If we treat our opinions like prized possessions, like gems that must be protected from theft and insult, perhaps that is because we see them as expressions of our true self. In defending our opinions we are defending our identity.

But if we trace an opinion to its roots we may find those roots embedded not in the deepest core of our being, but in a more superficial place – in the assumptions of a persona we inhabit – the invisible assumptions that we aren’t aware we’re making as we play one role or another in life.

The COVID lockdown kept me from attending any live classical concerts in 2020 and 2021, so when I finally stepped back into a concert hall in early 2022 I felt I was reinhabiting a persona that had been dormant – the persona of a classical music aficionado, a particular kind of classical music aficionado.

Twenty minutes into my first live concert after so long away from the scene, I wasn’t loving it. My dissatisfaction soon blossomed into a critique – a whole story I could tell about the conductor’s choices and how I believed they misinterpreted the music. The friend sitting beside me would surely ask my opinion at the end, and now I had something to say.

I might have suffered through the rest of the concert and then given my negative “review,” but this time I understood that my reaction could not exist in a vacuum. My time away from the concert hall had helped me see, from a fresh perspective, how tightly my reactions to the music depended on the foundational assumptions of my adopted persona. I’ll call this persona “The Critic.” Here’s what makes him tick:

  1. He has heard the best of the best. He is proud of all the listening he’s done and he’s constantly measuring new performances in a competitive framework. When a performance is less than stellar, he feels he has been denied something he deserves.

  2. He believes in the value of criticism. He believes a listener should always have an opinion. Criticizing a performance is helpful – it separates the good from the mediocre, which creates more space for the good to shine.

  3. He has high expectations of his own responses to music. He remembers the heights of rapture he has experienced when listening to great performances. He is hoping for that rapture to happen again. When it doesn’t happen, he takes this as evidence that the performance lacked the power to move.

With these assumptions now flooding back into mind, I realized I could just as easily embrace their opposites, situating my perceptions atop different foundations instead. In fact, there’s a separate version of my identity as a classical music aficionado that I’ve embraced just as often as The Critic. I’ll call this alternate persona “The Advocate.” Here’s what makes him tick:

  1. As a listener, he believes his greatest skill is the ability to find something to appreciate in any performance. The more joy that can be found in music – no matter its imperfections – the better it is for him, for listeners at large, and for the cause of music itself. He believes that by expecting only “the best,” a listener makes it impossible to enjoy what a performance is actually offering, so listening should begin without expectations. 

  2. As a listener, he doesn’t feel he needs to have an opinion. He doesn’t need to know “what he thinks” about a performance. He doesn’t need say anything. All he needs to do is to listen. And to thank the musicians for doing the work.

  3. If rapture is not happening for him, that might be because his mood isn’t receptive to the music, or because he’s not the right listener for what this piece has to say. Though he trusts in the power of music to move him, he can’t conclude that the music must be lacking something if he’s not moved. There could be many other reasons.

For the rest of the concert, I decided to listen optimistically rather than pessimistically – channeling “The Advocate” rather than “The Critic,” looking for elements I could appreciate in the performance, wherever I could find them. The result was that I started to have a better time. When my mind wasn’t crowded with complaints and objections, I could hear the details better, and many of them were beautiful.

At the end, I thanked my friend for inviting me and let him know I had enjoyed it. What about my planned critique about the conducting? I saved it for… never.

As I think back to the concert a year later, I remember it as a good experience. When we choose to see things from a positive perspective – we’re not only improving our experience in the moment, we’re actually planting the seeds of better memories.  Do this enough and as you look back, more and more, it will seem as though the past is full of bright spots.

Should we ignore our authentic reactions, and silence ourselves when we believe the music isn’t being served by a performer’s choices? No, we should be honest. But honesty is more than complaining about what we don’t like. Honesty is being aware of what we’re looking for. Are we looking to be disappointed, so that we can signal our high standards, so that we can feel useful as critics, so that our superior perceptive capacity might be confirmed? Or are we looking for pleasure in music? Are we seeking joy, and if so, are we doing the hard work to find it, to embrace it? How much risk are we willing to take to create the possibility of being delighted? ■

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