Monday, January 17, 2011

Down with the Tyrant Carrot, or... Don't Punch Yourself in the Nose


Over the years there has been something within myself that has been detrimental and negative to my playing music-  the persistent feeling that I am not playing as well as others, and even worse that I’m not playing as well as I think I should be playing. These thoughts never fail to make me feel unhappy and inadequate. So why do I keep allowing myself to think this way if it only makes me unhappy?

The answer is that such thoughts become a habit. Habits, even negative habits, are within our comfort zone. It is comfortable to fall into habitual thinking because new thinking means going out on a limb and being uncertain and vulnerable.
It was pretty normal to feel inadequate about my playing when I was just starting out and couldn't play much of anything. I got into the habit of always telling everyone that I wasn’t a good player each time before I started playing. Almost everyone does this. But telling others in advance that you’re a lousy player is like punching yourself in the nose just to be sure that nobody else can do it first. It makes you feel safer in a sad kind of way...

But as the years passed and my playing slowly got better (better than I had hoped as a beginner)...well guess what?- I STILL kept feeling bad about not playing as well as others -except now there were many more 'others', and many of them were professional musicians! And I STILL kept feeling bad about not playing as well as I would like to. I can’t tell you how many people I know who have played music for years and who sound just lovely, yet they still apologize for their playing before they play a note, every time. I’ve done this myself, and despite knowing how silly and negative it was, apologies would just pop out of my mouth anyway!

This is such a pointless self defeating habit. It wouldn’t matter how accomplished my playing might ever become, I'd still be thinking I'm not good enough and may never be good enough. Like someone riding a donkey and dangling a carrot at the end of a stick in front of it as a goal- the donkey will keep moving forward to get the carrot, but the carrot always remains just out of reach- what maddening frustration!

I finally decided I didn’t need no stinking carrot. Turning away from the carrot has enabled me to really love what I get from my own music playing every single day- appreciating what I am doing NOW. Perhaps this approach is not for everyone (some folks do better by working with more competitive goals). But getting away from comparing myself unfavorably to others has given me a real sense of freedom and contentment. This positive mindset can even spill over into other parts of our lives.

This is not to say I don’t work towards personal goals to improve my music playing, I do- it's more that I have become my own friend instead of my own worst critic. We are so often our own very harshest critics- it’s so easy to take that negative path. After all, it even disguises itself as modesty, a virtue!- how convenient! ...But why not support and encourage ourselves in a loving positive way instead?

No one should ever have to apologize for their music playing.

I'm trying to keep a slightly different mindset. They say happiness is loving what you have, so I try to really appreciate my ability to make whatever pleasing music sounds I can- even when playing the very simplest tunes. I think about the endless number of little joys in playing and in making music friends and sharing the moment with them. Competing with myself is a race I cannot finish or win.

What if some poor soul was lying in a hospital dying...and they heard a dulcimer being gently strummed in another room- just open strings strummed by a total beginner....well wouldn't they think they were hearing something Heavenly? Of course they would- it would be indescribably beautiful to them. Would they feel the same way if they heard some complex fancy fast dulcimer virtuoso playing? I think not as likely. I think about this sometimes when I have a hard time playing something complicated.  Does the sound of a babbling brook or a songbird or the wind in the pines have to be complex to sound beautiful?  It helps get my priorities balanced in a good way for me again.
I try to laugh off mistakes, and when a tune is proving too difficult, I might just drop it for later on and go back for a while to a tune I can play better. To tell you the truth, I'd much rather play three or four simple tunes well than play twenty difficult tunes sloppily. On the other hand, if I’m in the mood to work on something challenging, well then I’ll do that- but I won’t beat myself up over it if I don’t master it. My goal is not so much to master anything now, but to enjoy the playing itself, or to simply enjoy the challenge of working on something. It becomes all too easy to feel unhappy with what we have, and unhappy about what we can't do. But if you practice something hard and wind up not being able to do it- why, your playing still improves from having practiced or attempted it, so that in itself is a positive thing!

You know, I think we sometimes need a rest from moving forward so that we can move around and breathe for a while at our level in this moment in time. Stopping and absorbing things at our current level is good for us.
I'm convinced that some of our learning process is imperceptible and happens when we aren't paying attention. Maybe when we are only seeing that our playing is not progressing, we are actually advancing in more subtle ways, gaining confidence or gaining more understanding about what is blocking us, absorbing what we have learned so far.
Sometimes moving from side to side is just as productive as moving forward.

I will never totally rid myself of discouraging inner thoughts. None of us can. But at least now I recognize them for what they are- a self-defeating habit- and know that they are working against my personal happiness. Merely recognizing this negative habit in ourselves is half the battle in defeating it. I make a determined effort to be pleased with what I can do, instead of being discouraged by what I can’t do. Since I've been doing that, I've been happier with my music and with other areas of my life. Death to Tyrannical Carrots!


  1. I've learned so much from your blog and YouTube videos, in fact you are a large part of my dulcimer "education." Be pleased with yourself and remember there are many people you give the gift of music to. In any of the arts, the main point should be to enjoy and find pleasure in that art. Just love what you do - that's my motto. Carrots are over-rated!

