On Becoming Strengths-Focused, Whole-Hearted Artists

I loved the X-Men comics as a child, so I was pretty excited when my 8-year old started getting into the X-Men a few weeks ago.

As we geeked out about the different mutant powers, and talked about which character we would love to be, we also talked about why so many sought to hide their strengths, and were ashamed and afraid of what made them so special.

What I think he finds so compelling about the X-Men is that each one has a unique singular strength. And yet despite their great power, they are in many ways also very human, with many of the same physical, mental, and emotional vulnerabilities we all share – from fear, to shame, loneliness, and so on.

Silly though it may seem, our X-Men geekfest actually parallels two themes that have been gaining significant traction in the field of psychology in recent years.

One, the importance of focusing on our strengths – not just our weaknesses. And two, the role of vulnerability in forging deep meaningful connections with others.

So how might these themes relate to becoming better artists?

Looking for what ails us

For many decades psychology was built on a foundation which centered around pathology, or what eminent psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman has called the “disease model.” It was all about finding flaws, weaknesses, and figuring out what was wrong with you.

This was important at the time, and did serve a purpose, helping to increase the rigor of the field and making it more evidence-based.

However, psychologists began to realize that helping miserable people become less miserable doesn’t automagically reveal a gleaming inner core of joy and chocolate-coated awesomeness. That is to say, the absence of depression isn’t happiness, it’s blah. Fine. Shrug. Meh .

Going from -10 to 0 is certainly a big deal, but isn’t it also important to know how we get to +10?

How do we help folks lead more productive, meaningful, and fulfilled lives? How do we enhance peoples’ natural talents and gifts and help them raise their performance to an even higher level?

Milking our strengths

It turns out it’s a whole different set of skills .

Sure, it’s important to obsess over all the particular technical or musical details which we struggle with. But are we also spending enough time identifying, nurturing, honing, and maximizing the things we naturally do best, that come easily to us?

Remediating our weaker areas until they are merely average won’t allow us to reach our potential. Owning our strengths, and really milking them for all they’re worth is how we become something special, or superhero-y (superheroic? is there even a word for this?).

Steve Kerr didn’t help the Chicago Bulls and San Antonio Spurs win a combined 5 NBA championships by posting up other guards or driving into the lane for dunks. He focused on long-range shooting, and ended his career as the NBA’s all-time leader in 3-point shooting accuracy.

Ben Wallace didn’t win a championship with the Pistons, become a four-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year, and break the record for number of games played by an undrafted player because of his shooting touch. He overcame the limitations of being undersized for his position and having the worst free-throw shooting percentage of all time by focusing on rebounding and blocking shots.

In much the same way, a colleague once suggested to a student preparing for a big orchestra audition that he stop seeing each excerpt as a test that would expose his weaknesses, but instead, to identify his strengths and begin looking for more opportunities to showcase his best qualities in each excerpt. To reveal, for better or worse, who he really was as a musician and allow the orchestra to see how he could be an asset to the section.

On some intuitive level we already know how important this is. So what’s holding us back?


Dr. Brené Brown is a researcher and professor at the University of Houston, who has been studying vulnerability and shame for the last decade.

She explains in her epic TED talk below, that ultimately, we are afraid of being ourselves. Of revealing to the world who we truly are. And having the world tell us that who we are at our core is simply not enough. Check it out if you haven’t already seen it. 15 million-ish views suggests that there is something in her message that resonates with us on a pretty deep and meaningful level.

Violinist Ivry Gitlis expressed a similar sentiment in a recent Strad interview, commenting on the proliferation of “reliable” but unremarkable performances that don’t contain enough of the person behind the instrument.

Take action


What is the thing you care about most, and do best? What is your “superpower”?

Consider each of your students. What is their superpower, the thing each of them does best, and makes them uniquely them? As X-Men mentor Professor Xavier might, how could this superpower be nurtured, cultivated, and supported to blossom into something truly remarkable?


What would it mean to be a whole-hearted artist?

Would it mean being even more overtly personal beyond just your playing? As in sharing your poetry inspired by the music in program notes, for instance? Or speaking from the stage about why you chose the pieces you did, and how one of them reminds you of a time growing up when you felt like you were invisible, while your sister was getting all the attention?

