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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.

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