“A bell's not a bell 'til you ring it - A song's not a song 'til you sing it - Love in your heart wasn't put there to stay - Love isn't love 'til you give it away!”
― Oscar Hammerstein, II, lyrics from “Sixteen Going On Seventeen” from The Sound of Music
If there’s one statement that always furrows my brow, it’s this one: “Oh, I don’t want to perform. I just want to play for my own pleasure.”
I understand that a performance can add pressure that takes away from the enjoyment of playing music. Further, I completely agree that we should always play for our own pleasure. If we don’t enjoy it, what would be the point in working so hard at it?
But I firmly believe that we should not play only for our own pleasure. Music is a means of communication, particularly for thoughts that are hard to express in words. Also, if your music pleases you, why wouldn’t it please others too?
I’d like to suggest that we consider playing for others in a different light. Let’s not call it “performance;” let’s talk about it as “sharing” your music.
When you share something, it doesn’t have to be perfect, or even complete. For instance, you might show a half-finished knitting project to a friend, or a sketch for a painting. Naturally, music is always a “work in progress.” Even when we have polished a piece, each time we play it will be a new experience.
When you share something, it isn’t about yourself. It’s not a trial or an exam; it’s simply a gift. It’s not about judgment or criticism but about letting someone else learn a little bit more about what is important or interesting to you.
So why are so many musicians reluctant to play for others? Even people who aren’t normally shy or self-conscious, fear making a mistake or embarrassing themselves. They think their music has to be something particularly difficult or splashy in order for it to be worth a listener’s attention. I would venture to say that those same people would never be that kind of listener themselves. Most people are understanding and appreciative.
Those musicians who decide to try sharing their music often stop if their first experience doesn’t go well. Playing for others is a skill that is totally different from practicing, and like any other skill, it gets easier with practice. And the rewards are worth it.
Sharing your music will allow you to grow as a musician. You will learn how to make your music more expressive. You will learn how to play beyond the notes, to focus on the music and to create more flow and fluidity in your playing.
Sharing your music will further your personal growth. You will learn to rise above fear, to celebrate your accomplishments without self-consciousness and to find joy in the gift of music that you can make to someone else.
When you share your music with others, your energy is refreshed. You put a lot of energy into studying and practicing your music. When you play for your own pleasure, it cycles back into you. And speaking from my own personal experience, that feels good.
But when you play for others, your musical energy feeds them, and they respond by feeding yours. This is the phenomenon that makes many actors prefer working in the theatre to working on films. The energy that comes back to you from a live audience helps drive you and inspire you, not just for the moment but afterward as well. For people who feel lacking in motivation, this is the best way to gain it back.
Keep in mind that you don’t have to share everything you love to play. Having a piece or two that are “just for you” is fine. Here’s an important tip: make your first sharing pieces easy and short. You don’t have to climb Mt. Everest on your first trip out.
When is the right time to begin? I suggest that you get in the habit of sharing right from the beginning of your music studies. Embrace the “look what I learned” attitude. And starting right now is not starting too late.