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Dealing with Crippling Self-Doubt

January 31, 2017 Eddy Chen

Self doubt musician frustration practice twoset

Am I good enough? There’s no way I could ever play like that! Why can’t I just get this right!?

These thoughts musicians like myself face all the time. What separates the best from the mediocre is the ability to practice calmly in spite of these emotions.

In The Practice Journal, violin pedagogue Dr. Robin Wilson offers some advice: “Patience and persistence is the greatest virtue,” he said. “Frustration, on the other hand, can cause excess muscle tension, limit focus and generally lessen tonal quality.”

This advice is echoed by Japanese pedagogue Dr. Suzuki: “Don’t rush, but don’t rest; Patience is an important faculty for achievement.”

Impatience causes us to rush our practice, as we try to artificially force immediate results. It seduces us to play with bad form, because building correct technique requires time. It urges us to compare ourselves with more advanced players, and break down with insecurity and fear. It makes us reject compliments, as we’re always ‘on the way’ to the next level. Because we’re never quite good enough.

It causes us to quit.

To the ambitions musician, impatience is one of the deadliest traps we must learn to avoid.

When I find myself discouraged by lack of progress, I remind myself of athletes.

Olympic athletes train with four-year windows in mind. It’s not uncommon they will spend the whole first year laying out the groundwork – doing boring drills and stretches. Compare this to the ‘6 minute ab machine’ they try to sell on infomercials. Which one produces real results?

Don’t be tricked by the flashy, exuberant displays of skill – that is the 10% of the iceberg above water. What you don’t see with every successful musician or athlete is the 90% of ‘boring’ work, done day in and day out. Our need for a magic pill, a shortcut, to avoid putting in the work – IS what screws us over.

Focus on the long game. Stop worrying about whether you can learn a piece by next week. Who cares if someone gets it faster than you. Mastery is a lifelong commitment. It will take how long it takes. All we need to do is to hold onto the vision of where we want to end up, and take one step at a time. 

I’m a violinist, so let me provide some examples as a string player. Patience means spending countless hours practicing bow control on slow tones, open strings and scales. Impatience means constantly practicing difficult concertos, hoping that with enough practice, the piece will suddenly sound good, despite lack of bow technique.

Patience means doing scales everyday with no vibrato for intonation. Impatience means covering up imperfect intonation with vibrato.

Patience means being okay with sounding imperfect, because you acknowledge that mastery takes time. Impatience means getting frustrated and depressed because your didn’t play as well as you did last week.

It takes mental discipline to not beat yourself up when you sound worse than you did the day before. Progress is never linear. Plateaus and slips abound. Accept it as part of the journey, and move on. No drama allowed.

Don’t hurry, and don’t pause. Just keep putting one foot before another. You WILL reach the peak soon enough.

What is causing you the most frustration in your practice right now? Could slowing down actually help you achieve your goals faster?

Eddy

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The Practice Journal is designed to help you become the best musician you can be. The journal shares the tactics and practice strategies of world-class soloists and pedagogues. The nuggets of wisdom contained within has changed both our lives, and we wish the same for you.


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4 comments

  • YW

    Aug 23, 2017

    Thank you for this!

  • Henry Setton

    Mar 16, 2017

    Thank you so much for the GREAT advice. Really, it’s been a hard time for me and those words were really soothing.

    Best,
    Henry

  • Emma

    Feb 02, 2017

    Oh yes! I recognized myself there! Lately I’ve been so frustrated. I compare myslef, then get discouraged and start to rush with my practice. Like “why can’t I ever play that scale in tune?!” etc. Need to breathe and slow it down. It’s gonna take a lifetime to learn it though!

  • Jessie Anderson

    Feb 01, 2017

    Thank you so much for this article. This applies to me SO MUCH in both my music and my academics at present. I constantly compare myself with others, and I admit, I am impatient and in want of immediate results. So thank you for helping me to identify this. Jessie :)


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