Why does playing music come so easily to some, while others struggle to make positive changes to their playing?
Is it really that some just “have it,” while others (most) don’t?
The point of this article is to suggest that we are all capable of playing music on a masterful, inspired level, and that those people who seem to make effortless progress throughout their musical lives simply know how to stay out of their own way.
The first thing we’ll address is the idea that perhaps you care too much about your playing, and it’s holding you back. As musicians, this means wanting to play well, and sound good. And while on the surface this motivation may seem like an asset (and perhaps it is – for a while), an “achievement oriented’ mindset can also be problematic, especially if you’ve too much of your self-worth wrapped up in your musical skills.
You’ll know what I mean if you’ve ever played bad and then felt bad afterwards, or on the flip-side, played well and felt GREAT! Our insecurities about our playing can also be evident in the form of anxiety when hearing someone play at a higher level than we are currently capable of. Hearing someone play very well has somehow convinced us that an amazing performer has “worth,” whereas, we are, by default, “worthless.” Our fear of worthlessness then acts as the catalyst to concoct (and not follow through with) a plan to practice so many hours a day, for so long, until we are totally bad ass. Because, once we are bad-ass, we can feel really good about ourselves!
(For an all-too real account of this, check out where I was in JANUARY of 2015 and beyond)
Feelings of inferiority, based entirely on the fact that you think how you sound is who you are, can put a real funk in your growth as a musician. I have been through more than one healthy case of this myself.
When I moved to Los Angeles, I quickly noticed a strong classical influence, both in sound and style, with some of the other lead players in town. This was new to me, because, up to that point, all the lead trumpet players I knew where jazz players, and if you could lay back the up beats and play bright as hell – you were hip!
Rather than celebrating the great playing around me, I was feeling (and still occasionally do) self-conscious about my sound and overall ability. My want to “fit in” led to me playing worse than I could have, as I would feel unbalanced and anxious around certain players. Had I not cared, and just played in each moment, things definitely would have been more fun, I may have actually played better, and might have even learned a thing or two.
This illusory need to be good also negatively manifests itself in formalized education as the idea that there is so much to learn, and we need to learn it all to be considered “proficient.”
And we better learn it fast because we are running out of time!
This is certainly evident in in the form of the college syllabus, and I am reminded of my early days sitting in my 8 am Aural Skills class. Like many music majors, I had been playing for quite some time, but hadn’t really “studied” music, and certainly had no experience with formalized ear-training. I started the class, and after going over some intervals and a few chord progressions I was totally in over my head, and within a week or two completely zoned out for the remainder of my collegiate ear-training.
It wasn’t until after graduation that I became motivated to improve my ear. I got my hands on some thorough relative pitch tapes containing examples of the intervals, chords, scale degrees, etc. and would wake up early to listen to the tapes each morning before going about my business as usual.
During this time I learned that ear-training (and most things musical) takes time; and you cannot cram it in any faster than it wants to go in. While I was diligent, it still took me weeks to learn to differentiate between a perfect 4th and a perfect 5th – and that was still TRYING, I repeat STRAINING to hear the difference. It was over a year later that the sounds had been digested, internalized, and I started “hearing” musical intervals naturally and effortlessly throughout the course of my day.
The problem with the expectations of the university is that I wasn’t fully absorbing each lesson before the next was assigned. Ultimately, it’s probably my own fault, and that’s fine, but the truly unfortunate part about the whole scene is that many students develop negative beliefs about their ability to learn. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
As you begin to realize that identifying with your playing, and trying to learn too much, too fast, is actually holding you back (while generally negatively impacting your relationship with music), you can get down to business creating something truly remarkable.
For starters, believe that music is an added bonus of existence meant to make your life better, and learn to stop worrying so much about it. Take a big-picture view of your life and be honest about how music fits into that. From there, you can artistically pursue the things that are actually important to you, and let go of the crap you “should” be doing, or the way you “should” be sounding.
Consider what it would be like to learn one thing so thoroughly that you can intuitively express it in an effortless, masterful, and highly individualized manner. Suddenly you have a musical ‘voice,” and are contributing to the art in a personal way.
You can be that person, but you must first recognize that the solution to your wanting as a musician is not greater technical prowess or knowing more musical material. The answer lies in freeing your mind, healing your mental relationship with the instrument, and finally start learning music in a way that it can then be expressed through you.
I have recorded seven free video lessons (totaling 26 min) with concepts that have helped me tremendously as a player. Learn them. Do them. Adapt them to suit yourself, and they will help with everything from chops, to gaining technical facility, and easing performance anxiety.