blog

2/28/19

A lot of my students show up to lessons or rehearsals saying “I didn’t practice as much as I should have but I’m going to get back into it.” That seems reasonable enough. But they say it every week. For years.

They don’t know it, but the only person that’s disappointed in them is themselves. I don’t really care how much they practice or what kind of musician they want to be. I’m just there to help.

So let’s just be honest with ourselves. What kind of musician do we want to be? One that practices a lot? One that sounds really good?

What about one that doesn’t apologize for the type of musician we are? Or a musician that savors whatever time they have to enjoy music?

I know it’s not easy to let go of all the shame and guilt and expectations, but they’re ruining our experience of music.

Music is something you have to choose to do, no ones going to ask you to choose that life. So don’t apologize if you don’t choose it every day.

On the other hand, if you want to make a bet that doing the daily work as a musician will yield interesting results, then choose music every day.

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2/27/19

Yesterday I wrote about the differences between taking music seriously and taking personally. It’s worth mentioning that keeping the two separate is really hard.

It’s not hard to do the technical work required of a serious musician. We can practice our instrument, listen to our influences, study the history, learn about music theory, and otherwise generally cover the bases which give us all the tools to play whatever kind of music we’re interested in.

But what about the internal commentary that runs in the background throughout the entire learning process? I’m talking about the stories we tell ourselves about how good we are, or how bad we are, or how we should be doing something else, or how someone else is better than us, and if only we could be more like them.

And that’s what they are, stories that we tell ourselves. We do it constantly. We have a story for every aspect of our life that neatly explains away any uncertainty we might have about our place in life. But why are so many of these stories negative? Why do we insist on telling ourselves stories about things we can’t do, or can’t do well enough?

I don’t have the expertise or experience to diagnose any of these issues psychologically  but I do know that these are all symptoms of taking music personally. Our own self-worth is wrapped up in what we can or can’t do in a given situation, usually because we’ve told ourselves the story, “I’m a musician.” And if we’re “musicians” and we can’t do something as well as we’d like, then we must be “bad musicians”.

It’s all stories. We certainly have the power to tell ourselves better stories, stories that are actually true. The true story of taking something seriously is that there are going to be dark moments when it’s extremely enticing to take it personally instead. And you probably will take it personally. I often do. But much of my time is now devoted to ways of letting it go, getting back to the serious work. Whether it’s teaching, exercise, yoga, meditation, cold showers, or anything else that gets you out of the cycle of self-doubt, those are some of the most important tools you have as a musician.

We need to do the work. But often the work does not take the form of scales or metronome practice. The work is whatever enables us to show up again tomorrow.

What we are developing is not a finished product which is the result of many years of practicing. The product is a person that shows up over and over and over again, ready to share what they’ve found in the vulnerable and scary place that is creative work.

What do you need to do to be that person?

blog

2/26/19

We should take music seriously, but not personally.

Of course music matters to us, it’s one of the ways in which we access culture, and therefore our community. All human civilizations, from as early as we can study, have regarded music as a necessary component of culture. So we are continuing that legacy when we play.

But that culture doesn’t need to include our ego. We don’t have to be so wrapped up in our worth as a musician in order to participate fully in culture. In fact that kind of thinking can really get in the way.

As always, we want to get better. But you’re not going to escape self-doubt by becoming a better musician. Your brain is playing a completely separate game there. Why do musicians at the highest level deal with feelings of inadequacy? Do we have to get even better than that to finally feel okay?

So take music seriously. Practice regularly, critique yourself thoughtfully, learn as much as you can, and learn what being a musician means in the context of our culture. If you’re serious about music then you should think about the role it plays in our culture and how you can better serve the people around you.

But don’t take music personally. You’re not a bad person if you didn’t practice today. Saying “I suck” is not self-critique. Learn a lot, but know that you can’t learn it all, at least not today. And if it matters to you that musicians provide value for our culture, then understand that you will not be able to serve others if your musical life is dominated by thoughts about yourself and your playing.

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2/25/19

We get better at the things we practice, and we sound like the things we play. That’s all we have. Everything beyond that is concepts and emotions which we either use to interact with our circumstances or allow to toss us around in the rough waters of decision making.

“Don’t go to far from the melody when you improvise.”

This is great advice, if you want people to hear the melody in your improvisation. But why does it feel like there’s some moral imperative that we stick to the melody? Haven’t we all heard some of our peers, feeling high and mighty, say something like “Yeah he’s pretty good but he plays too many notes, not enough of the melody”?

Certainly there is value in referencing the melody of the song on which you are improvising. The melodic material is accessible to an audience, it requires a certain kind of clever awareness, and it seems to create a cohesive link to the rest of the music. This is how one looks at improvisation through the lens of pop-music sensibility. (That’s also not a slight against pop-music)

Playing the melody is a method, not a virtue. The same goes for playing at a certain volume, or at a certain speed, or in a certain key, or with a certain level of complexity.

I know that if I play close to the melody, at a somewhat loud volume, in the key of B, with only a few complex passages, then I’ll fit in very well with a certain type of Bluegrass band on a certain type of Bluegrass song. All of those factors change with every different group of musicians, style, and choice of material. One genre’s apparent standard of musical propriety isn’t going to apply equally everywhere.

Do not mistake other people’s tastes for morality.

 

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2/24/19

What are you doing right now? Is it blog-reading time? Or was there something else you were doing, and now you’re doing this so you don’t have to do that other thing that apparently wasn’t very interesting. Or maybe it was something difficult. Maybe it’s something difficult to focus on.

If you’re like me, everything is a little bit difficult to focus on. At least difficult to really focus. But as far as I can tell that’s very normal. All we can do is return to the work over and over and over again each time our mind wanders.

