Occasionally I have a student who has a habit of negative self-talk. When I ask her to play something slightly challenging, she responds: “I’m going to mess it up, I just know it.” Or he makes a mistake, stops, and says, “I’m so stupid.” When I hear this kind of talk, it’s time for The Lecture on Positive Self-Talk.
Saying positive things when talking to yourself might sound like woo-woo psychobabble, but it is actually quite important. Let me explain.
You might be familiar with what we know about the left and right hemispheres of the brain. But in case you don’t, here is a very high-level summary: Generally speaking, the left hemisphere is logical, sequential, analytical, and is responsible for producing speech. The right hemisphere is spatial, global, conceptual, and though it is great at processing emotional content and can understand what words mean, it is generally incapable of forming a word, much less a grammatically correct sentence.
If you say (with your left hemisphere) “I’m stupid”, even if you are kidding, your right hemisphere hears this. And it is not capable of critical analysis. Say things like this over and over, and it will eventually begin to permeate how you see yourself.
False modesty is not a virtue! If you have just performed and someone from the audience compliments your playing, just say “Thank you. I’m glad you liked it.” If you want to be truly modest, follow this up by asking a question to get the other person talking.
I even make a habit of saying things in an unambiguously positive way whenever possible. For example, you could say “That wasn’t terrible” or you can say “That was really good.” Go for the second option!
At the same time, I am not a fan of over-the-top self-congratulations. It isn’t very helpful, in my opinion, to make a habit of saying “I’m the best!” over and over until it becomes true. Comparison, even in an apparently “positive” way, is dangerous. It may never be true, and you really have no control over your abilities in relation to others. Better to simply say “That was very good”, which is true, believable, repeatable, and is based on variables you actually have control over (like regular practicing).
And so, in my music studio, we have a zero-tolerance policy for self-denigration. If I catch you putting yourself down, even subtly, I will make you say the positive opposite three times!
Quodlibet: A piece employing several well-known tunes from various sources, performed either simultaneously or in succession. (Schirmer Pocket Manual of Musical Terms)