supportive of ourselves, we will have every chance of bringing these same qualities to our external relationships and this can only enhance our music-making.

Music is a powerful means of communicating through which we can express our most intimate and profound feelings. But we mustn’t let this potency lead us to look to music as an (improved) alternative to “normal” human interaction. In fact it works completely the other way. Our communicativeness as musicians feeds off our communicativeness in general. Put in other words, and returning to the opening phrase of this article, our ability to relate to others when away from our instrument is what most determines our ability to communicate with others while playing the instrument.

Here is a quote from Leonard Bernstein, a powerful communicator with and without music:

I believe in people. I feel, love, need, and respect people above all else, including the arts, natural scenery, organized piety, or nationalistic superstructures. One human figure on the slope of a mountain can make the whole mountain disappear for me