Mental Muscle

Persistence helps us keep going. We want to learn and are not content with where we are. During those days when all you want to do is stop, what keeps you going? What do you want to do?

Some people stop. Some people keep going.

All of it begins in your mind.

The first obstacle is negative thinking.

One thought breeds other similar thoughts. Silence the negative thoughts with positive ones. This is not a rosy positive which assumes the impossible.

For example, your teacher gives you a piece of music, but you think there is no way you can learn it. Focusing on all of the ways you cannot learn the piece accomplishes nothing. Instead, look at the piece with curiosity and try to break it down into smaller sections you can accomplish. Is there any one measure of music that given time and careful attention you really are unable to play?

Tasks in life can be challenging. The more you overcome, the more confidence you get banked towards future challenges.

The second obstacle is rigid goals.

Everyone sets goals in life. Some goals are essential, but others can be flexible. Often in music, we fail to see the difference between those two types of goals. Every goal and deadline must rigidly be held to. If you must reach a certain point and there is no wiggle room, not getting there is a discouraging failure. Setting high standards leaves you constantly not measuring up. There is a way to combat this.

When preparing for a concert, I try to have multiple levels for my goal. The final goal is a solid, expressive concert. There are smaller goals along the way. The date I would like to have the music learned. Date for the music to be memorized. Dates for possible preliminary run-throughs for friends. This allows me both flexibility (in case of unforeseen illness or accident?) and a string of successes to build confidence into the concert. What could be better than continually reinforcing the idea that you CAN do this!

The third obstacle is doubt.

I have found that negative thinking and a lack of flexibility in my goals leads me straight to doubt. As musicians, we perform for people and critics, and we are supposed to be expressively vulnerable while operating at the highest levels of our capacity. Military special forces operate at high levels and with critics looking over their shoulder. They, however, are not being judged on grace and flair.

Doubt questions yourself and your abilities. It judges you harshly. Doubt creeps into your practice, highlighting every mistake. Instead of reinforcing the positive, your rigid goals appear to mock you. "You could do this if you were good enough. See that? You can't even learn that measure." It's what got Obi-wan into trouble.

How do you combat doubt? Get it out in the open. Write down what you are thinking so that you can see how illogical it really is. Share it with a trusted confidant. Expressing your doubts will strip the doubt of its power over you. You are not seeing clearly, but someone on the outside can wipe off the mirror. They can give you sincere encouragement. God puts people around you so that you can each help one another up.


The biggest obstacle is unfair comparisons to others.

This obstacle may begin the downward spiral, occur anywhere in the middle of your musical discouragement, or be the final straw. Musicians have many ways they can do this: schools they attended, their teacher pedigree, pieces they've learned, competitions they've won, comments they've gotten, places they've performed, etc. "I practice so hard. Look at them. It comes so easy for them. They don't have to practice like I do, so why am I even doing this?"

There are two things I try to remind myself of when I realize my thoughts are like this.

First, you do not know this other person's entire story. You don't know what they've been through, their current circumstances, how hard they've worked, or their daily life. You have no idea.

Second, background and accomplishments are not the most important. Yes, in the end we will all be dead and none of this will really matter. However, I am going in a different direction with this point. Trace musical history. Who taught whom? Who won the big competitions? Who was the most famous in their day? Then look at your history tree. I've done my musical teacher tree, and there is not one famous person who was directly taught by another famous person. They all went to different schools. None of them won every major competition, or even most of the competitions they entered. The majority of composers became famous after their deaths!

You may not have the big school names or teacher names next to yours. You may feel inadequate. You may not compare to others in your mind. You may not meet your every goal. But what things really matter? I would argue that your character and persistence are what bring music to life and inspire others. Did you win? Who cares! Continue on and enjoy the process of learning.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step...and it is completed by persisting in taking the next, single step.



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