On Vulnerability

 

“A musician cannot move others unless he too is moved. He must of necessity feel all of the affects that he hopes to arouse in his audience, for the revealing of his own humor will stimulate a like humor in the listener.”

-C. P. E. Bach, Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments

“I don’t know how it is, I seem to be always writing about myself. I mean all the time to write about other people, and I try to think about myself as little as possible, and I am sure, when I find myself coming into the story again, I am vexed and say, “Dear, dear, you tiresome little creature, I wish you wouldn’t!” but it is all of no use. I hope anyone who may read what I write will understand that if these pages contain a great deal about me, I can only suppose it must be because I have really something to do with them, and can’t be kept out.”

-Charles Dickens, Bleak House

People who have known me for a while, those who somehow have had the patience to deal with my social awkwardness; my paranoid, neurotic thought processes; my bullish, stubbornness; know that I show affection in only one way: insults. The more I like you, the more I make fun of you, the more I point out your faults. When I think about why I express affection like this, the more I think it’s because of the way I was brought up. Like any responsible adult, I blame my mother.

I can’t think of any instance when my mother has said, I love you. That’s just not her way. Her way of saying I love you is to look at me and say: Why you so fat? Did you eat? Eat, eat! Why you so fat? The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, I guess, since I always find myself insulting the people I value most.

I’m grateful that I have enough people who have stuck around to know my insults are my way of showing affection, that it’s just a way of showing that I care. What’s more fun than good natured ribbing between friends, after all?

Except, of course, it can get tiresome if that’s your only mode of interaction. The constant teasing, the insults, the incessant joking can shut down any chance of a serious discussion. It closes the door on sharing what’s important to you: your passions, your values, your feelings. It can shut down any chance of getting closer to another person.

Avoiding closeness is probably why I operate in insults. Not that I don’t want close relationships with people, but close relationships require me to be open to others; they require me to risk showing more of myself than what I show to strangers on the street or mere acquaintances, those cast of characters you see every day, but don’t make the effort to get to know. It requires me to be vulnerable. And nothing makes me feel more uneasy than being vulnerable in front of another human being. It’s a fear that I’ve had for as long as I can remember.

At the risk of sounding like an armchair psychiatrist, when I think about why I fear vulnerability, I can only think back to my childhood. After all, I was that kid. You know the one. That perennially awkward kid, the kid who kept to himself, the kid with no real friends. I wasn’t that kid by choice, of course. It just seemed that everything I did, everything about me was deemed unworthy by those arbiters of the playground code of cool, that mysterious set of laws that every kid spends so much time trying to demystify only to be even more confused. I was just too different, or I should say the other kids made me different and felt it was ok to make my life unpleasant, to say the least (the fact that my “Asianess”–I went to mostly white schools–and my weight probably contributed a lot to this is something that I’ve only begun to think about, but those thoughts are probably best saved for another blog post). Those few times, I let my guard down, let the other kids catch a glimpse of what I cared about, I was shut down. Life seemed to be telling me that opening up, being vulnerable in front of another person was not worth the risk, especially when the end result was almost always rejection and ridicule.

There were a lot of bad years while I was growing up, but I don’t want to make it seem like things were always awful. People got a lot kinder as I grew up and things got better as I grew older, but I couldn’t let go of those scars, those feelings of worthlessness, the fear of opening up to another person. I still have these feelings. You would think that a man in his thirties should be able to move past the terrors of his middle school years. But, horrifying as it is to admit, sometimes middle school never ends, especially if you don’t let it. Coping mechanisms you develop at a time when you can barely wipe your own ass clean are hard to let go Building a wall around me, virtually wearing a flashing neon sign reading DON’T GET CLOSE! made me feel safe and less likely to get me in situations where I felt out of control, where the cruel eyes of other people could judge me.

Except, there must have been something in me that wanted to tear down that wall. Why else would I choose to be a musician? It certainly isn’t the money.

The thing about music that I love is its ability to communicate emotions in a way that’s visceral. It has an uncanny ability to distill any complex emotions and make you feel them in your gut in a way that feels more genuine to me than any description of emotions through language. Language feels especially inadequate to me when I try to tell people what I’m feeling. Words seem to only limit my emotions to generic categories–sadness, happiness, anger. But what if I’m all of those things at once? How do I describe that? Mixed emotions? That hardly does any justice to the actual feeling. Music, at least for me, can describe all of those complicated emotions, not only describe but make me feel all of those emotions more so than any words can. The joy of performing music is that you can share these emotions with a community of people who, ideally, are feeling exactly what you’re feeling during your performance.

And therein lied my problem. In order for my listeners to feel emotions during my performance, I had to feel emotions (C.P.E. is right about that). And for me to feel emotions, I had to be open about them in front of a group of people, a group of strangers. In order to open myself up to these strangers, I had to be vulnerable and risk whatever judgment they might throw at me. And what do I hate more than being vulnerable in front of other people? Probably nothing…maybe, snakes, but I think snakes still come up second.

For a long time, really most of my performing life, I got around this problem by rationalizing it away. I had a very objective view about music performance. It was just my job to play what was on the page and by doing that, my audience would feel the emotions that the music elicits. I didn’t have to feel them myself. I could still hide behind that protective wall, be safe while still doing something that I loved.