I’d be curious to hear your thoughts in the comments below…

Additional Resources

Brené Brown’s follow-up TED talk (including one of the awesomest quotes ever): Listening to Shame

Brené Brown’s blog

Shawn Achor’s entertaining TED talk on positive psychology and his sister the unicorn: The Happy Secret to Better Work

photo credit: J. Star via photopin cc

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills and a few tweaks in your approach to practicing. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades, so if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d love to be your guide, and show you how you can integrate these into your daily practice too.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing – an online course where you’ll learn the 6 skills that are characteristic of top performers, and begin seeing tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.


25 Responses

  1. I love this article! It answers a question I had concerning my twelve year old daughter’s tendency towards being more of an introvert than extrovert. She is passionate about her music and is serious about becoming a concert violinist (And practices for many hours each day.) But how I have wondered can she achieve this?

    Last night I watched her perform as Glinda in a local children’s production of wizard of oz…. Away from the violin I saw with such clarity what gift she brought to the stage… It was this sweet nurturing quality, soft and caring. I’ve been looking for flashy fireworks and had missed her unique strength!

      1. Dear Teresa,
        Thank you for your comment. Also for your personal blog….
        I watched mol play her Mendelssohn concerto last night (a run through in the kitchen) and saw how free and happy she was while playing. So many nuances and so much understanding… She made a tiny slip in the cadenza and I told her how fabulous she was and for the last two pages she was on fire!
        Afterwards I said that I had been wrong to ever doubt that she had the ability to project her feelings…she just gave me a secret smile and said… ‘I know you were, I always knew I had it in me…’
        Though she is doing the course, I haven’t talked to her about the realisation I had had.
        So what changed I wonder, my ability to see or her feeling the difference and acceptance in the way I saw her… Did this give her permission to be herself?
        Probably both, chick and egg. Because that is really what we are talking about, deep communication….

        I understand your frustration at yourself as well. I danced for years and had no problems communicating from my soul…. But as a musician, I couldn’t do it. In the end after injuries dancing I found my way as a visual artist, but still suffered horribly at openings, and never believed I was any good.
        I am now working as a psychotherapist and and am able to make that soul to soul connection with my clients. It is all that I was ever trying to do, that connection through our shared humanity. Doesn’t matter how you do it….

        So yes, keep being open, don’t ever give up trying to connect and express your truth to the world. It really is the only thing that matters….

        I’d love to see you sing, but I’m in England!
        Do you have any clips of your work?

  2. ¡Hi! Thanks for bringing out this important theme. Actually, I am working on a project that seek to make classical musicians think more about the things that unite us (vulnerability is an example, because we have and share emotions of all kind) instead of the ones that put us in competition. I am developing some exercises to do in middle of personal practicing an in chamber groups rehearsal sessions. These are based on dialogue ( it’a important to speak about what we feel), things I have learned or discover by myself and reading , and on my wonderful experiences with an interdisciplinary theatre group I have been working with. Thanks for this blog for it gave me another real source of reflection about how classical music is learned, transmitted and performed from an affective point of view. Greetings.

  3. This is SO GOOD. Thank you for bringing this up.

    I remember a story I heard (I’ll get the details wrong, but the gist is here…) during a counseling psych class about a famous psychologist who was visiting a friend. The friend’s elderly mother was living there and was seriously depressed, so the friend asked the psychologist to see if he could help. He talked to the friend’s mother for a while – just a conversation, not “therapy” the way we think of it. He found out that she loves violets and is good at growing them. So he suggested that she grow violets, and every time something happens in the neighborhood – someone has a baby, or graduates, or has a birthday – she could give a violet as a gift. A year later the elderly woman was no longer depressed; she had a purpose in life based on her unique strength.

    Similarly, I think it is good for all of us to point out to people what we see they are good at or obviously love doing. Sometimes people aren’t even aware that they have a unique strength, but others can easily see it. Others have done this for me, and it is fun to do it for others.

    1. Thanks for the story, Bryn. Reminds me of a book a client once gave to me – called 29 Gifts: How a Month of Giving Can Change Your Life. It is really fascinating how unaware we can be of how many gifts we have that could benefit others.

