It should come as no surprise to anyone interested in the performing arts that confidence is, indeed, key. But, what if one's confidence is shaken? How can a person get back up on that proverbial horse and "ride again?" I often have this talk with my students. I have heard countless stories of musicians being dealt a blow to the ego by others in the field. Most often, the culprits are respected authority figures; experts who are tasked with helping the fledgling artist to grow, hone their craft and correct mistakes. Every so often, it seems, these authority figures take it one step too far and instead of being constructive, these people end up belittling or even bullying the student. In the academic and professional areas of music, the culture of fear can sometimes seep into the environment and make the young artist second-guess themselves.
Music is an incredibly subjective field. There are opinions, critics, naysayers, backstabbers, and flat-out jealous folk at every turn. How can a young artist have ANY confidence if they've been beaten down and made to feel unworthy of the very music they want to perform? The stories I hear usually involve an awkward, non-constructive critique of the student's performance. These critiques are usually under the guise of "helping" the young artist understand the improvements they need to make, but they end up sounding like a personal attack. I have been on the receiving end of such an attack many times, and it is not a good feeling. These harmful critiques, depending on what is said, can be so detrimental, a student can likely experience a form of PTSD or develop stage fright. At minimum, the student finds him or herself feeling less worth as an artist.
After being dealt a critical blow, how does the young artist steady himself? How can he or she move forward? I was once told, "Oh, you just need to develop a thicker skin." To develop a thicker skin, one needs to get beyond the trauma. The young artist who has been traumatized may feel that he or she can't or shouldn't perform - that they're not "ready." They will make every excuse in the book to avoid criticism of any kind - the fear of judgement can be that great. There are two parts to getting over this fear, and in my opinion, they are critical for artistic survival.
The first step toward moving past the trauma is actually adressing it out loud with a trusted authority figure. Someone who is removed from the situation. Someone who has established a judgement-free zone so the young artist can feel free to express his or her opinion without the fear of being invalidated. In my own studio, I encounter many singers who are terrified of even making an ugly sound, or of messing up pitches. Usually, I have to establish within the first lesson that my studio is a place where mistakes are encouraged and ugly sounds celebrated because they are required on the path to making beautiful music. In getting over a performance-related trauma, great care must be taken. The teacher shouldn't coddle the student, but rather, show the student that there is a safe place to "get it out."
The second step toward a more confident student is to teach them about criticism. Helpful criticism should be constructive. A constructive approach will aid the young artist and help him or her to process things differently. I find it helps to constantly remind the young artist of his or her own love of the music in relation to making improvements. Validating a student's passion for the subject can do wonders. This new perspective focuses more on positive changes and will help build confidence by setting new goals for the student. It is this new spin that will help the young artist cope with the fear of judgement. The idea is to gently lead the student back to the performance arena with the knowledge that criticism is not a reflection of that student's own humanity, identity or "goodness." It is essential that they be reminded by their teacher or mentor of their love for music and the arts. I'm not a big Taylor Swift fan, but I think there's a certain chorus of one of her songs that sums it up nicely...