Psychological problems probably account for the vast majority of difficulties or discouragements for a musician at every stage of their careers, and most of these should be avoidable. So often it boils down to inflated or distorted egos: the excessive desire to be admired, successful, or praised. There’s a sense in which these desires contain perfectly natural reflexes for us as human beings, both sheer survival techniques and also a matter of common sense and mental stability. But there’s also the potential here for enormous strain and self-destruction. If we walk on to the stage, or into a lesson, with an excessive hunger for approval or adulation we stifle something inside us. Aside from any moral or cultural distaste one might have for boastful, egotistical people, such self-absorption rarely makes sense from a purely practical standpoint. It’s like driving on the highway and looking too closely at the car in the next lane – the lack of perspective is dizzying and dangerous. Or like seeing reality in a mirror – observing ourselves only through the eyes of others and their approval or lack of it. The great pianist, Egon Petri, once said that we would never be nervous if we were humble. It’s not a matter of not caring, or of being a shrinking violet, but of practical mental health.
This is a battle with the self which is never completely won, and each defeat can be a further source of discouragement! I’m certainly far from victory and constantly have to remind myself again and again of these issues. But that bad masterclass, that failed audition, that vicious review, that memory lapse can pass us by unscathed if we can try to transcend the debris of our wounded egos. Whatever musical talent we have, whether great or modest, will flourish better in the larger garden of ultimate reality than in the cramped plant-pots of our own small worlds. To reach beyond ourselves in achievement is an ambition which can best be achieved by looking beyond our ‘selves’. That is after all what ‘ecstasy’ means, to stand outside: not as an ‘outsider’ but as one passionately involved, with a perspective that’s as large as the reality it aims to contemplate.
Now Tian Kai-zhi was having an interview with Duke Wei of Zhou, who said to him:
—I have heard that your master Zhu Shen has studied the subject of Life. What have you, sir, heard from him about it?
Tian Kai-zhi replied:
—What should I have heard from my master while sweeping his courtyard?
Duke Wei said:
—Do not put off the question, Tian; I want to hear what you have to say.
—I have heard my master say that he who skillfully nourishes his life is like a shepherd who brings back to the fold those sheep which lag behind the flock.
—What did he mean?
—In Lu there was a Shan Bao, who lived among the rocks, and drank only water. He would not take part in the toils of the people, nor in the benefits of those labors; and though he was now seventy years of age, still he had the complexion of a child. One day he encountered a hungry tiger, which immediately killed and ate him.
There was also a Zhang Yi, who hung up a screen at his door, and whom everyone was always hurrying to visit. In his fortieth year he fell ill of a fever and died.
Bao nourished the inner man, and a tiger ate his outer. Yi nourished his outer man, and disease attacked the inner. And so both of them had neglected their lagging sheep.
Zhuangzi, ca. 4th c. BCE
"The Full Understanding of Life"
This passion of our kind
For the process of finding out
Is a fact one can hardly doubt,
But I would rejoice in it more
If I knew more clearly what
We wanted the knowledge for,
Felt certain still that the mind
Is free to know or not.
It has chosen once, it seems,
And whether our concern
For magnitude’s extremes
Really become a creature
Who comes in a median size,
Or politicizing Nature
Be altogether wise,
Is something we shall learn.
- W. H. Auden
from After Reading a Child’s Guide to Modern Physics
Wisdom is not communicable. The wisdom which a wise man tries to communicate always sounds foolish… Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom. One can find it, live it, do wonders through it, but one cannot communicate and teach it.
Patience is invulnerable armor, and wisdom a sharp weapon.
Good people are good because they have come to wisdom through failure. We get very little wisdom from success, you know.
I’m no longer quite sure what the question is. But I do know that the answer is ‘yes.’
To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, remove things every day.
It does no harm to the romance of the sunset to know a little about it.