That’s not so hard, but what about returning to the work without judging ourselves for having gotten distracted in the first place? Can we notice our mind has drifted and not say “I can’t focus”, “I’m so bad at this”, “I’ll never get better”, or any other unhelpful thing?

So what are you doing right now? Is it blog-reading time? Or did your mind wander somewhere else again instead of focusing on these words?

Try just deciding what you’re going to do for a certain amount of time. Say “it’s practice time” and then practice. When your mind starts to wander don’t punish yourself, just notice it and return to practice. Then later say “practice time is over” and release yourself from the responsibility of focusing on that one thing.

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2/23/19

Productivity is, in the long term, very important to your development as a musician. Obvious as this may seem, many musicians eschew a long term view for today’s problems.

Don’t misinterpret my meaning, the only time you can practice is right now. But what you choose to do right now will have significant effects on whether or not you’re productive in the future.

To put it as clearly as I can: If you’re doing anything right now that makes you less likely to do the work in the future, then you need to stop doing that thing.

Here are some examples of “hard work” that isn’t helping you:

-If you practice for 2 hours straight in an effort to “work hard” and be “diligent,” but then you don’t practice again for a week because you’re so mentally drained, then you aren’t being productive.

-If your self-critique makes you want to stop practicing, then you’re not critiquing yourself, you’re shaming yourself. That’s not productive.

-If watching videos of “better” musicians makes you want to stop practicing then you aren’t being productive.

If you want to get better you have to do whatever it takes. This is usually interpreted as doing more. But haven’t we all tried to do more, and then some more, and then more after that, only to burn out or be dissatisfied with the results?

Yes, we need to work hard. But it’s hard work to be kind to ourselves. It’s hard work to use some restraint. It’s hard work to say “That’s all for today, I’ll get back to it tomorrow.”

So if you’re going to work hard, do the hard work that brings you back tomorrow.

 

 

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2/22/19

You’re not going to be able to play everything. At some point you’re going to have to choose what you want to be good at.

There exists among serious students of music the desire to be proficient in many styles on many instruments, inspired by some of the heroes of our craft. The reality is that almost none of these people are truly professionals in more than one or two areas of music. That’s okay, it takes a really long time to become this type of musician, and there are a lot of musicians who will always be able to do something you can’t. It’s not our job to do everything well, it’s our job to do well at whatever we do.

It is within reach for every musicians to learn many different instruments and learn the basic language of many different styles. In fact, that’s really not hard at all. But I don’t think our goal should be to speak 10% of 10 different languages. I’m not even interested in speaking 50% of 2 different languages.

I’m not trying to discourage anyone from exploring music, because there’s a lot to explore. But I am encouraging people to explore music deeply. Give a new instrument or style the attention it really deserves. If you can’t do that right now you might be setting yourself up for disappointment down the road.

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2/21/19

If you are going to make progress as a musician and stay sane at the same time, you’re going to have to learn to be honest with yourself.

Many musicians are not honest with themselves about their musicianship, their practice habits, and especially what the process of improvement and development looks like.

Some people will take this to mean that they aren’t hard enough on themselves. That they aren’t holding themselves accountable for their mistakes or laziness. I’m talking about the opposite phenomenon.

Here are a few things that I think are true.

You can’t radically change your musical habits or abilities in one day.

You can’t change the amount of work you did yesterday.

If you want to be really good you have to pass through every stage of ability along the way, there are no shortcuts. 

I don’t feel like these are controversial statements, but I personally have had a hard time letting them inform my process of practicing and performing.

We want to punish ourselves for not working hard enough, or not being good enough, but this isn’t working.

So be honest instead.

Do today’s work today, and tomorrow’s work tomorrow. Your mistakes in the past can inform today’s work or tomorrow’s work but that is their only value. You can insult yourself about those mistakes all you want, or you can spend that time and energy planning for the future and getting better.

Look for mistakes. If you’re making a lot of mistakes then you know where to go for practice, which is a blessing. And then when you work on those mistakes be honest about how many you can fix in a day. It wont be very many. It might not be any. That’s okay. But if you get discouraged and give up, then you aren’t being honest about the process.

All you can ever do is show up and do the work, and be honest with yourself about how it’s going. Because if you’re showing up and doing the work then it’s going great, which means you’re going to show up again tomorrow. I think that’s a better story to tell yourself, and it happens to be a true story.

 

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2/20/19

I’m going to guess that you aren’t practicing slowly enough. Almost no one does. But professionals do. Strangely enough it’s the most efficient and often fastest way to learn new material.

Generally “slowly” is the only speed at which we can play something unfamiliar. How slow? Slow enough to play it without mistakes. If you’re making mistakes then it’s not slow enough. When should you play it faster? When you can do so without making mistakes.

It’s an incredibly simple formula but it requires that we be painfully honest with ourselves. It doesn’t require judgement or critique, all you need is awareness to notice a mistake. And if you aren’t finding mistakes then you aren’t practicing, so go find some mistakes and slow down.

 

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2/18/19

If you are working on your timing,  then you should be working on your listening. It is a valuable to skill to be able to play with even and consistent timing, but that is only one of the things we are called to do when sharing rhythm with another person or a group of people.

Your “perfect timing” is worth nothing if you aren’t aware of the fact that everyone perceives musical time and rhythm differently. There are as many time-feels as there are people and your timing will sound best when you are able to share a common understanding of time with someone else.

So listen deeply to the record you play along with, the metronome you practice with, and the musicians you jam with. It may requires some compromise to find a groove that suits everyone but it will be worth the extra attention.