The Fall is well underway and the school year is by now in full swing. College students throughout Boston are moved in and settled into a routine that includes classes, study, hopefully exercise, probably some sleep, and definitely time to connect with new friends. My children, Colin and Lucia, are starting first grade this year and are faced with many similar social matters as college students. Both are thrust abruptly into new teachers, new faces, and obviously a new social structure at this time of year. Navigating this social dynamic well right now can really help the lonely doldrums still to come when the weather turns cold.
Let's be honest, musicians are generally not the most outgoing social animals at the zoo. In the quest for success all musicians must isolate themselves in the practice room for many hours each day to hone skills of technique and phrase architecture. This isolation can have rather negative effects on anyone's ability to relate to humanity. Although extra time in the practice room can be quite beneficial, it can also lead to an unfortunately pervasive "wall flower" character trait. My suggestion is; try to view basic communication skills like scales and arpeggios that can easily become rusty without practice.
So I found myself in conversation with my son at the park several days ago. Colin was taking an extended break from his socializing as we watched his new classmates play without him.
"Why don't you want to hang out with your new friends?" I asked.
"Well Papa, I think it's because I don't know them." Said Colin.
"I don't think they know you either big guy. How do you think that sort of thing can happen? Maybe you need to be brave and go talk to them?"
"Maybe..... It's just that I get nervous and I don't know what to say."
Colin and I are both "wall flowers" by nature even without the practice room, and this character trait certainly does not help either of us when faced with new people to meet. Together we came up with a new strategy that works rather well. In the spirit of this post I want to share it with you, my fellow "wall flowers" as I believe it is universal in application.
When you're nervous and don't know what to say, don't make statements, Ask Questions. I reminded Colin of our trick and he quickly picked himself up and walked back to his new friends. They immediately started chatting it up and I was left alone once again on the park bench smiling at my son - comfortable that it was okay for him to be brave and me to remain the true wall flower that I am.
People young and old love to talk about who they are and what they are interested in but it takes a certain conversational generosity to invite someone to chat about their life. When you meet new people, be very mindful of how how often you are making only statements without questions. Something as simple as "why is that?" can be enough to learn extraordinary things about a person and the world. Quite simply, a few statements with a well crafted question can quickly propel new relationships forward to a more meaningful level. For musicians especially, showing an active interest in people is an essential part of growing a social network for professional contacts, career development, and in more meaningful friendships - emotional support.
Of course, we musicians are often so mired in our work that we may have difficulty chatting about anything else. It is for this reason specifically that we must leave room for our lives to be defined by more than our work and thus balance our perception of our playing in it. If we continually see beyond the practice room walls to valuable interpersonal relationships we can then conclude on an emotional level that there is more to our existence than Bolero or Tuba Mirum. We can then more effectively survive both bad and good days without allowing our self worth to be gauged by how well we perform. In short, work hard to protect your ability to smile and build relationships filled with people that help you smile when you feel like you can't.