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!

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