The Burden of Battle: Causes of Self-Doubt in the Performing Musician

At the beginning of 2018 I commenced post graduate study at the Griffith University in their Doctorate of Musical Arts program. What I present below is a reflective account of my personal journey with music, available for any who may be interested but also aiding the reflexive component of my research. As such this is deeply personal and at times sensitive. Please read with this in mind if you so desire. Sincerely, PW. 

Much has been written of perfectionism and its role in performance anxiety (Kobori, Yoshie, Kudo, Ohtsuki, 2011). As an experienced performer I would like to speak to another agent at work in this drama. I suspect that what I describe below is an amalgam of ancient traits for climbing the dominance hierarchy and pathologies born of circumstance. For the purposes of this post I am conceiving of this amalgam as a single agent with multiple dimensions. I believe this amalgam can all too easily sabotage and affect the musical output of an artist, derailing both creative decision making and the flow-state of the performing artist. I am no psychologist so treat this post as purely qualitative/auto-ethnographic in nature as I elucidate my own journey from nervous-wreck-performer to only-rarely-nervous-wreck-performer. 

While the joy, fascination and love of music was there from an early age (see my post Shelter), there was also another dynamic in my relationship with music. Nested in my subconscious was a combative element, a competitive drive that spawned from the erroneous assertion that validation could be found in achievement. I am no psychologist but I would posit that in all of us there is something ancient, even primordial, geared towards dominance. Perhaps this ancient agent is more prevalent in some. Perhaps in my case it bonded with an anger and frustration over never fitting in during my schooling years. An “I’ll prove them all wrong” kind of thing. In fact I hesitate to describe in fine detail how base and absolute this ‘entity’ can be at times - words like ‘crush’, ‘dominate’ and ‘destroy’ come to mind. Let’s just say that I was not altogether surprised when a devotee of astrology once convinced me to share my date and time of birth and responded weeks later that he had never seen such a volatile alignment of Mars (the god of war), the Sun (life/energy/force/strength/power) and Venus (the goddess of love). Whatever it was and wherever it came from, it came to be something of a double edged sword. A strong competitive and/or combative drive can motivate one to practise and master one’s tools of expression but it can also affect creative choices and derail performance. 

In short, the trait(s) that guided all your ancestors to rise in their dominance hierarchies sufficiently that they might propagate and ultimately create you may not serve us so well as performers in an age when we are reminded on an almost daily basis (by way of Facebook and Instagram for example) that every day around the world child prodigies are born with more natural aptitude than you may ever have. In our youth many of us can channel this force of nature in sport. I found great pleasure in dropping my shoulder into a rugby tackle and laying a ‘big hit’. Even at that young age however I was acutely aware of a sadness haunting much of the surrounding rugby culture, at least at my club rugby and school rugby environments. Week after week I would observe fathers drinking in the grandstand eulogising past glories. It was as though their lives stopped when they stopped playing the sport. It was as though they knew no profound experience or joy since, save perhaps the birth of their own children. Many of them looked sad too - round shouldered and defeated. By comparison I noted the spring in the step of the eternal artist. Note for example the twinkle in the eye of Wayne Shorter, an octogenarian who has experienced more than his share of tragedy and chaos. In my mid teens I meditated on all of this and I believe it played no small part in my move toward building a life around music. As I now experience some of the physical changes of age (sore back etc) I more profoundly understand the sadness underscoring the drunken accounts of bygone glories extolled by the rugby dads. 

I can’t say that I ever mastered this trait so much as outgrew it to an extent. It is perhaps a universal truth that the older you get the less you give a damn what others think. At the time of writing I am 37 years old and I feel that I am only now entering my potential as an artist, wholly capable of delivering an authentic portrayal of my inner vision from conception to execution. I say ‘entering my potential’ because I have not yet mastered the ‘subtle art of not giving a f@$k’ (I really need to read that book’). What I have found as I wander this earth is a gradual increase in contentment in who I am and my place in this great mortal drama. This contentment has enabled me to let go of the artifice of concerns over things like reputation and my position in any hierarchy. The paradox is that as I have let go I have found my performances are more consistently representative of my potential. Without the Burden of Battle I feel free to soar. Much of this development is due to a residency I was blessed with that has enabled me to perform jazz music 2 - 3 times per week to a receptive audience in person and online via a live streaming system built into the venue. The sheer weight of evidence that I should not be self conscious about my playing has played a large part in me letting go of the odd inevitable mishap in performance (like ‘losing one’ during a complex drum solo or making an honest mistake like losing the form). In the past these mistakes would feel like a crack in the egg shell that was my validity as a musician. Now they feel exactly the same as when I misspeak while talking. I feel so at one with music these days that it is not an emotional thing to perform well or poorly but rather a quirk. That is not to say that I don’t have relapses. The most acute of which involved my first visit to the NAMM show. 