  2. This is funny: I am a visual artist who recently took up the dulcimer so I could do something creative without the burdensome presence of the critic who sits on my shoulder and makes me crazy about my artwork... I guess a lot of us have those inner voices that don't do us, or our work, a damn bit of good! Maybe we need to devise a ritual to remind us not to listen to those voices and just fill the world with music and art best we can...

  3. I struggle with this too. I'm not professional level or even great and never will be, but I can still play some songs well. I have to remember that people have actually complimented my playing and requested tunes, and that's what it's all about. Try to remember the times you make someone happy playing. And, if you still get discouraged that playing music is silly or unproductive or you're not good enough or whatever, just remember: it's no sillier or less valid than other popular hobbies, such as watching sports or playing video games! (No offense to folks who do those things--they're just for fun, not necessarily productivity, as is music for the vast majority of us who don't get paid for it).

  4. Great post, Lisa.

    I bought a painting once because I really liked it. I eventually met the artist, and told him how much I liked his painting. He said, "Oh those old things! I just dashed them off. They were pretty terrible".

    I felt like a chump for having liked something that the artist thought was badly done. But I think he was just trying to be modest.

    I am an artist myself, and I learned from that event never to denigrate my own work with a false modesty. When someone says they like my work, I do not have the right to tell them that they are wrong. The same goes for the music. I just put myself out there and then let others decide if they like it.

  5. Lisa,
    Well stated. Thanks for your thoughts and for this site.

  6. You sound exactly like me in this! I have just stopped taking hammered dulcimer lessons for this very reason. I have learned SO much from my teacher, but even after several years couldn't get away from the comparisons and self-defeating mindsets. I finally decided the only way I was going to find my voice and gain confidence in it was to quit taking regular lessons. I fight the mindsets when I listen to others play, whether live or recorded. I am determined to learn from those who are better than I and not to compare or become defeated. I will continue to work on my skills and knowledge of music, and will continue to grow as a musician but, as you said, "I don't need no stinkin' carrot! ;-)" Excellent post!


  7. I hear you on this one too. One thing that I try to keep in mind is that the more I worry about how well I am playing, the less well I play. After sufficient time to know the music, relaxing and having fun make a big difference. Easier said than done though, especially on stage!

  8. Playing music is art, so you should never compare what you do with other people. Just enjoy it (so no self-punching!).

  9. Lisa, I just found your blog today as I was so discouraged about my inability to reach the chords on my dulcimer. I was about to give up and/or buy a smaller one when I miraculously found your blog. You are an inspiration to me, and I will begin again tonight to learn the dulcimer...sans chords. Thank you, thank you.

  10. Dena, thank you so much for letting me know this. It does my heart good to know you will keep enjoying your dulcimer!

  11. I came across your blog and really enjoy it. This post is wonderful. I've been sad for years with my poor banjo playing (just can't speed up like, say Earl Scruggs), until i simply stopped reading methods, slowed it down and played it my way. Took me a long time. Thanks.

  12. Strumelia--thanks for putting these thoughts (from painful experiences) into such encouraging words.

    Maybe a paraphrase of the LoveStory tagline from the 70s:

    Playing dulcimer means never having to say you're sorry.


  13. Russell Fluharty a famous West Virginia Hammered dulcimer player once told me always remember no one plays like you do.

    These few words helped me a lot over the years.
    Howard Emerson C. M. P. An Irish harpist helped me a lot with playing in front of people. I don't recall the exact words he used, he said something like play for your self.
    This works for me. I quit playing for people. I play for my self. I play some times for a visitor center. There are people there but I am playing for my self. I may have gotten selfish in my old age but at least I can play with others around.
    Also remember there are no mistakes in playing music. You may have an occasional unintentional variation but no mistakes.

  14. This one really hits home for me...
    I have re-read it everytime I come back to your blog looking for a new post. I guess I don't read it often enough.I quit playing this summer,just because I am not good enough....good enough for who?
    I love dulcimer music...not sure why..but I do...need to love to play it just because of that-and quit worrying that someone will not like my playing...thanks again and again

  15. If there was a "like" button here, I'd press it. Encouraging words, Lisa. It's encouraging to know that I'm not alone in my struggles to quiet that inner critic. Looks like we're all in this together.

  16. nicely put, strumelia.
    just a short story..... living in a commune just north of nevada city, ca. in 66'/67' i had access to a guitar, but had never played. i picked it up one night by the fire & began playing a low e / high e ragga using a forfinger/thumb claw. softly & just for myself. after weeks had past, my friends would ask me to play..... the very same soft, simple raga type tune. after a while our cave would be brimming over with people sitting quitely & listening to this very simplest of musical beauty. i met one of my major loves there & ended up in berkeley, ca. in "the summer of love" & the next year. this story in my humble opinion illustrates the power & beauty of the simple tune. "if music be the food of love, play on....."

  17. Well I just found your blog but I am enjoying every inspirational word and video of it. Thank you for putting it out there.

  18. I am printing this off of my computer and putting it in my dulcimer case to re-read OFTEN! Thank you for a wonderful article, well said!

  19. I hear ya, that's me all over....going to have to work on that...