If you ask an accomplished musician about what is necessary for continuous growth and improvement, you might well be met with a “to do” list: Always work on improving your sound. Find new ways to challenge your reading and technical skills. Keep expanding your repertoire with pieces that broaden your expressive capacities. Listen deeply to, and analyze great musical performances. And so on.
And for sure, all these are things you need to strive toward in order to grow. But what about the things you need to avoid in order to grow as a musical artist?
If you were to ask an accomplished musician this question, you’d most likely get a fairly extensive list of things to steer clear from, as well. (It’s even possible that this list would be longer than the “to do” list.) In essence, for you to grow, you must do certain things, and must consciously avoid doing certain other things.
It’s important to keep in mind that if you wish to change what you do, you must change how you think. In my experience both as performer and teacher, I find that the vast array of ways musicians interfere with their progress is often a result of two habits of thinking (attitude):
“I won’t let myself sound bad.”
“I’m doing well so far.”
Let’s look at these habits in detail:
I won’t let myself sound bad
This is of course a habit based in fear. It limits your growth by not allowing you to try new things with an open mind. It radically shifts your emphasis from process to result as you explore musical growth.
For sure you’d like to sound immediately better when you try something new ( a good result). Who wouldn’t? But often enough, changing something to sound better starts with you sounding somewhat worse ( “worse”, at least, in your current perception).
You’ll never improve by doing something the same way you’ve always done it (whether you think so or not). If you examine any musician’s improvement, it comes down to a continuous evolution of edification. What seemed like the “right” thing at one point turns out to be the wrong thing. You acknowledge this, then you move on, proceeding in a different way.
I’ve taught the Alexander Technique to musicians who were so afraid of sounding bad that they could not (at the start) allow themselves to play their instrument (even for an instant) without indulging in the particular habits of tension that were causing the very problems that brought them to see me in the first place. They simply believed that if they didn’t do what they thought they needed to do, they would sound bad. Their fear of sounding bad was trumping their desire to improve.
One of the milestones of growth for my students is their gradual acceptance of allowing themselves to sound bad in order to allow for change. There occurs a shift in thinking, and then the desire to change trumps the fear of sounding bad. When this happens, it opens up a huge, beautiful path toward expansion and upward development.
So when you change something as you play, don’t immediately jump to judging the quality of your result as sounding good or bad . Shift your judgement to, “Is this different than what I’d normally do?”
Then shift from judgement to discernment: “What am I not doing that I would normally do?” (Your growth will often involve you playing your instrument without indulging in your habits of tension and over-doing. Non-doing instead of doing.)
When this happens you put yourself in the frame of mind to make logical, objective decisions about your playing. If you can suspend judgement and stay with discernment long enough, you can choose most clearly that which serves you the best.
Some of the other manifestations of this habit are: a rigid practice ritual that aims toward maintenance instead of growth; avoidance of playing with better musicians; avoidance of challenging musical situations; a limited palate of musical self-expression . As you can see, if you’re afraid of sounding bad, you can’t really risk stepping into the unknown. You can’t ever find something new to play. You can’t ever surprise yourself.
I’m doing well so far
This habit, in many ways, can be more insidious than the fear of sounding bad. Insidious, because what appears as self confidence (a good thing) can easily morph into self-deluded dogmatism (not such a good thing).
It limits your growth in a similar way, in that it robs you of your impetus to explore the possibility of doing something differently. I call it the curse of expertise. When you are absolutely sure that you are right in what you do, you can’t possibly change. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, the saying goes.
In my teaching experience, the most common manifestation of this habit is the belief that excess tension and strain don’t significantly impact musical success. Talent and practice does. “So what if I’m tightening my shoulders and neck as I play. I’ve seen Sonny Rollins doing the exact same thing and it doesn’t seem to make any difference in his playing. He still sounds great.” (I had a young saxophonist with a rather brittle sound tell me this as I tried to explain to him that his sound was colored by his excessive neck and shoulder tension.)
First of all, you’re not Sonny Rollins. Second (and more important), you have no way of knowing how Mr. Rollin’s habits of tension impact his playing. He obviously plays quite well despite his habits of tension. But it’s possible that he could play even better than he does without them.
One of the things that virtually all truly masterful musicians have in common is that they believe that they can always do what they do in a better way. The great cellist and teacher Janos Starker talks about the importance of this idea, and the process by which the musician’s thinking is edified on the path toward improvement.
Other manifestations of the “I’m doing well so far” attitude are: lack of discipline where practice is concerned; an unwillingness to deepen self-awareness; a superstitious adherence to well-meant, but ultimately useless or counter-productive advice given them by other musicians; an inability to understand cause and effect with respect to their own bodies and the music making process; a perceived (by others) sense of self-satisfaction bordering on arrogance.
You may have noticed that these two habits of thought are closely related, and indeed they are. One often supports and blends in with the other, and both are based to some degree on fear of change.
So always keep in mind that what you do (and what you don’t do) for better or for worse, is conditioned by what you think. Aim at keeping your thinking clear and helpful by avoiding these two habits.