Q: I have days where I feel like I’m the worst player on the planet, and I have no drive to practice even though I should be. Do you have any tips for practicing/motivation on off-days?
A: I’ve written about this in one form or another in past columns. I’ve often recommended finding something (that you really like) to transcribe or play with and learn from in some way. I’ve talked about taking a break from it all and changing your focus for a few days or longer. There is one thing that I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned, but it’s something that I’ve been re-discovering lately.
Making music is supposed to be fun! You’re not alone in getting down on yourself or suffering from a sense of inadequacy when listening to great musicians do their thing. There are times when everyone hates every note that comes out of their instrument in the shed.
I’ve had a discovery lately that applies, at least a little bit. Every gig I’ve had for the past few weeks has been an absolute blast. Some were better than others, but they were all a lot of fun, and I was always happy with the music I was a part of making to some degree. There was no negativity attached to any of it. However, every time I practiced, I hated everything I played and would feel like a cloud was hanging over me musically… until the next gig, which would be awesome again.
I realized that I hate practicing (which I’ve kind of known for a while). Sure, there are times that I’ve gotten really into some thing, and hours would sail by as I worked on a concept or idea. But outside of those obsessive learning spurts, I abhor practicing for it’s own sake.
None of that was necessarily news to me but the realization had to do with two things.
- I love making music and making it in real time, with real people is when I’m happiest and most secure. And when I’m happy and secure, I can play anything I want to and feel good about it.
- I’m judging myself too harshly and focusing on the wrong things in the shed. I’m comparing what I can do to what I can’t do in a non-productive way. I’m also putting myself up on a shelf next to other wonderful musicians and, instead of seeing how great it is that I can do THIS, and they can do THAT and that it’s all cool. I make a mental list of what they can do and notice how much of it is in my “can’t do” side of the equation and let it make me feel inadequate.
A much healthier perspective is one of appreciation, not comparison.
This led me to think about not just what I work on in the shed, but how I work on it. At least for the way I learn, I’ve discovered that I need to make things musical and fun in order to fully engage myself in my practice. The idea is that if we’re having fun, we’ll be less critical and cruel with ourselves emotionally.
I’m still in the process of figuring out exactly what that means, but it leads to a larger point.
Music should never be drudgery. Sure we need to put in hard work to get “there,” but we will also go much further if we enjoy the ride. All of us can enjoy hard work when it feels good and is rewarding, so I don’t think this should be any kind of cop-out (“practicing isn’t fun, so I won’t get anything out of it anyway”). Rather, I want to rediscover the joy of discovery. I want to engage with music in a playful way, challenge it and have it challenge me back. I want to focus on how I hear music and work to fully realize that sound on my instrument. I want to engage with other musicians and be playful with rhythm and harmony (while still playing a supportive role).
That’s much better than the way I’ve done it at times in the past; i.e. beating myself up for not being able to play more freely and musically within a whole-tone scale and feeling lame and over-rated, for example.
That gets me absolutely nowhere. Quite the opposite in fact.
Try not to focus on what you can’t do and put the energy into what you love to do, want to do or enjoy doing. Get together with a like-minded buddy and play musical games with each other. This might sound “super dorky” but I love getting together with students or other musicians and coming up with exercises and games to challenge each other. (for example, calling out a root note, interval, and a
scale type and trying to play it in time. And then the next person calling out the next one.
- Get a metronome going at a medium tempo (75 is nice and relaxed)
- Call out your root note – “C”
- Call out your interval for the scale – “broken thirds”
- Call out your scale or mode – “dorian”
- Count yourselves in with the metronome – “1,2,3,4”
- Play the exercise up (&/or down) one or two octaves (whatever you decide) – C E♭ D F E♭ G F A G B♭ A C B♭ D C
- Next person calls out a new challenge
That’s just an example of something I’ve done with students before, and it can actually be fun. You can do it with rhythm as well or any combination of things.
We need to cognitively re-orient ourselves about why we’re doing what we do. If you’re only practicing because you “suck compared to so and so”, then there will be little joy in the experience because it will be a penance. However, if we can’t wait to go and jam with this drummer a few doors down because you want to work on odd meters together, you will likely get much more out of the experience.
What is obvious to me as I type this is this: music is meant to be a social experience. I think many of us can get disoriented about why we’re doing or what we’re doing if we don’t have positive social experiences associated with the music (i.e.: only shedding by yourself, waiting until you’re good enough to play with real people. Which is something I hear a lot. “How will I know when I’m good enough to play with other people?” is a question I’ve received more than one. The answer is that you should be making music with other people from day one! It’s the best way to learn and the most fun you can have doing it.
Fully explore what you love about music and what is bringing you down. Really consider another way to approach it all. A little cognitive reframing can go a long way!