Sunday, May 17, 2009

Sketches for a more perceptive future post

I must be the last person in the world to come across Jonathan Rauch's hilarious article on "Caring for Your Introvert," from an issue of The Atlantic some six years ago. Introversion, of course, is nothing new: Carl Jung coined the term as part of his now-largely-obsolete theory of "psychic energy", but the term continues in broad circulation due, I imagine, to the popularity of the rather silly Myers-Briggs personality test. The Atlantic article, however, seems to have struck a nerve: many readers, including yours truly, were stunned at how closely Rauch captured their own experience. It all makes sense now! There's a reason why I leave social events feeling as though my brains have been sucked through my ears with a straw!

The world of performing musicians, it seems to me, is one where the dice are stacked in favour of introverts. Think of it: weeks of meticulous practice; hours spent travelling from one city to another, then the ephemeral performance itself. All solitary activities. After the concert, you make brief conversation with audience members before beating a hasty retreat; there's always another performance on the horizon, and so it's right back on the road and off to the next thing. Ironic as it may seem, public performance is tailor-made for people who are uncomfortable in large groups: the only social interaction required is in a highly prescribed form, and is over in an hour or so.

(This obviously applies mostly to solo performers, but it can be true of chamber musicians as well. The sort of social interaction required in chamber groups is extremely focused and businesslike, entirely unlike the rambling small talk that annoys introverts. Large ensemble performance, of course, can be a different bag entirely; many people join choirs or orchestras specifically for the social dynamic. Ironically, again it's the most public figure in the ensemble - the conductor - who often tends towards introversion. Some of the best conductors I've known are almost certainly introverts, their larger-than-life persona in rehearsal as much a performance as any of their motions the podium.)

I think this odd coincidence probably says something about our profession, but I have no clue what it might be.



I guess I'm the last person not to read Rauch's article, but speaking as a virtuoso introvert (NOTE: not "introverted virtuoso"), I've always thought one of the things that makes me that way is a hyperawareness of what other people are thinking (e.g. what they're thinking about me.) Being sensitive in this way can make social situations stressful, but it has its advantages. As a teacher lecturing, I have to be careful not to let a preoccupation with what students are thinking (about me) derail my concentration. In my first year teaching a large lecture class (trying to imagine what awful things 120 different people might be thinking about me), this would occasionally throw me completely off course and I'd forget what I was trying to say. On the other hand, I think caring about what students think sometimes makes me a better teacher.

So anyway, this basic sensitivity to the environment (especially the intellectual environment) would have obvious advantages to artists. Kind of like how good comics/impressionists almost invariably have good ears and good musical instincts, because what they do is based on an ability to tune in very carefully to the social environment. I also find that introverts (with their constant managing of inner dialogues) tend to use parenthetical phrases a lot (too much).

diplomatizer said...

Wow. I hadn't made the connection before between introversion and solo performance. It does kind of account for my basic counter-performance anxiety strategy: pretending the audience isn't there.

It also explains well the struggles I've had working in a fast-food environment, where it's essentially company policy to be extroverted, and where I've been instructed to make small talk about the weather with customers. I could go on, but introverts don't complain, right?

(I'm also guilty of over-parenthesizing)

Steve said...

Amazing insight on something I've just assumed was just a personality quirk on my part. As a conductor, I thrive on the structured interaction with my choirs, but really don't like having to hold many conversations in social situations; especially after a concert or service. Recruiting can be a true challenge for an introvert, I suppose, but it makes so much sense to me now why I chose a profession that appears on the surface to be exclusively within the realm of extroverts, while preferring to spend large amounts of time alone in order to "recharge."
By the way, the parenthetical observation is so true (although I refrained from using them on this post)! I litter my e-mails with them!