Two Habits Of Thinking That Will Limit Your Growth As A Musician

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.




  1. Steve Peterson says

    Yes, these are very good points. As far as not allowing yourself to sound bad, I often make the connection to learning a foreign language. If one were to come at this task adhering to the motto, “I will never mispronounce a single word,” one would have to remain totally silent. The same with art. As one begins to work with genuinely new ideas, it is likely to be clumsy, poorly integrated, sloppy… to sound “bad.” It takes a certain amount of dedication and especially humility, I think, to keep hearing oneself play new ideas “badly” when it’s so tempting to fall back on old material one already plays so well.

    • admin says

      Great to hear from you, Steve! Your metaphor about language learning is spot on: “If one were to come at this task adhering to the motto, ‘I will never mispronounce a single word,’ one would have to remain totally silent.” To me, perfection in art (and most other things) is a myth. Unfortunately, the pursuit of perfection sometimes paralyzes a musician. Dedication and humility, as you said, are what’s needed to sidestep that paralysis and keep growing.

  2. says

    This is great! Thank you for sharing these insights. I am a professional violinist and AT teacher. When I teach my musician/AT students, I often ask them to go ahead and play their instruments badly, as an experiment. It constantly amazes me how DIFFICULT it is for most musicians to allow themselves to play badly, even if that is what is being asked for by the teacher. It often takes many repetitions and a lot of encouragement and reminders that this is what is required of the exercise before the student is able to let go and really make an “ugly” or “bad” sound. And even then, it usually still sounds pretty good. I explain to the musician that they simply cannot have a full range of expression if they do not allow themselves to express pain, unpleasant emotions, and ugliness through their music. Music is not always beautiful, and neither is the human soul.

    • admin says

      Thank you, Jennifer. It’s very nice to hear from you. The willingness to play badly is, as you’ve mentioned, one of the most difficult things for a musician to allow for. And yet sadly, it’s one of the most fundamental prerequisites for change and artistic growth for a musician. As you said, it broadens the emotional range of the performer. In truth (I think), the musician is not hanging on to sounding “good”, but rather, is hanging on to having the same habitual experience (kinesthetic, aural, etc.) when playing ,which she or he has defined as being part of the experience of sounding good. Because even whey they let themselves play badly (as you’ve also mentioned) it often doesn’t really sound that bad. That speaks volumes about the traps we create for ourselves.

  3. Karen says

    love the idea of replacing fear with discernment. so much music education stamps out all sense of adventure, and we need all encouragement to get it back again. thanks, Bill.

    • admin says

      Hi Karen, I agree with you that much of the music education culture stamps out the sense of adventure. It’s a matter of trying to get something right (fear based objective), as opposed to letting something happen spontaneously and authentically (as you say, the “sense of adventure”) . Discernment instead of fear is one of the keys that unlocks that door toward creativity. Thanks for sharing!


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