For many of us, but especially those of us who are adults, it is difficult to do things we don’t already know how to do. Learning an instrument, especially if it is our first instrument, is humbling. We may feel like small children, knowing what needs to happen but without the wiring in place to make our hands act in accordance with our intentions.
When we finally quiet our inner critic, our spouse or children or cats may wrinkle their noses at our best attempts. We turn on the television and see reality shows where people sing their hearts out, then turn to face a panel of judges who are paid to be merciless in their criticism.
Even if your deepest musical wish is to be a professional, idolized by others, leave that wish outside the practice room. Practice time is for you, not for the imagined or real people you hope will give you better love if you master this instrument.*
*(Here’s a tip: it won’t make any difference.)
Maybe you are on a plateau. If you aren’t on a plateau right now, you will be someday.
When you are on a plateau, it feels like you’ve been stuck at exactly the same level for a long time. You’ve been walking and walking and not getting anywhere. You remember the climb up to where you are now, that exhausting but intoxicating feeling of progress, but it’s a distant memory now. Practicing doesn’t seem to make a difference and it’s increasingly difficult to remember why you ever thought this was fun or worthwhile.
You may consider quitting your instrument. A lot of people do at this point.
Allow me to suggest that everyone who has ever mastered an instrument (whatever that means, exactly) has crossed many, many of these plateaus.
Allow me to suggest further that you are actually getting somewhere, even if you feel like you’re walking in circles or backwards.
Kindness to yourself
- Stretch. Breathe.
Bring your best self to your work.Take 2-3 minutes to make sure your muscles are loose and your mind is clear.
- First, play something you feel.
Start with your favorite tune.If every tune feels wrong today, make up something that expresses how you’re feeling.
- Decide what to work on today.
You do not have to practice every tune or exercise assigned every time you play. Pick one or two things to focus on today.
- Get down to work.
Spend as much time as you can (five minutes, or five hours) on your focus area(s).
- Stretch. Breathe.
This is work, but it should be joyful work. If you get frustrated, take a step back. Stretch tense muscles. Break the hard thing up into smaller chunks, and focus on just one chunk for now.
If you’re having trouble focusing, take another minute to stretch and breathe. Play a slooooooow scale. Stand in front of the mirror and play open strings, watching for straight bowing, or places you’re holding tension in your body, etc.
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