Last night, I attended the Richmond Symphony performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D Major. What a tremendous emotional journey! I will spare you my pedestrian music review (suffice it to say that I was transported and loved every note), but I would like to share some of my thoughts following the performance.
When this piece premiered, it received overwhelmingly negative criticism and boos from the audience. Now, it is one of the most frequently performed symphonies around the world. In his day, Mahler was seen as a great conductor but a failed composer – and yet in our day, he is celebrated as one of our finest composers.
How did Gustav Mahler continue to compose despite negative criticism and discouragement? Where does one find the will to create in an unsupportive environment?
Obviously, creativity and expression require risk and vulnerability. History is littered with great innovators who were underappreciated, discouraged, or ridiculed by those around them. Some survived to be recognized for their achievements. Others died with no acclaim.
How do we, as educators, encourage students to take these necessary risks, to be open to mistakes and criticism, to learn and grow? How do we develop a student’s inner strength and confidence – the ability to see past initial failure or to see beyond perceived failure?
A dear friend once gave me some advice as I was preparing for a recital. I was telling him about my terrible performance anxiety and how I fall apart in front of an audience – hitting the wrong notes, messing up the tempo, etc. He told me, “Whenever I hit a wrong note, I do it with confidence. I go with it – maybe even hitting it wrong again on purpose.”
Now I certainly don’t have his sense of panache, but he helped me see that my fear of failure was more powerful than the actual mistake. The truth of the moment was not in the wrong note but in my response to the wrong note. Could I celebrate the mistake and get past it?
Fear can stop us from moving forward, from learning a skill, mastering a concept, or sharing a talent. What if nobody likes it? What if I mess up? What if I get the answer wrong? What if someone laughs at me?
Mahler was definitely affected by the negative criticism surrounding him (he completely reworked his first symphony only to have the next version meet the same disappointing reaction), but he chose to honor his inner voice rather than the tastes of his audience. Mahler’s biographer Henry-Louis de La Grange writes that “the emotions [Mahler] needed to express were so overpowering that he was not much concerned with his future listeners’ reactions.” I am thankful that Mahler persevered.
I do not want my students to let their fears block their growth. I want to encourage determination and inner strength by providing a learning community that is a safe space to risk innovation. To embrace mistakes with confidence. To develop an inner voice that can guide through obstacle and opposition.
In life, there will be wrong answers. There will be mistakes. There will be times when our hard work and personal expressions are met with boos and negativity. We cannot let this stop us from sharing our voice and our gifts.
Thank you, Gustav Mahler, for your tenacity and courage.