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A Parents' Guide to Conservatory Auditions, Part 10: Being Good at Being Uncomfortable

Karen Rile

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Published: December 19, 2013 at 9:37 PM [UTC]

Click here for a reference page to all of Karen Rile's series: A Parents' Guide to Conservatory Auditions

Good-At-Being-Uncomfortable

I still only travel by foot and by foot, it's a slow climb,
but I'm good at being uncomfortable, so
I can't stop changing all the time.

—Fiona Apple, from the song “Extraordinary Machine”

BEING GOOD AT BEING UNCOMFORTABLE

In last week’s column I offered the idea that a talented peer group can help propel a student to achieve her potential. In response, a reader posted this thoughtful comment:

“…As someone who has spent much of my life in the middle-to-back of the pack at elite institutions, I'm less optimistic and enthusiastic about the effect you describe, especially for introverts. If one is not naturally much of a social go-getter, one can easily get lost in the shuffle among the (perceived) more talented, or at least more extroverted, peers. …” [Emphasis mine.]


Her point about middle-of-the-pack students getting lost in the crowd supports her larger thesis (see the rest of her remarks), against our cultural bias towards elite institutions. But of interest, also, is her secondary point, that while introverts tend to disappear into the staticky background, extroverts get a lot of airplay, talent notwithstanding.

We all recognize the type:

Punchinella decides to enter the annual concerto competition. And then she makes a big deal about it in front of everyone, as if she had a chance of winning, which you can clearly see she doesn't; you even feel a little embarrassed on her behalf. Maybe you gloat—just a little—when, predictably, she’s eliminated in the first round. And how does Punchinella react to her loss? Does she hide out in her room, with the lights low, earbuds full of Mahler 8, banging out a long, self-recriminating entry on her Tumblr? Nope: she goes out to celebrate with the winners, and then the next day she’s back in the practice room, sawing away at some new repertoire, not a care in the world.

Next month, an elite summer orchestra festival holds scholarship auditions at your school. You're tempted to apply, but in the end you hang back, figuring the competition will be too fierce—all those seniors and grad students!—maybe next year. Naturally, Punchinella throws her hat into the ring. (“What do I have to lose?” she laughs.) When the results come back, you’re stunned: somehow, Punchinella made it in. How did this happen? You go over it again and again in your head. You know precisely where you stand on the continuum of talent, discipline, and accomplishment, and you know you’re ahead of Punchinella. But you didn’t try out; she did.

Your teacher will be out of town next weekend and needs a sub for his pre-college studio class. You’re hoping he’ll pick you—he knows you love kids, and that you’ve been teaching in the conservatory’s afterschool program for two years. But Punchinella, who has no teaching experience and doesn’t even like kids, gets the job instead. Why? Because she didn’t sit around passively waiting to be picked. She went directly to your teacher and asked.

Oh, to be an extrovert like Punchinella. In each instance above, she puts herself out there, without apparent self-awareness. In the first case, she over-reaches, falls on her face, and recovers, turning what could have felt like a humiliating disappointment into a positive experience. In the second, she makes an underdog's gambit and wins. In the third, she makes a request—and it's granted. Because she had the audacity to ask.

Clearly, a proclivity for extroversion is an enormous asset for a performer (or, for that matter, anyone in a competitive situation). It helps if the whole world is your comfort zone. It helps if you’re not constantly second-guessing yourself, or taking to heart every smidgen of criticism you hear or imagine. It helps when you’re impervious to self-doubt, when negativity rolls of you like water off the proverbial duck’s back. It helps when you don't have a problem asking for favors, and when being turned down means nothing more than, "Oh well, at least I tried!"

But that’s just not you. I get it—it’s not me, either. No amount of pep talk or whisky is going to turn an introvert into a Punchinella. Behavior that feels natural to her will never feel right to us—we’re stuck inside our over-thinking, introspective heads.

So, how to survive?

The answer is simple (if not easy). If you've gotten this far in life, then you already  know what it feels like: the weirdly theatrical, out-of-body act of speaking up. It's never going to feel comfortable, but you're good at being uncomfortable. So use it. You're also good at self-assessment and at analyzing social situations—use that, too. Make it work for you, not against.