That didn’t work. It took me a long time to realize it, but the fact that I closed myself from feeling emotions on stage (other than maybe fear and uncertainty) really hindered my performances. People didn’t seem to connect with my playing on an emotional level the same way I saw them connecting with the performances of my peers. It frustrated me. I loved the music, why wasn’t it translating to people?

The answer came to me when in a performance I finally let my guard down. I used to perform quite a bit at retirement communities. They were opportunities for me to perform, usually chamber music with my friends, that were low pressure and paid a little to boot. I used to think of them as “unimportant” performances. I realize how stupid that is now. No performance is unimportant, especially when they actually teach you something.

In one concert for a retirement community, I was playing a Mozart violin sonata with a friend of mine (same one that I played the Brahms with, if you’re keeping up with this blog). We had little rehearsal time, but what rehearsal we had was a blast. The music was high spirited and we got into ornamentation games, just for the fun of surprising each other. By performance time, I remember making a conscious choice to just have fun, to really make clear what I thought was funny in the piece. The audience reaction was completely new to me. They were genuinely happy and they left looking upbeat. Audience members came up to me and I could see that they were actually moved by my playing. They had fun because I had fun. Did I mention that C.P.E. Bach was right? “A musician cannot move others unless he too is moved.” Shout Amen, brother.

I began to let my guard down more often, especially during these retirement community performances, and each time I left feeling that I had actually connected with people, that the music had moved them. My willingness to be open, to be vulnerable had paid off. There was no rejection, no ridicule. It was actually appreciated.

Of course, just because I was willing to let my wall down in front of one kind of audience didn’t mean that I felt comfortable doing that for all of my audiences. Even knowing that being vulnerable and open to feeling emotions during a performance made me perform better, didn’t mean that I could automatically put it into practice. There were some setbacks too. The end of my doctorate, for example, which long story short did not end the way i wanted it to end, blew my confidence out the window and made me revert back to putting up a wall and protect myself from feeling emotions on stage.

I was actually in that end of doctorate funk for a long time. I tried so hard to get out of it, pursued a lot of projects, performed when I wasn’t prepared, while retreating deeper into my protective inner wall. A lot of this behavior resulted in failure: unsuccessful performances, ruined professional relationships, job rejections by the score. I knew I had to change, to somehow build up my confidence again and start opening up during my performances, because I knew that always led to success.

But how do you practice opening up? How do you practice being vulnerable? The only way that I could think of doing that was to practice it in my personal life. The decision to try this out is still very new, and I haven’t done this with every one I know, but I’ve also seen results, both musically and professionally. I think So Many Wrong Notes is a great example of this new practice of mine of being open, honest and vulnerable resulting in success. Not to air our dirty laundry too much, but Jeannette and I don’t always agree, but because I’ve decided to be open about what I’m feeling and Jeannette, likewise, has been open with her thoughts, we seem to come to an agreement much sooner than if we had not said anything and harbored our feelings until we grew to resent each other.  We’ve come to understand each other better and I think we’ve grown closer because of it and the work on the podcast has become so much easier and more fun.

The willingness to be more open and vulnerable in my personal life has also helped me musically too. I now try to shove all my negative feelings aside when I play and try to feel the emotions that the music elicits in me. It doesn’t always work, but I seem to be getting better at it. People seem to be liking my playing more because of it.

Last February, I auditioned for the Historical Performance Department at the Juilliard School. I had auditioned last year and got waitlisted and I wanted to redeem myself. Last year’s audition, did not go as well as I would have liked. My first round audition was one of the best auditions I’ve ever played, but I choked in my callback. I got nervous, felt insecure and retreated back into my protective wall. This year I was determined not to do that. I was determined to be as emotionally involved as I could possibly be. With that determination made, I went into the audition and felt like the committee was more engaged with my playing than they were last year. They seemed to be listening more attentively. They even laughed at a particularly funny Scarlatti sonata on my program, like genuine laughter stemming from delight and not from the badness of my playing. Long story short, this year I was accepted. There were a lot of factors that played into my acceptance, but I think one of the biggest was my decision to risk being vulnerable, even in front of a scary committee of Juilliard faculty.

As I prepare to become a student again in the fall, I want to keep trying to be more open and vulnerable in front of other people. I may not always succeed and I might have a few relapses–old habits die hard, after all–but I think, just like anything else, the more I do it, the less I have to think about doing it. And the benefits are undeniable. I may have started confronting my problem of shutting myself out from others in order to become a better performer, but it’s also made me a better human being as well. Like the Grinch, I feel like my heart has grown three sizes.

I wrote this blog post as part of my practice in being more open. I hated writing most of it. It brought up a lot of feelings that I didn’t want to confront and definitely didn’t feel comfortable sharing with others. I did everything in my power to avoid writing it. I kept wondering if any one would be interested in this. After all, it was so self centered. The focus was all on me. And really am I that interesting? Can people relate to me at all?  But I worked through all the negative feelings, I kept working, and I have to say that I’m glad I finished. It’s another step closer to becoming less fearful about opening up, and any step towards that goal is worth celebrating.

 

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