Now into their second year, my coaching groups at the Yale School of Music have provided a powerful measure of support to our budding artists as they forge the joys and the uncertainties of the artistic path.
This year, our coaching groups were much more free form than last year. Students shared their challenges and successes and we improvised our topics based what came up. Time again, our musicians talked about their self-doubts, the fears, the struggle to manage time, and the complexity of managing professional and personal relationships.
The beauty of these groups is that our members felt free to share openly. In our final sessions (occurring variously in our usual classroom setting as well as over tapas at dinner and at breakfast in a Belgian waffle spot since we also have a lot of fun in these groups!), the students related how comforting it was to have a place where they could talk about their challenges and weaknesses without fear of judgment. They also felt validated in hearing from others how similar their struggles were, feeling compassion for their peers, as well as learning how to be compassionate to themselves. And they also relished the ability to share their triumphs and hear of the successes of their fellow coaching group members.
What came out loudly and clearly was how important it was for these artists to have a safe place in which to share their vulnerabilities and feel a sense of support.
Vulnerability has a powerful spokesperson in author and researcher Brené Brown, whose TED talk, The Power of Vulnerability has well over 15 million views.
Brown’s research shows that those who have a strong sense of love and belonging—who feel authentic, worthy, compassionate to themselves and others and strongly connected to the people in their lives— are able to show their vulnerability and have the courage to be imperfect:
“The thing that underpinned this was excruciating vulnerability, this idea of, in order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen.”
Vulnerability certainly resonates with our artists.
In order to create great art, you need to be authentic and feel the range of emotions from joy to sorrow so that you can tap into your experience—both the highs and the lows—and share a meaningful experience through your art. That often means being vulnerable: trying something out with no guarantees over the outcome and the distinct possibility of rejection or failure. The members of our coaching groups experienced vulnerability in many ways: experimenting with a new way of performing, trying out composing or making arrangements, auditioning for a coveted spot in an orchestra or a festival, creating a new ensemble or even speaking up in class—any situation where they felt a sense of risk and a possibility of “failure”. And what they learned is that in experiencing and exposing their vulnerability, not only did they develop more courage but they also forged deeper connections to themselves, to the special people in their lives and to their art. Indeed, our students remarked that feeling vulnerable is another “growth mindset” experience since it enabled them to learn and grow as artists and as people.
Here’s the rub:
The outside world does not want to hear about these struggles.
Our students reported that when asked by their mentors or parents how things are going, the expected response is to recite the latest string of successes (I won this audition, I am attending this master class, I am performing with XYZ ensemble this weekend). And yet, to be whole-hearted and authentic as artists and as people, one needs to experience vulnerability.
That’s my sense of why the amazing young musicians in my coaching groups voluntarily show up every other week, despite their busy professional and academic schedules, to show their vulnerable sides, to grown and learn and to feel the compassion from and support of their peers as they bravely forge the artistic career path.
Here is how Brown beautifully summarized the importance of vulnerability:
This is what I have found: to let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen; to love with our whole hearts, even though there’s no guarantee …to practice gratitude and joy in those moments of terror, when we’re wondering, “Can I love you this much? Can I believe in this this passionately? Can I be this fierce about this?” just to be able to stop and, instead of catastrophizing what might happen, to say, “I’m just so grateful, because to feel this vulnerable means I’m alive.” And the last, which I think is probably the most important, is to believe that we’re enough. Because when we work from a place, I believe, that says, “I’m enough,” then we stop screaming and start listening, we’re kinder and gentler to the people around us, and we’re kinder and gentler to ourselves.
The lessons here?
We need a place where we can show our vulnerability. So take those artistic and personal risks to explore and deepen your art, do what you need to do in the outside world to carve out your place of success—and be sure to find a few trusted confidantes with whom you can share your vulnerable side. That will help you deepen your connection to yourself and others and feel a greater sense of authenticity so that you can forge your own successful artistic career path.