Don't Expect Applause--a Guest Post for "The Cross-Eyed Pianist"





This post first appeared on The Cross-Eyed Pianist

It’s an average practice day and I’m at the piano—just me and the score—and I’m staring into the unforgiving mirror that is making art.  I say unforgiving because every musical wart, every lazy line, every single inadequacy is reflected right back to me in the way I play or don’t play each phrase.  I once had a trained psychologist as a piano student.  After three months of lessons, she told me playing the piano is harder than being in therapy.  

Practicing is hard work.  Performing is hard work.  Creating art is hard work.  I know of very few professions where you’re required to search your soul every single time you do your job.  And then there are the outside critics—the former teachers who’s voices still sound in our heads, the critics, the Classical “high temple” or “museum” that fills performers with “should” and “have-to” and “only-one-right-way” judgments that further complicate the process of making music.  It’s a wonder so many of us bother to go to work every day.  

And yet, along with thousands of fellow musicians, I keep returning to the piano and to the music that challenges every part of my intellect, instinct, training, and skill.  I do it because it’s oxygen for me.  I do it because it’s something that I can never conquer because at this stage of my life, conquering the piano means conquering myself.  I do it because the music has so much to say to me and I humbly believe that I may have something of my own to say through the music I’m privileged to play.  

Don’t expect applause.  It’s what I’ve learned from years of trying to please all of the people all of the time. I’ve never been able to please everyone and I never will.  One of the gifts of being a “musician-of-a-certain-age” is that I no longer expect that I can please everyone.  Of course, that’s what I think on my more enlightened days.  The not-so-fun days are the ones where every negative review, every criticism, every botched performance comes back and settles on the piano bench next to me, howling my failures in my ear like a bunch of harpies.  Those are the days I have to remind myself:  don’t expect applause.

Not expecting applause is a gift you give yourself.  For me, it’s given me the freedom to survive failure.  Surviving failure gave me the freedom and strength to simply disregard the judgment of naysayers because I know failure won’t break me.  Knowing this gave me permission to trust my musical instincts and my own voice.  

Not expecting applause has made me a more confident performer because I’m not thinking “please like me, please like me” every time I step on stage.  I play.  I do my best to communicate the music.  I play some parts well.  I smudge some bits here or there.  Maybe I have one of those magical nights when the audience is breathing every note of the piece with me.  Maybe it’s the “gig from Hell” where anything and everything that can go wrong does go wrong.  Either way, when I don’t expect applause, I’m less tossed around emotionally by the highs of a great performance or the lows of a bad.  


Don’t expect applause.  When I take my own advice, I’m free to disregard the ill-fitting interpretations of others and find my own custom-made sense of the music.  I’m open to playing with the music—and maybe even messing it up a bit—as a way to get beyond the stiffness of the notes to the warm, living core of the composition.  Most importantly, it allows me to move beyond soul-killing, rigid perfectionism and embrace the wild, vibrant, unpredictable dance of co-creating a work of art.

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