  4. I like your idea about talking to the audience about your pieces. I really want to connect with my audience at my senior recital, and that could be the way to do it!

  5. This article make me realize… I’m really not sure what my strengths are. I mean, I play piano since I was little but not spending a lot of time on it, my father (which is pianist) always told me I had a “special talent”, sensibility… but now, that I have piano as a role in my life, as a career, I listen to my teachers and there’s always something wrong in the musical aspects and in my intuition so, it’s really disappointing. I’m really confused because I see no “strength” in me. I can’t find in any good thing I have.

    1. Dear Lila! I so relate to what you write! My biggest encouragement to you is to reflect on how YOU feel when you play! HOW do you feel when you play? Be careful when listening to “teachers”. What city are you in if you don’t mind me asking? I ask because I know a few who are excellent at bringing out who YOU are in the music. (I am not a teacher and am not soliciting anything at all.)

    2. Hi! I so relate to this! I discover now that when I was a student, the way my clases functioned is “you got to fix this….you got to fix that” . Once in a while a ” I like your version” of one of my teachers. Then I became a teacher and is was hard for me to mutter an “excellent!”. I was drawn into this idea of perfection as that of heaven and hell, now, trough the hard road I believe a perfect performance is that which is so uniquely yours. Now for my students I have a huge lot more “excellent!!!!´s” ” I love it!!” , ” That is so uniquely you!!!”, and I am working on having more.

    3. Hi Lila,

      It’s easy for us to take our strengths for granted. Sometimes it can help to ask others who are really close to us and know us well what they see as being our strengths. The answers might surprise you…

  6. Per usual, your email popped up in my ipad sometime way too early on a Sunday morning:-) And per usual I couldn’t wait to read it. Well, today was different. I could not believe my eyes as I read it. Hmmm, the language sounds exactly like what I’ve been reading/researching/reflecting on via Dr. Brene Brown’swebsite and 2 books I recently bought. Then you mention vulnerability, building on your strengths, wholehearted playing etc….I couldn’t believe it! I sat bolt upright in my bed….holy crap! Wow! You know they say there are no coincidences. I believe that! So, I have to take this as an affirmation of the path I’ve been on. I am a vocalist. An aspiring jazz vocalist at that! A non- formally trained musician (minus some piano growing up and opera training in college.) I know enough to be detrimental to my own musical growth:-) BUT I’m a pretty darn good singer. I am also a practicing architect who struggles with having the studio/practice room time to hone in on my craft and work on the small stuff. I have 2 amazing teachers – one a vocal coach, the other a jazz coach; both exceptional and world class. (Seriously, no joke.) While one helps me build my instrument and the other helps me “hear” the music….but the biggest hurdle for me….vulnerability with the audience. Having the confidence/skill in your instrument to be there when you call on it, THEN having the ear/musicianship to take it somewhere in response to your band mates on top of the emotional rawness it takes to say something verses sing something LIVE …well, there you will find me; a trembling human skeleton standing in a puddle of fear and shame. Go figure. Although I feel every lyric and every note, when I stand on stage and look at the people in the audience, I crumble. I have to pull back and control and detach – don’t look them in the eye….I fall short of what I’m there to do which is connect and share my humanness with yours. You are not alone. I am not alone! That to me is the goal of all art…to share oneself. And walk that thread between me and you and hope it transfers my courage to you to do the same. And somehow, through that, you are lifted up and able to become more of who you were created to be. Well, that is my take on it at least. 🙂

    1. I hope my comment doesn’t come across as “full of myself” to anyone. I certainly didn’t mean it that way:). Apparently I was feeling rather wordy..:P

      1. Hi Dr Noa…thanks for your site; of all the solid practical advice you’ve dispensed, the most significant, helpful piece so far for me was the one on how to deal with a tough crowd-to pick out those who are responding, and play for them.

        As an accordionist I get my share of tough rooms in restaurants and Assisted Living and nursing homes. Many times my audiences may have Alzheimer’s or other memory issues and your advice has made a huge difference for me so as not to question my performances and skills but to see that though their faces may be blank and devoid of emotion, they just can’t keep their feet from keeping time when I’m on top of it!.

