This article is part of the Psychology section.

“that which doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger”

– Friedrich Nietzche. German philosopher 1844 – 1900

This quote has become a part of popular “wisdom”. This is very unfortunate because while it does contain a grain of truth and also sounds as catchy as an advertising slogan, it is in fact dangerously misleading. This is because it just doesn’t take into account all those many adverse events that won’t actually kill us but will seriously degrade our quality of life and make us weaker rather than stronger. Let’s imagine a plant, or even a building which has been subjected to a period of conditions so severe, so adverse, that even though the plant has survived and the building is still standing, they are so severely damaged that even with the return of ideal conditions they may need help (repairs, protection) in order to return to their former natural state of health and strength. Well the same thing can happen to our confidence.

In music, as in life, confidence is everything. Without confidence, there is no beauty, no love, no passion, no ease and no music – only frustration and pain. Confidence allows us to let go, forget ourselves, relax, and let the music (and life and love) flow as if it were a wonderful dance. More important than physical health, more important than intelligence, our confidence is the most important “thing” we have. It is the foundation stone not only for good music-making and good playing but also for our happiness.

One of the great things about confidence is that it builds on itself: confidence creates confidence. Playing well and feeling good makes it so much easier (psychologically) to play well and feel good the next time. But unfortunately, the opposite is also true: playing badly makes it so much harder for the next time. And there are a big differences between the processes of gaining and losing confidence: whereas building confidence is often a slow process – like building a house, brick by brick – losing confidence can be a a very rapid process rather like a house collapsing when a vital structural element is removed. Falling down a mountain is hugely easier (and faster) than climbing up it, and demolishing a house is much easier than building one! In fact, as a general rule, destroying things is much easier than creating them. When Newton described this tendency in his 2nd Law of Thermodynamics one can only wonder if he realised at the time that this law applies equally well to our psychology as it does to the mechanical, physical world.

A confidence crisis is the worst thing that can happen to a musician. It would be preferable to break an arm (even both arms!) rather than to lose our confidence. The broken body will repair itself, slowly but surely. But our mind – our emotions – are considerably more complex than our bodies and confidence-healing does not happen spontaneously. Rebuilding broken confidence is a very delicate business. We don’t only need to climb the mountain again, we have to do it while injured (frightened) after the fall!

So it is very important to find ways to strengthen, and to protect, this vital confidence  – in ourselves and in others –  in order to get into (and stay in), that positive cycle of confidence feeding on confidence. We need to give this “house of confidence” an enormously strong and varied support system, capable of resisting the strongest earthquake, because in the life of every person – and especially of every musician (amateur, professional or aspiring) – earthquakes are unavoidable. So how can we build, protect, and if necessary rebuild, our musical confidence ?

We need to start building from playing situations in which we are feeling totally calm and confident. These situations are the foundations of our “confidence house”. This will normally involve two basic ideas:

  • as a general rule, but especially for playing in public, we need to start off by playing easier pieces, where we can relax and enjoy ourselves i.e. put all our energy into the emotional communication of the music.
  • we need to play WITH other people before playing TO other people.

A third, but very important idea for protecting our confidence is simply to avoid (or ignore) situations (or people) who damage confidence. If someone breaks our arm, or hurts us physically in any way, the damage can be easily seen and evaluated and the responsibility of the aggressor can be easily shown. If however somebody hurts our confidence, the situation is completely different. The invisibility of the damage results in invisibility (and thus impunity) for the aggressor. This double invisibility, together with the difficulties in healing the damage, make destroying somebody’s confidence not only one of the worst forms of violence but  also one of the most common.

Cruel, aggressive, cold and destructive behaviors, especially from people who we greatly respect, are a musician’s greatest menace. Unfortunately, when humans feel frightened and insecure, one of the quickest ways to feel better is to make someone else feel worse. Our new-found power and superiority puts us immediately into the positive confidence cycle and instead of crashing, now we are crushing. Instead of hiding we are flying again. In our huge, impersonal and intensely competitive modern world, we often feel insecure, and people in positions of responsibility even more so. Conductors, teachers, administrators, critics …. but also colleagues  …. even friends and family ….  we can all easily fall into this trap.

On the other hand, being surrounded by supportive, kind, respectful, sincere, cooperative and helpful people creates the conditions for music (and life) to flourish ! A teacher without these qualities is a potential danger, no matter how great their intellectual or musical abilities. See Pedagogy.

If somebody or something is hurting our confidence, what can we do ? Try to understand it ….. ignore it ……. counter-attack …….. complain to others …….. leave ? Entire books have been written about how to respond to these situations. Possibly a good first step would be to stop respecting the person concerned: that way it will hurt less.