If you’re like most of the artists and performers we work with, you probably put a lot of pressure on yourself to be perfect.
I do, too! In fact, I’m going share a personal story about my recent battle with perfection.
Honestly, I’m a little nervous about being this vulnerable but it’s a really important lesson I want to share, so I’m going to go for it.
Before I get into the full story, I want to clarify something. I’m not going to tell you that perfection is unattainable. We all know that.
This is more about clarifying what you’re trying to be perfect at.
Let me explain.
When Jennifer and I work with artists, we start off by helping them clarify their mission and vision for their artistic output.
Here’s what my mission centers around: Feeling connected with people and creating a profound emotional experience for the audience.
Sounds pretty good, right?
The trouble is that when I get on stage, this mission goes out the window. I revert to my perfectionist tendencies and worry myself with technical perfection. I often listen to negative thoughts that aren’t in line with my true intentions.
In essence, I’m setting out to do one thing, but I’m judging myself for another.
That’s what my story is about today.
An Exciting Opportunity
Many of you know that while my professional focus is iCadenza and Cadenza Artists, I still sing regularly and maintain a semi-regular practice regimen that includes some voice lessons, coachings, and weekly Alexander Technique lessons.
So when one of the artists on our roster, Angel Romero, suggested that I join him for a program of mostly Spanish music at his upcoming performance at the Sheldon Concert hall in St. Louis, I happily accepted the offer.
This concert was important to me because it was the first big concert I’d sung in a very long time time.
Of course, fears crept up and insecurities raged as I prepared for the big day. Not only was this my first concert in a while but all the repertoire that I was singing, with the exception of one piece, was new to me. That’s 8 new pieces! One of these eight happened to be a piece that had made me fall in love with opera years ago, Villa-Lobos’s Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5.
It’s a scary piece to perform because it’s so extremely exposed. The singer has to float high notes gently but passionately without much support from the instrumental accompaniment.
There’s so much room for error. When trying to float high notes gently, it’s easy to crack. And because there’s little instrumental support, any slight imperfection will be blatantly obvious. The melody is hauntingly beautiful and its message is powerful, if delivered well! And I was committed to doing it justice.
At the same time, I was also worried about what to wear. Up until the day before I flew in for the concert, I was planning to wear a simple black gown. But after talking to Angel Romero about how we wanted the concert to feel for the audience, I realized that the repertoire called for something bigger, something more Spanish with spunk and motion to it.
I found a gown I’d bought years ago but never had the chance to wear in concert. I tried it on and sang through some of the repertoire in it. It just felt right.
The Big Night Arrives
In St. Louis, the concert started and I was up for the second set. As Angel Romero and I started a set of Lorca songs, I immediately felt an overwhelming sense of support from the audience.
The Sheldon is an intimate hall that seats about 750 between the main floor and the balcony, and the hall was fairly full.
Sometimes, when I perform, the audience feels stiff and disconnected. But Angel Romero wanted the concert to feel like an intimate experience for the audience. He was casual on stage, and told jokes, fun anecdotes, and lots of stories about his own performing experiences as well as about the composers and songs.
It gave the evening a sense of spontaneity, authenticity, and warmth that few “classical music” concerts have. I found it refreshing, and the audience seemed to agree.
By the time we got to the second half of the program, where my favorite Villa-Lobos piece was slated to happen, the connection to the audience was fueling me.
Preparing to go onstage, I was a bundle of emotions. On the one hand, I was excited to experience the exchange that happens only in performance, where the audience allows me, the performer, to create a moment that is unique to that day and time—a moment that is as informed by the music as it is by all the unique energies in that room. It’s the unpredictability of that moment that makes performing so magical.
On the other hand, I was terrified that either my voice or my body or my thoughts would fail me and prevent me from delivering what I wanted to be the performance of my life. (No pressure, right?)
The Moment of Truth
Walking onto that stage, I noticed that I was holding my breath. As I slowly released it, the audience was erupting in laughter because Angel had just told a joke. I felt an overwhelming sense of warmth from the audience and somehow, I knew that it was going to be ok.
To my joy and amazement, the performance proceeded to go incredibly well. The high B flat floated easily both times I sang it, and the emotion I wanted to convey carried freely through each and every note. There wasn’t a thing that I would change. After so much preparation, this was the best I’d ever sung that piece.
I walked offstage and everyone backstage congratulated me, saying that they had felt the passion and connection from the speakers backstage.
When the concert was over, I walked into the reception and was met by enthusiastic audience members. Many were musicians and regular concert attendees. I was humbled by some who shared stories of their history with the Villa-Lobos piece, and how much it meant to them to hear it that night.