  • Ask yourself, what do I want from this situation? In the case of the subbing job, your immediate goal is to be picked to run your teacher's class this weekend. Your long-term goal is for your teacher to see you as a potential teaching assistant. A dependable assistant communicates clearly and demonstrates patience. Your teacher cannot read your mind, so you need to work up the courage to tell him directly that you'd like to be considered in the future. That's five minutes of discomfort for a potentially large payoff.

  • Ask yourself, what's the worst thing that could happen if I fail? If you don't make it to the finals of  the concerto competition, will your head be impaled on a stake outside the conservatory walls for all to see? The real worst-case scenario is often not really all that bad. Will anyone even remember that you entered, ten minutes after the finalists are announced?

  • Remember that nobody's looking at you. Each of us is the star of our own personal drama, but that sad truth is that we are only minor characters in each other's lives. Even your obsession with Punchinella is no more than a function of your anxious self-doubt. When you think about Punchinella, you are really thinking about yourself. Like most introverts, you'd be more comfortable watching it all unfold from a cozy perch, wearing flannel pajamas and sipping cocoa. But to make it happen, you need to put your shoes on and walk into the room. There. You did it; you were briefly the center of attention, and now it's over.

Make peace with the idea that you'll never be a Punchinella. Go-getting will get easier, but it will be never feel easy. The biggest successes of my life—and those of every introvert I know—were direct results of some bold, uncomfortable-feeling gesture that went right. (The ones that failed are largely forgotten by anyone but me.) Were they worth the brief discomfort of stepping up, speaking out, putting myself on the line? You bet.

* * *

Click here for a reference page to all of Karen Rile's series: A Parents' Guide to Conservatory Auditions


From 192.249.47.209
Posted on December 20, 2013 at 4:04 PM
Where's the "like " button? I see every bit of this introvert in me. It applies directly.
From Allan Lewis
Posted on December 21, 2013 at 1:18 AM
Where were you 60 years ago when I needed to read this blog?

I certainly hope that teachers are telling their students to read V.com because there is so much information about every tiny detail of violin playing that no teacher can cover.

ABL

From Ellie Phillips
Posted on December 21, 2013 at 6:36 AM
If only I could have read this earlier! (Not sixty years earlier; more like last year.) But I've learned how to go-get nevertheless, and despite my introversion, I've even gotten a little bit comfortable being Punchinella. I'm still embarrassed that I actually told people I was entering a concerto competition, but considering that I didn't enter to win, I suppose it's not so terrible that everyone knew. And even we introverts can benefit from the moments of extroversion that stem from audacity.
From 184.76.107.27
Posted on December 21, 2013 at 2:37 PM
Karen, I have mixed feelings about this one. Yes, the early bird gets the worm and the squeaky wheel gets oiled. No one will win a competition who doesn't compete. However, a teacher should know the quality of her/his students and not pick the squeaky wheel if there is a better-qualified candidate available.

Also, you seem to combine 'introvert' with 'shy.' Introversion, at least as it is understood by Jung and co., is a personality type that derives its energy more from solitude than crowds, that spends more time with ideas and reflection. To quote from one of the Myers-Briggs websites if you are introvert:
"I like getting my energy from dealing with the ideas, pictures, memories, and reactions that are inside my head, in my inner world. I often prefer doing things alone or with one or two people I feel comfortable with. I take time to reflect so that I have a clear idea of what I’ll be doing when I decide to act. Ideas are almost solid things for me. Sometimes I like the idea of something better than the real thing.

The following statements generally apply [to an introvert]:

I am seen as “reflective” or “reserved.”
I feel comfortable being alone and like things I can do on my own.
I prefer to know just a few people well.
I sometimes spend too much time reflecting and don’t move into action quickly enough.
I sometimes forget to check with the outside world to see if my ideas really fit the experience."

Shyness--where a person is uncomfortable asserting him/herself, or lacks confidence--is an ENTIRELY different thing. We all spend time being introvert and time being extravert--but each has a basic temperament. Your Punchinella could easily be an assertive, self-confident introvert. Your other subject could just as easily be a shy extravert lacking self-confidence.

From 184.76.107.27
Posted on December 21, 2013 at 4:21 PM
Karen, I like this blog, but I do have some reservations. Yes, the squeaky wheel gets the grease, but doesn't the teacher have some responsibility to select the best-qualified substitute, regardless of "Punchinella's" assertiveness.