The NAMM show 2015

In 2015 I flew from Australia to the USA to attend my first NAMM Show. The only friends I had waiting to meet me, in fact the only people I knew, were Mike and Daniel Tobias. These are the men behind MTD basses, of whom I am an endorsee. They were as fantastic as always. Despite being run off their feet with clients they made me feel wanted and a part of the family. Most of the vendors were fantastic and many of the connections I made over that week have endured. I had no official role while there so I roamed through the main building joining in on any impromptu jams I found. For the first day or two my jet-lag had me sufficiently out-of-body that I felt completely relaxed. I had no expectations and I assumed no judgment from any observers. Then IT happened. I recall a key moment when the cameras were on me and I was jamming with a brilliant latin jazz bassist who felt compelled to start playing an odd time latin groove under my solo. There was no warning or description of the time signature and in that moment with a room of people watching it felt like somebody had pulled the chair out from under me. Now many odd time signatures are a non issue for me but something about that riff played spontaneously just as I had a flow really stumped me. I suddenly had that awful self-awareness overtake me. Here’s the thing, it went far beyond one awkward moment. I let the feeling bubble up and take me over for days. In my mind I was exposed as an absolute fraud. It was an awful, dark, lonely place to occupy for the rest of NAMM. Even compliments from such luminaries as Frederico Malaman could not reach me, I was in the same physical space as everyone else but in truth I was in another dimension. It was a dimension rife with crippling self doubt, mental commentaries and anger. In that moment the primordial traits concerned with social standing had awoken at the most inopportune time and sabotaged the moment. This is for me a great example of why one needs to outgrow any concern of what others think if they are to consistently shine their musical light for others to see.

At the end of the show I remember walking in solitude down past Disneyland. It was a surreal moment. All the hype of NAMM dies almost instantly after the show. The crowds, noise, energy, it’s all gone. It was too late for any real crowds to be at Disneyland. I was all alone walking between the trees that line the footpath outside Disneyland. The installed lighting on the trees looked like Christmas tree lights and as I peered through their glow the dying light of day gave way to the translucent glow of dusk. The loneliness of perceived failure that enveloped me was sickeningly familiar, and in that respect, comforting. I remembered boarding school. I remembered falling to sleep with my face inches from the wall so as to create the illusion of shelter. I remembered all kind of school yard insult and I meditated too upon the 4 to 6 hours of daily practise I had put in on the instrument for the better part of 15 years. It was in that moment that something else deep within me, something even more ancient and primal than all that I have described so far stirred to life. In that moment of abject defeat a warrior spirit stirred to life and I actually said the words “well fuck this” and picked up my proverbial bundle and walked away from the irrational landscape of self doubt. 

The irony is that this powerful agent - this thing that I have described as some kind of amalgam of dominance traits and various other traits forged in youth - makes one entirely vulnerable to criticism, whether real or imagined. It makes no sense in the subjective landscape of the arts. Provided one has done the work and can actually speak the language of music there comes a point where comparisons speak to the inclinations of the critic as much as they do the subject. Who is to say, for example, that the lyrical expression of Lester Young is lower in the dominance hierarchy than the sheets of sound of John Coltrane? And yet, just as the conscious drug addict still reaches for that needle we all too often still seek the validation of others. 

As I said at the start of this post, there are many different phenomena that I am speaking to as one unified amalgam. A trained psychologist could surely dissect this into individual agents that could be understood more deeply, perhaps to great benefit of anyone who has struggled with such things. I do feel though that they all share one common thread and that is the tendency to become irrationally concerned with what other people think. I also know that that is the antithesis of how I feel in flow-state performance. In the flow-state I am free. I don’t feel invincible or on top of a hierarchy and I don’t feel like the best bassist or the worst. I feel free, from everything, enveloped in the timeless rhythms and structures of the harmonic landscape. 

Kobori, O. Yoshie, M. Kudo, K. Ohtsuki, T. (2011). Traits and cognitions of perfectionism and their relation with coping style, effort, achievement, and performance anxiety in Japanese musi cians. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 25(5), 674–679