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Taking Compliments

Daniel Tan

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Published: November 13, 2014 at 1:03 PM [UTC]

This can also be read here at my personal blog.

Ok this isn't really a lesson on taking compliments, nor can I profess to knowing very much about it, but what I do know is that in the past, I have struggled greatly with simply accepting them.

There comes a point in your violin (or other passion related) pursuit whereby you realise that you're never truly going to be happy with anything you produce. A performance will always have a technical flaw that you worked for weeks to fix only to have it fall apart in performance. Or a phrase that didn't speak musically the way you want it. Or perhaps a passage where intonation was that tiny bit doggier than it usually is. However, at the end of the day, we still put our work out there in the hope that it may mean something to the people who come to experience it, and that they may enjoy it.

The problem arises when your standard of expectation clashes with those of your audience members. Often you are playing to a largely uneducated group of people (in comparison to yourself) who have no idea about the true intricacies of what you are presenting. In reality, I actually find this quite liberating. I don't mean so in the sense of lowering the standard of what you present, or not trying as hard. Rather, it is liberating because they are there to enjoy themselves. People who try to enjoy themselves don't come searching for flaws, and mistakes. Even when you are playing to an educated audience (as I often have to in university), they don't always know that you've struggled with trying to relax your shoulder, or tension in the thumb. So in reality, if the left shoulder gets tight does get tight in the performance, they are certainly not going to magnify it as a problem in the same way you do.

The thing is, at the end of it all, often people will pay you compliments, many of which you may not feel were warranted. As a performer, I feel like this all the time.

"How could they possibly enjoy themselves if my bow arm was as tense as it was."

When put like that, it does seem quite ridiculous and hyperbolic in nature (and I have exaggerated here) , but in reality, it is a thought process I used to go through all the time. How could these people possibly know what good playing sounds like. Who are they to determine if they enjoyed something or not?

I've over time learned to take compliments graciously without feeling guilty about it and not to be so quick to add my own personal thoughts and perspective to the discussion. Because the more I think about it, the more I believe that it's rude to disagree with someone complimenting you. It says, 'you can't possibly understand this enough to make a sound judgement,' it says 'you don't know what you're talking about,' and most alarmingly it says, 'my opinion of this is more valid than yours.'

That's not to say you're not allowed to express disappointment in yourself or have a strong sense of self evaluation later. However, a compliment means that you have actually achieved what you have set out to achieve even if you don't feel like you have. It means someone enjoyed what you offered up. It means they were moved. It means the music you played, or the work you created spoke to them. Isn't that what we as musicians want? Isn't that what we do this for (beyond intrinsic benefit and enjoyment)?

After all, we are our own worst critics, and as such, terrible judges of how the music we presented affected others.

After all, these people have made the effort to tell us about it.

After all, they were able to enjoy your performance, despite your bow not being straight. They probably didn't even notice.

Compliments are the best opportunity we have to connect with our audiences and the people who support us. It doesn't help if we stop listening.

From Alice Trimmer
Posted on November 13, 2014 at 5:39 PM
I am glad you have worked this out for yourself. The truth is that even highly educated people in the audience do not always give 110% of their attention throughout a performance so a lot of what worries us as performers may not be noticed or even heard. I think it is ungracious to argue with someone who is giving you a compliment, the only suitable response is "Thank you so much, I'm so glad you were able to come." or some variation of that. We should save the catalog of what did not go well for the debriefing session with our teacher {or a colleague you planted in the audience to give you feedback). I think it is important to remember that performing is a learning process, and that if we expect each and every time we perform to be the rendition of the century we will set ourselves up for a lot of unnecessary suffering.
Posted on November 13, 2014 at 6:40 PM
Accepting compliments graciously is a mannerism that should be taught and learned. In society today, everyone reaches for perfection and sadly, life passes us by because we are focused on perfection when we should be focused on living life and enjoying it. What should be important is bringing joy and happiness to your audience through your playing. They aren't expecting perfection, they're there to listen and enjoy your performance.

Save the critiques for lessons and competitions. I can enjoy a mediocre performance as long as the performer(s) are enthusiastic and having a good time. Don't put so much pressure on yourself. My kids also had to work through this and thankfully they now realize performing is a gift to your audience and even if you flounder and play the movements out of order, no one is going to care if they look relaxed and carry on like that mistake was done on purpose. Musical interpretation is at the players discretion after all. :)

When you perform for an audience you are entertaining. Go out on the stage and give them what they want and expect...a violin performance by a player who loves the instrument and the music they are about to perform.

From Sander Marcus
Posted on November 13, 2014 at 10:17 PM
I read somewhere (maybe it was Oscar Levant's book, "A Smattering of Ignorance") that a woman came up to Mischa Elman after a concert and said something like this: "It must be wonderful to go all over the world and play the violin with such virtuosity." Elman replied, "Sometimes I think it's all a dream."
From Daniel Tan
Posted on November 13, 2014 at 10:41 PM
You're absolutely 100% with that comment Alice! I think it is definitely ungracious to refute any type of compliment, not for being shallow, but because their opinion of what they enjoyed is no less, and probably in fact, more valid than your own.
Posted on November 14, 2014 at 9:47 AM
As a new student and an older adult, I often feel like I am going in reverse about how I sound on the violin. This article has inspired and encouraged me. After reading it, I wrote the following email to my instructor. Keep in mind that I can walk up to a stranger, or to a crowd of people I don't know and talk to and encourage them. Everyday I make it a point to encourage others and leave them smiling.

I titled the email with a quote from the article. It was written to my violin instructor who often sends links to articles in this site.

A copy of the email follows:

"you're never truly going to be happy with anything you produce."

I am sure you read this, but I think your students, especially me, could benefit from reading this article. It is about taking compliments, but I saw it from the perspective of skill and perfection. Its hard for me to accept what I sound like knowing others sound so much better playing the same piece.

My cousin Ian once listened to my wife, my daughter and me play a piece. It sounded terrible, but he thought it was really great and enjoyed it.

You know I am really scared about others hearing how bad I sound. I am still nervous and cannot play with you in the room as well as I can when I am alone. I imagine that with time, I'll get over it. But in the meantime, maybe I need to be reminded that even the pros have the same feeling about their imperfections: they just don't let it show.

From Daniel Tan
Posted on November 14, 2014 at 11:55 PM
Hi! It really means a lot to hear that you were encouraged by the article and that you shared it in the hope of benefiting other people too!

In reality, as you get better with time, your conception of 'bad' vastly improves. Hence, what you used to think is good, is now your 'not as good' and that's the process of improvement and progress that makes violin and other similar pursuits so enjoyable!

I am by no means a professional yet, but my teacher (who I distinctly remember flawlessly playing a double stop passage from the Brahms Violin Concerto in my first lesson) often talks to me about how she has to deal with all the same things everyone else does. You would never tell that she shakes, or gets nervous from the way she performs, but she's learned to deal with it effectively, as I hope to some day too! It's all a process. One of which everyone is at a different stage in.

So whilst we don't want to get complacent, also take great courage from the people who enjoy your music!

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