I’ll never forget when I went to see Nai Palm from Hiatus Kaiyote performing solo at Koko London. I was totally overwhelmed by this show, it was so powerful, and what really stood out was how she displayed vulnerability. 

Nai Palm walked onto the stage and shared with us “this is the last night of the tour and I’ve had a shit day. I’m homesick and this is going to be hard for me.” When I heard these words, it blew my mind. I’d never be brave enough to share that kind of information with an audience, let alone at the beginning of the show! 

I’ve always struggled with perfectionism. This has made it difficult for me to show vulnerability on stage (and many other areas of my life). Surely I CAN’T show vulnerability when I’m on stage, if I do that people will think I’m not good enough! My preference would be to awkwardly fumble my way through the show, desperately trying to hide any uncomfortable feelings. All with the intention of making sure no one suspects a thing of course. But is that a helpful strategy? More often than not, no it’s not! We’ll explore perfectionism and fear of rejection in future articles, but let’s take a look at vulnerability in more detail. 

An essential musician skill

When vulnerability is something difficult to master, what are the benefits of being able to show vulnerability? Well it’s essential skill for musicians to master for a number of reasons… Because among other things, as musicians we need to:

  • create
  • innovate
  • develop ideas
  • connect
  • take risks
  • perform
  • build relationships 
  • put ourselves out there for criticism or praise

Without vulnerability none of these activities would happen… We’d be too afraid, and our natural fears of rejection, failure etc. would become debilitating. This is why it pays to learn the art of vulnerability. 

“As a vulnerability researcher, I understand that when there’s no risk, no failure, and no disappointment, there’s no innovation. We should aim for a high tolerance to risk as long as when we fail, we embed the learning and don’t fail at the same thing over and over again.” Brené Brown

So what happened when Nai Palm showed vulnerability?

This statement was met with cheers, exclamations of love and well wishes from the crowd. We didn’t alienate her… And we didn’t think of her as imperfect in any way… We embraced and cared for her. She let us into her inner world and we appreciated and respected her for that… It brought us all closer and the show was one of the most intimate performances I’ve ever been lucky enough to experience. Nai Palm’s willingness to show vulnerability created the environment of an intimate camp fire sing along with 1500 people. Unforgettable. 

What I didn’t realise until then, is that always giving a perfectly polished performance actually risks alienating the audience. The beauty of live performance lies within its raw imperfection. The fact the audience can connect with the musicians face to face and experience a ‘one off’ completely unique moment together, never to be repeated. Yes the musicians might make mistakes, but that ADDS to the experience. It certainly doesn’t detract from it. We connect easily with those that make mistakes because guess what, we do too!! 

Here’s another example of Nai Palm displaying vulnerability in a live show… Pay attention to how she shares her concerns and inner world with the crowd, and notice how they react to her throughout the whole song. A beautiful example of how showing genuine vulnerability can connect the crowd with the musician and each other, adding to the overall experience. 

How can you cultivate vulnerability?   
  • Vulnerability is not a big show of emotion. It’s accepting that we’re all imperfect, slightly broken individuals. That’s okay and is exactly what makes us human! If you can accept (or even love) the parts of you that aren’t perfect, then people seeing you as imperfect doesn’t feel scary anymore. 
  • Keep practicing small moments of vulnerability. This is not a skill that you learn overnight and it can feel very uncomfortable. Stick with it anyway. Practice in small ways, sharing more about how you’re feeling, making mistakes, reflecting on your weaknesses etc. 
  • Know that your imperfections are what make you YOU. And they’re most certainly why you write, create and / or perform as you do. Embrace these imperfections and use them to improve connections with those around you – become more authentically you. 
  • Share how you’re feeling. Give people the opportunity to back you and support you like Nai Palm did in that London show. You’ll be surprised with how many people react with warmth and support. 
  • Enjoy the moment. Practice, practice, practice, rehearse, rehearse, rehearse then STOP. Stop trying to get everything perfect and just BE. Enjoy the present moment. Focus on what stirs up emotion in you and try your hardest to portray that instead of solely musical perfection. 

Make peace with the fact that you will occasionally mess up. Sometimes you won’t be good enough, sometimes people will reject or criticise you. This can make you feel ashamed or embarrassed BUT THAT’S OKAY. In fact, it’s completely normal so congratulations – you’re human. As Brene Brown says, as long as you embed the learning that comes your way when things don’t go so well, it’s worth the risk.   

Further info 

A Ted Talk that challenged my mind set on vulnerability was The Power of Vulnerability by Brene Brown. Brene’s book Gifts of Imperfection is also a brilliant and thought provoking read on the topic. 

There’s a wonderful article on musician’s vulnerability here: https://crosseyedpianist.com/2018/05/07/the-musicians-vulnerability/

Your experience

What’s your experience of embracing vulnerability as a musician? Share your thoughts with us in the comments section below.

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