'As always, it was sheer pleasure to observe Robin Hill's remarkable fluent technique: everything looks easy when he plays it.' Colin Cooper- Classical Guitar Magazine ----- 'Wonderful for their (Hill & Wiltschinsky) precision, touch and clarity of sound... refined virtuosity, the achievement of a long interpretive process.' Il Giornale D'Italia (Rome) ----- 'I loved your CD and thought your technique and performance were fabulous...' Rick Wakeman

Monday, February 07, 2011

'Performance and Practice' from 'The Guitar Gymnasium'

For many years Robin carried around a notebook, and whenever he came across a quote that he found inspiring and/or thought-provoking he wrote it down.  

Eventually, he wrote, 'The Guitar Gymnasium - A Mental and Physical Workout, Designed to Develop Flawless Technique,' (Mel Bay) and incorporated many of these quotes. 

Whilst the book is aimed at guitarists, there is a whole chapter dedicated to Performance and Practice. This section covers the many psychological factors inherent in the performance of music, but could equally apply to artists of all areas. 

The following is an extract from. 'The Guitar Gymnasium'. 

Performance and Practice A Collection of Thoughts 

 I firmly believe that attaining the balance between self-confidence and self-doubt is one of the artist's most important challenges: 

  'It constantly remains a source of disappointment to me that my drawings are not yet what I want them to be, the difficulties are indeed numerous and great, and cannot be overcome at once. To make progress is a kind of miner's work; it doesn't advance as quickly as one would like, and others also expect, but as one stands before such a task, the basic necessities are patience and faithfulness. In fact, I do not think much about the difficulties, because if one thought about them too much one would get stunned or disturbed.' 

                                                                                                                 Vincent Van Gogh (letter to Theo) 

 If Vincent had not felt like this about his work it would have, indeed, been a surprise. This sense of striving and self-dissatisfaction provide the essential impetus to spur the artist to further and higher achievements. Eventually, as we all know, he did get the balance wrong, he did become stunned and disturbed, and the world lost one of it's greatest artists. We all have encountered his antithesis where small talent is buoyed up by outrageous conceit. 

'The superior man is distressed by his want of ability'                                              Confucius 551-479 BC 

Confucius points out the paradox which propels high-achievers forward toward greater heights. '

The eternal problem for the performer is the settling of his own mental equilibrium, the striking of a happy mean between conceit, self-confidence and a sober valuation of his worth.' 
'Let us remember when we witness an artist on the platform radiating the most sublime self-assurance that in reality, he may be extremely modest and nervous, that he has donned a cloak of self-complacency to disguise his fright. For my part I am aware, when acknowledging applause, that I wear my warmest smile when I know that I have played badly; the smile helps me to walk off the stage and masks my fury. A bad performance haunts an artist for days and days and the memory of it is only erased by a good one. The most vigilant self-criticism is of course necessary. but the time comes when the artist must tell himself he is good or he will go under. It is a fight.' 

                                                                                                                    Gerald Moore (Am I too Loud?) 

 This quote, by the accompanist, Gerald Moore, perfectly encapsulates the dilemma. 

'Something like a nervous dread often takes possession of me while I am on stage in the presence of a large can only imagine how painful this sensation maybe....this sense of uncertainty has often inflicted upon me tortures only to be compared with the Inquisition, while the public listening to me imagines that I am perfectly calm.' 
                                                                                                                                           Anton Rubinstein 

'The guitar is very curious, I always say the guitar behaves unpredictably because of the influence of its feminine curves. (Sorry - I know this is politically incorrect - but it's what the man said!) When I go to the concert I am always nervous; then when I begin the concert I am ready to cancel it; but when I have finished the concert, I would like to begin again.' 
                                                                                                                                               Andres Segovia 

And you thought you had problems! 
I find these quotations both inspiring and comforting. It is surprising to many people to learn that great artists and performers were and are assailed by these feelings of dread and self-doubt. One of the factors which define their greatness is how they react to these doubts. If they are completely banished complacency flourishes and a powerful motivator is lost, but if this doubt gains the upper hand then confidence and further progress will be severely impeded. The trick is to get the balance right. This state of equilibrium is difficult to attain and difficult to maintain, requiring almost constant adjustment. The secret of success is how we react to failure. There is no doubt that a realistic belief in oneself provides a potent impetus to successful performance and vice versa. 

In my experience of concert giving over some twenty-five years, I have found that no matter how pleased (rarely) or disappointed (frequently) I am concerning the performance it is, objectively, never as good or as bad as perceived. As a member of an audience, I also note that what communicates, above all, is the spirit of the performance and not the fine detail. Obviously one has to aim for technical perfection, but for a performer to be convinced a whole concert was appalling because there were a few slips is clearly wrong. 

In fact, I remember a very memorable recital at the Wigmore Hall at which I was present and which I very much enjoyed, it was also repertoire with which I was largely familiar. I was convinced the performance was note-perfect as well as truly inspiring and musical. When, months later, I heard the concert broadcast 0n BBC Radio 3, I was amazed to hear a few obvious errors but found I had been correct about the event being truly musical and inspiring. This experience taught me a valuable lesson - If the inspiration and spirit of the music, and say 85-95% accuracy, are present, then that concert is a great success and an uplifting event for the audience (of whom maybe 1-3% will have noticed the errors) and, if the other necessary factors were present, this will not have marred their enjoyment of the concert as a whole. 



Unknown said...

Hello Robin

This is a really interesting article and I would love your views on whether this self doubt can be overcome.

My experience in practical psychology is that it can. Indeed, as you say, how you react to failure is key. This echoes others William Westney and Eloise Ristad.

I have skills that can really can eliminate self doubt and wonder whether something like that is of interest to musicians?

Thanks for a lucid and thought provoking post.

Best wishes,

Anna said...

Hi Paul,

Robin is currently away but he sent me this reply to your comment:

Hello Paul

Thanks for your comment.

I think it definitely possible to control self doubt, naturally it fluctuates, influenced by
external events, but total elimination would, in my opinion, be undesirable.
It is the natural counterbalance to self confidence, which, if completely unchecked, could lead to complacency and inertia.
In its most positive form, it spurs the individual on to higher
The artist must always be striving for greater heights. Confidence and self-doubt are, to me, yin and yang.

All the great artists of the past had self doubt..........take the extreme example of Vincent van Gogh.
Read Segovia's comments on concert giving and also Horowitz's.

'The superior man is always in distress at his lack of ability' Confucious.
(And of course the polar
opposite is also true!).

Robin Hill

So, from that I would say that self doubt is an essential part of the process. However, learning how to manage this, particularly in the early stages of a career, could be of value to many musicians.
If you do write more about the skills required I would be interested to read it.
Many thanks for your comment and kind words.


guitar picks said...

This is a great article that provides helpful insights regarding self-doubt in terms of guitar playing. Those who are currently experiencing such are surely grateful to note these very inspiring ideas. Thanks for sharing.

Anna said...

Thanks very much.
We are very pleased you found the article interesting and helpful.
It's always nice to get some feedback, so thanks for taking the time.