One person named Harry started crying when describing how he felt when he heard the piece performed earlier that night; his emotional journey was that profound. Several people remarked that it was the best they’d ever heard the piece performed live. Others talked about the other works on the program as well and how they felt that our performance captured the Spanish flavor. But it was clear that of the music I sang, the Villa-Lobos had the biggest impact on the majority of the people in attendance.
Angel Romero’s performance was, of course, the main event of the evening. Audience members told us both that they had expected a master guitarist, which he is so well known as, but hadn’t expected an evening that would be so varied and entertaining on top of the true virtuosity that he displayed on the guitar.
I floated on a cloud out of the concert hall that night. My memory of the experience was magical, and the feedback I got from several dozen people that evening just made my heart soar.
The Rain Cloud Over My Parade
The next day, though, I got an email with a link to a review that had just been published about the concert.
This review was one of the most scathing I’d ever read about ANY concert, much less my own.
The reviewer clearly did not enjoy the concert—didn’t enjoy my delivery, hated the jokes, and even mocked my dress. (Now I know how those celebrities feel when relegated to the “worst dressed” lists!)
I felt my balloon bursting by the second… but then I read the worst part: apparently, I was consistently “sharp” in the Villa-Lobos!
As an artist manager, consultant, and coach, I’ve talked many an artist off the ledge upon getting a negative review. I have also done a great deal of work uncovering my own thought patterns and trying to be selective about the voices that I encourage in my head, as well as the ones that I find to be destructive and unhelpful.
In spite of all this, I found myself deeply hurt by the review. Worse yet, it made me question all of my recollections of the evening. Somehow, since it was in print, this review carried one-hundred-fold more weight than my own experience, and more weight than ALL of the feedback I got that evening and in the days to come from the people who were in attendance.
Several audience members commented on the review online, in disagreement, talking about how meaningful the evening was for them. But for me, reviewer’s voice was still loudest.
I regretted putting myself out there. I regretted choosing the repertoire that Angel Romero and I had selected (clearly, it didn’t show off my strengths!). I regretted my dress choice. I wished I could erase that night from my history. All because one person didn’t enjoy the concert.
Suddenly, it didn’t matter that some six hundred people may have had meaningful experiences, and that at least one person—Harry—found the performance deeply healing and meaningful. And it definitely didn’t matter that I had had a phenomenal time and had, just a day ago, felt proud of my performance.
For a week, when people back home asked how it went, I told them it was great, and swallowed hard behind my smile, feeling ashamed and hurt by the truth. The “truth” being what the reviewer wrote. Her voice continued to ring louder than the others.
How I Turned It Around
Finally, I got to the point where I decided that her voice doesn’t get to be louder. In fact, it didn’t have to matter at all.
Here’s why: NONE of what she spoke to in her review is even connected to my mission.
She didn’t talk about my emotional connection or impact, she didn’t talk about the sense of communication and one-ness that happened in that hall.
The real truth is that I had gotten overwhelming feedback from the audience that my intended outcome was successful.
I share this lengthy story with all of you because it has taught me three things:
#1 Remember Your Power of Choice
There are many voices in your head (experts say we think as many as 300 thoughts at once!). If you don’t like the record that’s playing, be kind, supportive, and gentle with yourself. Accept that it’s painful or unsettling. And then give yourself permission to listen more earnestly to a different voice.
#2 Remember Your Mission
Does what the voice is saying even matter to you?
For me, I got so hung up on the fact that the review was so negative, I didn’t even stop to dissect what was being criticized.
If someone said in a review that I’m not a great athlete, I would laugh and agree. I wouldn’t be hurt not only because it’s objectively true, but also because I’ve never tried to be a great athlete!
It’s harder when someone is criticizing my work. But it’s so important to keep in mind that here, what I wanted to achieve wasn’t even being criticized. So in the bigger picture of what I was trying to achieve, the negative voice doesn’t matter at all, as it didn’t speak to what mattered to me.
#3 Decide What Matters
Your memory and experience are yours, and someone else’s take on it doesn’t have to change it. You can allow someone else to change it, or you can instead make a firm decision not to allow it to be changed.
The Power of Mindset
When you work on clarifying your mission and cutting through negative self-talk, it doesn’t mean that you’ll never be faced with difficult emotions or negative thoughts.
It just means that the negativity won’t weigh you down for as long as it used to. It won’t carry as much power as it once did.
When you get to this internal place, your career unfolds easily and your passion can never get squelched.
It’s a powerful place from which to make decisions. That’s why Jennifer and I are gearing up to offer you an easy way to get laser-like focus on your goals and move through the obstacles—both internal and external—that are standing in your way.
Be on the lookout for that offer in the coming weeks!
In the meantime, share your experience with rejection and negative self-talk. How do you overcome it? Leave a comment below.