Fake It 'til You Make It; The Importance of Hubris

December 22, 2017




  1. excessive pride or self-confidence.

    synonyms:arrogance, conceit, haughtiness, hauteur, pride, self-importance, egotism, pomposity, superciliousness, superiority; More

    • (in Greek tragedy) excessive pride toward or defiance of the gods, leading to nemesis. 

-Definition provided by Google


Hubris is a horrible trait. We associate it with people who's own sense of import overshadows their capability. It is a fundamental ingredient in every Greek myth involving human beings. Most of us would have told Odysseus to take it down a notch if we were given the opportunity. But the truth is that all of us suffer from a degree of it in most elements of our lives. Pop stars who think their talent makes them good actors. Reality TV stars who think they would make good politicians. Violinists who think their opinions are worth putting down into a blog (those ones are the WORST).


It is also an invaluable element in becoming a musician. But before we get to that, lets start with the latter subject: negativity.


This is a tricky topic, mostly because it is a difficult topic to quantify, and I will be using mostly anecdotal evidence (because this is the bulk of the evidence available). It is, however, an important enough topic to me that I feel compelled to at least attempt to write about it.


Let's start off by listing a few things which negativity is not. Negativity is not criticism, caution, or practicality. If a coach or colleague is criticizing musical or technical choices (or most likely, lack thereof) you have made, this cannot be taken as negativity. Remember that one of the fundamental truths of being a musician is that you will never truly know what you sound like to a live audience. Thus, despite being somewhat opaque, having people with whom you trust giving you honest feedback is invaluable. The same rule is true of caution and practicality. As the English poet John Donne famously wrote, "no man is an island." 


So now that I've sufficiently beaten around the bush, here is an example of what I mean by negativity. Hopefully its ambiguous enough that I don't get any angry emails.


I competed in the international circuit for around a decade, and one of the most important lessons I learned about competitions and the music world came fairly early, in one of my earlier competitions. The image most people have of competitions is, or at least it was for me, false. The majority of people I met competing were wonderfully gifted, hard working, and humble. There is nothing as unnatural and unnerving as playing for an audience of jury members waiting for you to make a mistake. There is something especially cruel about an arena where the only way to lose is to fall upon one's sword,  and it left most of the regular contenders humbled by the experience. There was one such competition however, when there was a particularly glaring example of the opposite.


I was sitting in a row with other competitors, during the nerve wracking semi-finalist announcement. As they slowly and dramatically announced each contestant, people in my row started showing signs of relief, disappointment, or excitement as their name was either announced or skipped. A majority of the people sitting near me happened to advance, and one girl in particular seemed to be taking the announcement of her elimination particularly hard, so competitors and friends around her were quietly giving her words of consolation and encouragement. Someone who was clearly a mentor or teacher approached, and as they did so, she yelled "how could I be eliminated when they passed?"


That situation still makes me grimace, mostly because awkward situations make me feel like my organs are trying to turn themselves inside out, but it was also important for me. This person didn't bother to stick around for jury feedback, and most of what I heard from them later was how biased the jury was, etc., etc. 


That, in a nutshell, is the negativity I'm talking about. It's the kind of negativity thats only purpose is to preserve your own sense of self worth, at the cost of learning something about yourself that your colleagues are too polite to tell you. 


So now we finally come back to the primary subject of this little diatribe: the importance of hubris. Every person who goes into classical music does so without knowing the implausibility of succeeding in the way they imagine. We hear CDs, or watch videos, or go to concerts, and think "Yeah, I could do that." This is an essential ingredient to the concept we have of grit; the idea that if we keep on working we will achieve greatness despite overwhelming odds. Grit without a sense of destiny or destination is belligerence bordering on stupidity, and every musician and music teacher has to walk that line.


Your experience and struggles within the field of music will be better if you can find a good balance between being an unabashed optimist, but with a good sense of what you have to offer. Yes, you have something unique and wonderful to give to the music world, but what tools are you working with? Have you been committed to practicing every day since you were 4, and had a great private instructor for that length of time? There are lots of traditional options that will probably be available to you, if you know what kind of performer/teacher you are. Did you realize you love music fairly late? Fear not, but understand you will have to get creative and emphasize skills that can be honed to perfection later in life. And for the love of God, don't compare yourself to the guy who's been playing since he was a fetus. You will have very different roles to play, and yours will probably end up being much more interesting, since you will have to improvise more.


So to musicians I say, go for it. Your dreams are worth putting the effort into realizing. But do so with the infinite flexibility of your imagination. If you really love our music world, you will find your place in it if you are diligent and are honest with your own abilities. Don't dismiss your more optimistic colleagues. Being snarky or sarcastic is unbecoming, and usually betrays the owner's own lack of confidence and competence. 


Music teachers: Let them go for it. Your ideals will guide them, but students who are not meeting them are not necessarily doomed to fail. A mediocre violinist could find themselves as a top tier conductor. A struggling cellist could find their voice as a composer. 



Enjoyed the post? Disagree with everything I just wrote? Either way, please feel free to send me a message! While you're at it, please check out my facebook page and my other professional collaborations:


The Euclid Quartet


The Shea-Kim Duo

Music in Familiar Spaces





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