A JMI Educational Blog by Ashley Turner
Whether we’re talking about a small victory like mastering a two bar phrase or trying to navigate a successful career it’s not always just about the nuts and bolts of pitch, tone and rhythm that gets us where we want. Our ability to have a healthy inner, mental and emotional state will ultimately determine if our journey as a musician, even a very skilled one, is enjoyable and positive.
Our current pop culture instils in us the belief that our self-worth and self-esteem is generated externally from the approval or positive appraisal of others, and two of the most popular tools for that are comparison and personal preference. This risks adopting a precarious mindset though, because mastery of anything is an ongoing process that requires focus on your weaknesses. Being honest about where we need the most attention can be difficult for students because it means spending time – lots of time, sounding very unlike our musical heroes.
Consequently it’s often not a good idea to practise wherever you’re self-conscious of people listening, and even worse, judging! You must be free to sound your worst. And it takes even stronger self-esteem to be comfortable sounding bad in front of those musicians or teachers we look up to. But even more importantly you also must be free to sound your worst without judgement from yourself. Be gentle with yourself folks, in spite of the opinions of others you’re more responsible for how you feel than anyone else.
One of the principal tenets in all Eastern spiritual traditions is that we are not our thoughts, or our bodies or our emotions. The primary teaching of the great Indian spiritual master Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950) was to ask his devotees to enquire,
“To whom does this thought arise?”
as a way to separate Soul from mind (and emotions, and body). Whenever you notice your mind is busy judging your playing, withdraw your energy from your thoughts, i.e. the internal commentary of your playing, and focus on the playing itself, your breath, and relaxing your body. By learning to become an observer of our thoughts rather than a participant in them, they won’t disappear, but their influence on us will decrease and they’re less likely to snowball and suck us into their magnetic pull. It might be additionally helpful when noticing negative inner dialogue to counteract it with some inner, or outer, words of encouragement that get us back on a positive track.
Acknowledging imperfections and remaining neutral is a very different headspace from negative self-criticism and judgement. It’s a paradox that to improve we need to have musical goals and to be honest about where we have room for improvement – the future, but for the most productive practice we have to be effective in what we’re doing right now – the present.
As a teacher I’m regularly assisting students to play music that’s challenging them and in a phrase that might have say eight notes it is often only two or three notes that are creating a problem. In spite of this students will keep repeating the whole phrase with little improvement, hoping for that one magical pass. Why would they waste their valuable practice time on the notes they can already play?
Here are a few possible reasons:
- Lack of attention to detail. Not noticing or hearing that the fingering between notes 6 and 7 is clumsy and making note 7 late and note 6 have poor tone. For students the ability to perceive crucial, small details improves over time as your ears improve but excessive mental chatter also robs a percentage of our attention. Try recording yourself if you’re struggling to notice small details in real time and imagine you are a teacher giving advice to a student. Use positive, encouraging dialogue.
- All focus is on the destination e.g.playing the phrase in its entirety, rather than the journey e.g. constant refinement of skills. The positive self talk in this case requires addressing impatience but it’s also a sign your mind may be distracted and in the future rather than present with what’s right in front of you.
- Work ethic – If I work on just notes 6 and 7 then I’ll be working hard, mentally and physically, 100% of the time. If I play the whole phrase I’m only working on hard stuff for 25% of the time. There are no shortcuts. Create an exercise out of those two notes that really challenges you. Play it every day for weeks or months if needed. Don’t waste time on the other six notes. No one ever won an Olympic medal without developing serious stamina and learning to enjoy sweating.
- Self-Esteem. What??? I want to feel good about my playing, not disheartened or inadequate. (notice that our focus has now shifted from thoughts to feelings). If I play only notes 6 and 7 then I’m struggling the whole time. Celebrate the fact that you have found something specific to work on that will make you a better player. Sometimes it’s hard to know what to practise so this is actually great news. If you notice yourself being particularly judgemental or overly critical of your playing then you could benefit by working on your self-esteem, aka self-acceptance. The areas in life that we are most passionate about will always present us with the most challenging opportunities for personal growth.
Improving self-esteem will actually contribute to quietening the inner critic, help you to be more present in your own practice and allow you to enjoy your music more, wherever you find yourself in your musical trajectory right now. You’ll still have to practise your scales though!