False Humility

This is the blog that I’ve been working up to writing for the last three years; this is the subject that has had the most impact on my life (as a banjoist and a human). This is pretty much the explanation of who I am and the gist of what I hope to over-come and be-come.

Those who remember my father, Myron Hinkle, knew him as a very talented and humble man. While he will always be my hero in many ways, his example is not the model I intend to follow in my life! I’m going to let you in on a secret; yes, he was a truly humble man, but he unconsciously used his humility in a dishonest and unhealthy way. His was what is known as “false humility”; I know this because I do the same damn thing.

The game went like this: Folks would tell him how wonderful he was on stage (and he was, no doubt about that!); but then he would shake his head and say something like “oh I made a big mistake [played a wrong chord or note or something else equally-insignificant]; didn’t you hear it?” Of course, most folks (who either didn’t hear the “mistake” or didn’t care about it if they did) would dig in and redouble their complimentary tone; “No no, you were great!”—this is exactly the payoff he was after! This was generated by an unconscious emotional need for approval—which he was very adept at drawing out of people.

There were those who I’m sure must have caught on to the game and were bothered by the fact that their heartfelt compliment was being thrown back in their face—an insult to any confidant critic. He may as well have said “You don’t know what you’re talking about; can’t you see how terrible I was?” I rarely heard him say a confidant “thank you” to his complimentors (which is the least they deserve).

I’m not sure how to advise you if you catch someone playing this mind game on you. I suppose the best thing to do is smile and consider the conversation done; we don’t do it consciously on purpose, and it would be better for all concerned not to continue to feed the hungry bear.

I’m ashamed to say that the last time we played together in public, I angrily shamed him into keeping his mouth shut except to say “thank you” (which he grudgingly agreed to); I was onto his game by then and angry at myself for doing the same thing. This was the game that most folks fell for and fed into, and were quite frankly victimized by. If you are shaking your head and saying “no, this can’t be,” then you fell for it hook line and sinker! Again, those of us who suffer from this are not consciously aware of it.

He didn’t purposely “teach” me to do the same, but that was the unfortunate result of his example. My wife and I were discussing it one time (when I was first becoming aware of it many years ago); she promptly turned around, caught me at it, and called me out. Talk about a well-timed wakeup call! I consider this to have been a major turning point in my continuing quest to understand myself and become a truly “professional” musician; it is one of the personal traits that keeps me from crossing that magical line. Thus my needing to write about it and clear the air.

It has taken me years to learn to just say “thank you,” especially when I know I sucked (in comparison to the unachievable but honest standards I hold myself to—“I just want to be perfect! Is that too much to ask?”). It does me no good to put myself down in public, or negate the compliments of others, regardless of how I may feel about my performance.

So, I’ve learned to bravely smile and say “thank you!” Usually by the time I’ve found some privacy, I’ve forgiven myself for being less than perfect (besides, perfect is boring!), or have realized how well I actually did. Yes, I do have some talent, and I occasionally truly believe I did well (whatever you do, don’t reassure me—or you’ve missed the point!).

2 comments on “False HumilityAdd yours →

  1. That’s a good point Ron. We all know that it is hard to be humble when you play the Banjo! It is easy to be disappointed with our performance if you know that you can and have done better. Practice always sets the standard in our minds that I at least rarely achieve in performance. Most folks in the audience are not experts in how a tune should sound or will even notice most mistakes as long as you don’t have a total train wreck. Most musician and performers who may be in the audience are well aware of this and will not even comment on any faults because they have experienced their own gap in performance expectations.
    There is one situation that I have noticed in performance over the years that is a little confusing (and humbling); That is when you are playing with a jazz band and everyone is going through solos on the tune, The Cornet player plays an amazing chorus that Louie would be proud of (little or no applause from the audience), the clarinet and trombone players both play stellar choruses that scream of many years of professional practice and experience (likewise, no applause), then the banjo player just makes it through a chorus without causing a train wreck or falling off of the stool, and the banjo player gets a resounding applause! It does make you think what your band mates are thinking of this phenomenon causes a little embarrassment that the front line didn’t get the applause that I would have given them. I have asked other wise and skilled musicians about this and a common response is just that this is a gift from the audience. Or is it that the bar is set so low for the rhythm players in a band that everyone is amazed that they can even make it through the tune?

    1. When I first started playing trad, I thought I had to play fancy solos. I soon discovered that playing the melody got the best response. I believe this is a combination of things: People like to hear the melody; they don’t expect the rhythm guy to know how to play it (isn’t the banjo really hard to play?); and yes, lower expectations. There are many fine rhythm players who can’t play anything else–and many fine soloists who can’t keep a steady beat.

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