As I’ve become better at parenting (I have a 17 year old son and a 2-and-half year old daughter), I’ve also learned some important lessons about my attitudes about my musical progress and development.
Notice that I said, “as I’ve become better at parenting”, meaning I’ll never really perfect that skill. I’ll just continue to learn and improve and grow as a parent, mistakes, setbacks and all. And I’m perfectly fine with that.
I can say the same thing about my skills as a musician.
Before having children, I had a very harsh and unbalanced way of assessing my musical skills and perceiving what I needed to improve my playing. Never for a moment satisfied with what I could already do, I had rigid and unrealistic expectations of what I should be able to do.
But since having children what has changed is that I’ve learned to approach and respect my musical growth, potential and development in the same manner I do with my children’s growth, potential and development.
I would never talk to my children the way I used to talk (think) to myself when I was frustrated or unhappy with my musical progress. That would be cruel (lots of thoughts about “wasting your time trying”, “lacking fundamental ability and talent”, “you’re playing horribly”, or simply, “you just don’t have what it takes.”) Hurtful language, indeed.
Yet I encounter many musicians who carry such hostile thinking with them into the practice room. (I can tell you from experience, both as musician and teacher, this kind of thinking ultimately doesn’t help.) If you are such a musician, I offer you this advice: Treat yourself and your musical pursuits with love, in the same way you would a loved one in your life.
And if you have any experience as a parent, treat your musical growth as you would your own child. Allow me to explain.
I would like for my children to be able to reach their fullest potentialities. But I also love and accept them just where they are in their development. I’m satisfied with them. I take great delight in seeing what they can already do. Time, guidance, resourcefulness, discipline and love will lead them in the direction of growth and improvement. Same with me and my music.
So yes, of course, I want my 2-and-half year old daughter, Julia, to learn to read. But I don’t find anything “fundamentally lacking” with her right now because she can’t. She’s right where she needs to be. (I could go on forever here about what she can do that I find so amazing.)
This doesn’t mean that I never get upset, frustrated, or angry with my children. (I do, from time to time; that’s part of the parenting experience.) It’s just that I give my children the respect for their sense of self-worth that they deserve. I’ve since learned to give myself the same respect with regard to my musical practice. I encourage you to do so, too.
If you know that you’re a bit harsh and negative with yourself, and never satisfied with your progress as a musician, here are a few thoughts to keep in mind that might help:
- It’s okay to want to more than what you have now (more sound, better technical control, greater improvisational skills…whatever), but it’s not okay to berate yourself for where you are in your development.
- It’s okay to recognize and celebrate the skills you already have. You have to find joy along the way in your pursuit of excellence. It’s not being lazy or arrogant to say to yourself, “That sounds good. I like how I played that.”
- Be mindful of your self talk. Learn to soften your tone and to encourage yourself, the same way you would a beloved child. Keeping a practice journal can be very enlightening and helpful in this regard.
- Strive to continually clarify and understand your potentialities as a musician. Avoid comparing your natural abilities and talents with others. It’s all about striving towards realizing your potential, not somebody else’s.
- Hold yourself to high standards. Just make sure they are your standards, based upon your abilities and talents. Expect the best from yourself, and apply discipline (fueled by passion) to keep you aiming high and working hard.
- Love and fear are strong motivators. In my experience, love is the more powerful, expansive and durable of the two. Motivate and energize yourself from a place of love and inspiration, not fear.
- It’s okay to be on the “wrong path” from time to time in your musical pursuit. Progress is virtually never a straight line. And no, you didn’t waste your time on that wrong path (perhaps trying a new technique or approach that ultimately turned out to be unhelpful). You simply strengthened and illuminated your conception of the “right path”.
- Cultivate gratitude. Just like it’s a blessing to be a parent, it’s a blessing to be able to play music. Please never forget that.
So in your practice, I wish for you to approach yourself and your growth with compassion, joy, acceptance, curiosity, humor, and love. Just like my children have taught me. I continue to improve my skills and expressive capabilities as a musician. But I’m happy with what I have, and find satisfaction and joy each day as I practice.