Musical Mastery: You’ve Arrived When You Realize the Journey Never Ends

This question came from a student the other day…

Q: Was there a time when you knew that you had “arrived” with your playing, in some way? Is there a definitive moment or is it just a slow gradual process with no big leaps?

The Path

Photo illustration by AlicePopkorn

A: The answer to this question is both complicated and likely different for everyone.

There was a moment when I did realize that I was good enough to do (at least acceptably) well on any gig that came my way, even the ones where I share the stage with one or more heroes or living legends.

That moment came after my second gig with someone I really looked up to musically. I say the second because, after the first, I thought that maybe I got lucky and had a “good night”. So it took me two or more to really trust that I could actually step up to the plate.

I don’t think there will ever be a day when an a musician who is honest with themselves will view themselves as a complete or ultimate player, or that they’ve reached their full potential. It may be possible for some. All of us can probably be more serious about our studies, our practice habits, get busier on the gig front and keep up with the bills.

With every step you take towards mastery, the further up the trail you will be able to see. In other words, the more you know, the more acutely aware you become of what you have yet to learn. In many ways musical (and otherwise), the road is infinite, and you only become more aware of how little you know with every step taken.

This, at times, has been almost crippling for me. At least once a year, I consider giving up music as a career and making it purely about playing what and when I want to play. This is usually pretty fleeting because a) I’ve been musician all of my life and am not qualified to make money doing anything else b) There is nothing I enjoy more than music and every gig is a learning experience these days because I’ve become busy enough to turn down any gigs that I don’t find any redeeming qualities in.

In addition, I don’t think that the ups and downs of your abilities and perception of said abilities ever changes. I’m sure everyone goes through periods like these:

  1. Feeling like they’ve really stepped into their own and feel confident about anything they may get asked to do musically
  2. Feeling like they’re having a musical identity crisis and don’t even know who they are musically, let alone feel confident in their playing. They hate everything they play during these times.

That can be a lifelong struggle, and probably will be for most. I don’t know if everyone goes through it, but I do know enough people that go through that to say that “getting in the rut” is more common than not.

The key to getting through it (which is also the key to almost everything in life) is forward momentum.

You will always continue to grow if you continue to look forward and put the work in.

Keep your feet moving, keep practicing, keep reaching for the next level. Push through those periods that are difficult, learn what gets you going again, and keep applying that to your life and routine.

Above all, never, ever give up.

You may just wake up one day feeling like you have arrived. But I’m betting you’ll more likely realize you’ve moved further up the road and look forward to conquering the challenges to come.

As always, I invite readers to share their views in the comments. You guys rock, and add so much great insight to these columns. I appreciate it and enjoy reading your thoughts. Keep them coming.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to askdamian@notreble.com. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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Share your thoughts

  1. Couldn’t say it any better than that. Great article Damian

  2. wow, so great to hear that come from you. As a full time musician I have peaks and troughs weekly which my wife has to deal with. I have been considering going back to a day job but then my playing will get worse and I’ll be unhappy and I can’t really do anything else HA. So basically I have to keep giving to music through learning, playing and teaching because when music gives you something back it is an amazing feeling. Worth going through the depths for. Thank you once again for all you give to music/ians.

  3. Good philosophy for music and life :)

  4. Thank You. I have been at a crossroads lately and was contemplating giving it all up completely. I’ve tried that for short periods before but always come back to it. I am not a professional musician, I have a day job but as kids get older and time frees up a little more I find myself able to play more. On one hand I was thinking what for? Go do something else. On the other hand I’m excited to take on more musical studies and challenges. I think sometimes the right inspiration comes out of the blue. Thanks again for being that inspiration.

  5. I remember coming to the realization that music and being a musician is something that has no beginning or ending at all. When did the music start? As for being a musician, there is always more to learn and and more practice to be had. This path is never ending and I feel that this is the true beauty of being a musician – something that you can do for your entire life and still there will be growth. In my experience, the easiest way to be a musician is to stop thinking about music and what being a “musician” is and just play the music. I am not saying it is an easy path, but it is a path that I find rewarding both onstage, in the practice room, and in my mind. I thank the lucky stars that music chose me.

  6. “With every step you take towards mastery, the further up the trail you will be able to see.”
    One sentence is like 1000-pages book!

  7. Man, this post really hit home for me! I thank you and appreciate your insite. I am going through a period in my life right now where I am stuck in a rut and am not happy with my playing. As musician’s we are our own worst enemy! This article really helped me stay focused. I have a lot to be thankful for as I run into many non musicians that wish thay had musical talent as they don’t have any. I am greatful for the talent I have and will continue to go “further up the road” as you say to keep getting better and improving. This article has really motivated me to appreciate the skill I have, stay focused, and keep striving to get better. Thanks for the inspiration!

  8. Damian, thank you for the revealing words, reinforcing what I already knew inside me, after so many years of “rut indulgence” I am finally moving forward to the momentum.

  9. Check Effortless Mastery by Kenny Werner. Provides a fresh view on this matter.

  10. I hope everyone gets to read this. I’m not a professional in that I don’t make a living from my playing but I am an accomplished player, having spent 47 years at my craft. I play with my experimental jazz trio and it satisfies me to gig a couple times a month and record a record now and then.
    The moment for me came after almost 30 years of playing. I was always good. everyone would say so but I was never happy with my playing (yes I’m slow) I knew I was dirivitve, I could play all the licks but they weren’t my licks. Then I found my own voice. It was like finding the path up the mountain. It was up hill and continued work but it was my path. today at 57 I learn something everyday, I play something fresh every time I pick up the instrument. I owe the satisfaction I feel to continued study and exploration. I hope everyone finds their path (sooner then I did).