The pianist Lorin Hollander tells a wonderful story of arriving at the Academy of Music ahead of his performance with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra back in the late 1970s. He situated himself on stage for his warm up ahead of his rehearsal with the orchestra, and started to play the piano alone in the hall. As he worked through a few passages, he looked out to the empty seats and spotted a short man wearing a hat and coat near the back. He continued playing, but couldn’t stop himself from thinking about who was listening.
As he continued to play, he realized it was Maestro Ormandy. Hollander started to question in his mind how he was playing – criticizing his left hand, his articulation, his tempo – all while continuing to play more rigidly and less musically. As the voices got louder and louder in his head, he turned to his audience of one and shouted, “I’m sorry, Maestro. I’m not sure I like the way I’m playing right now.” There was no response.
Hollander stood up, and as he continued making excuses under his breath, as if in conversation with the Maestro, he walked down into the audience towards the back row. As he got closer and closer, he realized that there was no one actually there. Instead, there was simply a hat left on one of the seats from the night before. His mind had fabricated the rest of the person.
Hollander’s point in telling this story was to help the workshop of young musicians to recognize themselves as their worst critics. His point wasn’t to “unlearn” being critical, or to *not* listen to one’s self with critical ears, but instead to limit how those voices affect one’s perception of both the music and in this case, an entire conversation with a hat!
A former teacher of mine often used the analogy of trying to repair a roller coaster *while* on the ride. Impossible, right? I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a mechanic reaching outside the coaster box as it speeds down the track to fix a screw or repair the rails. Of course we need to listen (actively) while something is happening, and this is particularly tricky if *we* are the ones making the music, but criticism, evaluation, and analysis need to happen before and after, not during.
As artists, our perceptions of others are often the result of how we perceive ourselves. A healthy balance of critical listening and devil-may-care performing is a great recipe for meaningful communication.