        By the way…in the part of your site with the graphics labeled BEYOND PRACTICING featuring the little kid in a superhero costume…is that your 8 year old? I did notice you didn’t say son or daughter, and that’s cool ’cause superheroes ain’t just for little boys!

        1. Yes – facial expressions can be deceiving. I’m one of the unfortunate folks in the audience that generally looks bored and disinterested (so I’ve been told), even though in actuality I may be very much engaged.

          Nope, that’s not my 8-yr old in the picture, but I am secretly hoping my daughter will get into the X-Men someday too. Right now I think it’s a little too scary for her…

  7. I am so grateful for this powerful tools you share. My passion for music began as a dancer and later on guitar, song writing and now nurturing my singing. I desire to be an all round musician. I am so comfortable dancing in front of an audience of any kind, that connection is what I desire to feel in my singing.
    Be blessed abundantly.

  8. This is an excellent article! I am a clarinetist having taken the last 10 years off of playing to raise my 3 kiddos and I just recently got into A. McGill’s studio after only really practicing for 8-9 months. I used to play professionally, but my point here is that I picked pieces for the audition that really spoke to me personally, and that I felt showcased my strengths. My weaknesses are even more so after not playing for so long, but the teachers could hear my strengths and potential. If I had spent the past 8-9 months really being frustrated about all the things I used to be able to do really well but am struggling with now, I wouldn’t have gotten in! This is not an excuse not to work on what we do struggle with, but an example of how owning what your strengths are will get you far! Thanks for your great website!!

  9. What an amazing article. I’ve been teaching music in Canada for over fifteen years and have always taken a strength first approach to teaching. One of the most important things any educator can do when designing a program for a student is ask the right questions to get to the right insights. I believe that every student learns based on strengths first. Every student has different strengths. That is why no two students are going to learn the same way.

    I think that if you want to see success in your students’ musical education, you need to take the time to really learn what makes them tick. Why do they want to study music? What inspires them musically? How do they incorporate music into their daily lives? How do they approach musical challenges? Who is on their musical support team? The answers to these questions can really pull a lot of insight into the type of program you teach, what songs you co-plan on learning, and what goals, objectives and tasks you need to work on to see objective growth.

    I am currently working on an assessment package over at http://www.musicitup.com that should be done by the end of May 2014. I’d love to send you a copy to see what you think. Your blog has been an amazing source of knowledge and inspiration. Thank you for everything you do to promote real solutions to the issues all of us face as we grow in our music.


  10. Brené Brown’s work has made a huge impact on me – especially Daring Greatly. The quote from the “man in the arena”speech by Teddy Roosevelt particularly resonated with me: “It is not the critic who counts… The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood…” I try to remind myself when I play that I’m the one in the arena, the one actually doing something and putting myself out there. Not the one who’s hiding behind a sneer or rude comment.

    I’m learning much more about vulnerability right now as I take voice lessons for the first time. I used to sing in choir in HS and college, but ultimately focused on my clarinet while getting my music degree and beyond that as I joined community bands and other ensembles. I’m nearing 40 and decided to go for it even though my husband and cats are the only beings who have really heard me sing in at least a decade. It was hard at first to practice my “real singing” with my husband in the house, and he’s my biggest supporter. Especially since my teacher is pushing my range higher and I’m attempting to sing in Italian! But every day I get a bit more comfortable, even listening to myself on my SmartMusic recording and throwing a track up on SoundCloud.

    I agree with playing to our strengths, though it’s not always easy to remember to do so. Especially when listening to someone who’s amazing at the thing we’re not so good at. I think at that point we have to acknowledge the skill the other person has, but then take a step back and remind ourselves of what we have to offer.

    Thanks so much for your blog! I look forward to each new post.

  11. Funny, I was telling a student just the other day that “if Michael Jordan had set out to be the worlds strongest man, he wouldn’t be working with his natural talents (*Though MJ would have found a way to compete…)”. This was one of those moments as a teacher that my own advice really hit me and I’ve been working to practice at some things I’m already pretty good and feel natural to me at this stage of life, like legato fusion-y guitar playing and posting up chumps a la Kevin McHale in 84. It’s a great confidence builder to practice and build on things that came/come naturally. Very cool to happen upon this article that explains “why” with such clarity! Thanks, really like your site!

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