Beyond that, however, you seem to conflate being an introvert with being shy or lacking self-confidence: these are totally different. As Jung and company use the term 'introvert' (quoting from a Myers-Briggs' Foundation site) you are introvert if:

"I like getting my energy from dealing with the ideas, pictures, memories, and reactions that are inside my head, in my inner world. I often prefer doing things alone or with one or two people I feel comfortable with. I take time to reflect so that I have a clear idea of what I’ll be doing when I decide to act. Ideas are almost solid things for me. Sometimes I like the idea of something better than the real thing.

"The following statements generally apply to me:

I am seen as “reflective” or “reserved.”
I feel comfortable being alone and like things I can do on my own.
I prefer to know just a few people well.
I sometimes spend too much time reflecting and don’t move into action quickly enough.
I sometimes forget to check with the outside world to see if my ideas really fit the experience."

It's a matter of focus and energy, not assertiveness. Your "Punchinella" could BE introvert, just assertive. All of us are sometimes extravert, sometimes introvert in our actions, but each has a basic direction of energy focus. Mixing that with shyness or lack of self-confidence doesn't help.

Your suggestions are spot on for a person with low self-esteem or who is constitutionally shy; they just don't apply to introverts.

Love the series!

From David Rowland
Posted on December 21, 2013 at 11:36 PM
Boy, did I ever need to read this!

I'm trying to get my nerves under control in order to play a 2nd violin part at church on Christmas Eve in which the first 4 measures have the 2nd violin very exposed.

Thanks!

From Karen Rile
Posted on December 22, 2013 at 6:41 PM
184.76.107.27,

Thanks for your comment!

I am familiar with much of what has been written recently about the difference between introversion and shyness, and I am also familiar with Myers-Briggs and Jung. As an introvert (who is not particularly shy) I don't believe that I have confused the two, although I will admit that my discussion is by no means exhaustive or thorough-- just an 800-word essay that introduces another lens through which to consider things.

Introverts are indeed reflective, as you point out. My intended point was that the introspective nature of the introvert can be helpful for figuring out, analytically, how to overcome the emotional challenge of putting oneself out there (if one is inclined to over-think and second-guess one's every move.)

Punchinella (of course, a made-up character), enters the competition without a chance of winning (at least, in the eyes of the also-fictional second person narrator). She loses, doesn't dwell on it, and goes out to party with the winners. To me, this is an extrovert (or extravert; your spelling is more traditional, but the "o" spelling seems to have taken over recently.) But your reading of her character could also be legit, since none of us really knows what is going on inside her head.

And, of course, you're right: we are all a little of both at one time for another.

From marjory lange
Posted on December 22, 2013 at 10:45 PM
Karen, thanks for the thoughtful response (mine's the double post w/ ip address--didn't realize that a non-member's comments are 'vetted' before posted and forgot I cleared my cache so wasn't logged in).

I'm not disagreeing with what you suggest the different method of proceeding might for the two types you offer, just the basis you give for it may be misleading. Is there material to support that an extravert might be more at home competing than in an introvert? If so,that would open another interesting field of endeavor. Extraverts tend to get their energy from others, so it wouldn't surprise me if the competitive arena was more comfortable for such. I suppose, carried to an extreme, then a case could be made for introverts being 'better' at practice? No, I don't think I want to go there! maybe you do...

And, yes, my spelling of 'extravert' is traditional, probably because I (like Jung et co.) was exposed to Latin at an early age, and it stuck.

Have a good holiday.


From Karen Rile
Posted on December 23, 2013 at 4:28 AM
Marjory,

Thanks again for your thoughtful comments. One of the reasons for using the modernized spelling was to nudge away from the Jungian personality theories so I could focus on the thesis of this short, somewhat breezy essay. Perhaps I should have simply used different words.

An extended analysis sounds like an interesting project, but to refocus on whether an extravert is more at home with competing than an introvert requires an immersion in the these theories that is outside of my range of interest at present. I am coming at it from the other direction, using "introvert" "extrovert" in a convenient way as they are commonly understood (and, I believe, differentiated from "shyness"). I apologize if you felt I was glibly misleading readers towards an incomplete understanding of these terms, and hope that anyone who is interested in Myers-Briggs type indicators will follow up with appropriate reading.

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