Why do musicians beat themselves up?

Why do musicians beat themselves up?


norman lebrecht

April 22, 2015

Some trenchant reflections from Dana Fonteneau:



fight orchestra


Here’s the thing.  95% of what I hear when talking with other musicians, regardless of whether it’s in a personal or professional capacity, is negativity and criticism.  Here’s a list of things I’ve heard in just the last three days.

  • “We played a concert last week and it was terrible, I’m embarrassed to have my name in the program.”
  • “I just played a performance, the audience LOVED it, but I know it sucked.”
  • “I can’t BELIEVE so and so won that competition-he is so full of himself!
  • “Did you hear so and so’s latest CD?  It’s so careful and calculated. And WHAT is she WEARING on the cover photo?! GROSS!”
  • “I went to my lesson and the teacher said I played beautifully, but I know it was full of the mistakes.”

It goes on and on.

So why do we do it? And how do we stop?

Read on here.



  • David Murphy says:

    Much wisdom here – well worth reading the whole article – food for thought for all performing artists.

  • Dana Fonteneau says:

    Thank you so much for reposting this blog post! I’ve been following Slipped Disc and the Arts Journal for the last few years-really important and fantastic resources.
    Thank you!

    All the very best,
    Dana Fonteneau


  • Michael Moran says:

    However brilliant one is at whatever profession requiring talent and mastery be it medicine, music, writing, engineering, acting, art or so many others one must never overlook the fundamental importance of character and its development. Education used to consider ‘character building’ (empathy and cultural understanding in particular) important in a young person’s personal growth but how old-fashioned that now sounds!

    The performing arts in particular are prone to this type of negativity because the world we live in prizes narcissism, image, ‘performance’ and vanity above all. Just glance through the best-selling Daily Mail newspaper in the UK – once! Then read the poem by W.B.Yeats ‘The Second Coming’ for a truer vision of the present.

    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

    How to change it? More altruism and what the ancient Greeks called arete but faint hope as the majority including educational establishments are dancing in a frenzy around the golden calf.

  • william osborne says:

    This history of art has been made by those unhappy with it.

  • Holly Mulcahy says:

    So very valid. Why are there no music classes in conservatory to head this off? Seems like we’ve been fighting this for centuries. I had one very wise teacher at Peabody who set a good tone in her studio classes….after a student would finish playing, before participants in the class would offer up criticisms or suggestions, they would have to list three positive things about the performance they just heard. So very wise.

  • william osborne says:

    The dissatisfaction classical musicians have with themselves is common because it is part of their ritualized deference to the Maestro. The musician is imperfect, the Maestro blameless. The musician the imperfect instrument of the human flesh, the Maestro the Aristotelian perfection of form, the highest and most transcendent, non-corporeal reality. The torturous, body-crushing penances of practice in the halls of conservatories will conquer the flesh and take us to deific realms. With verbal lashes we castigate ourselves, and release the musical soul to a higher world. If we want classical instrumentalists and singers to leave behind the patriarchal ethos that all have fallen short of transcendent perfection (and the Maestro,) we will need to reinvent the art form from the ground up.

    • Brian Hughes says:

      I must be a truly imperfect “maestro”. Whenever something goes awry in rehearsal, my first thought is, “What did I do wrong?”

      • Gerhard says:

        This sounds like a laudable, but very uncommon attitude to me. The thought: “What can I find to criticize now?” seems to be far more widespread.