A laboratory of s***s and giggles. Or, how you do anything is how you do everything.

“You may have noticed the postcard I keep on my bathroom mirror that reads, ‘When you have no idea what’s happening, play the notes you can get and try to get more on the next pass.’ It’s something I said a thousand times to musicians working on learning to play tunes by ear, before I noticed its obvious relevance to the rest of life. So in that spirit, here are the chunks of the ‘tune’ I’ve figured out so far….”

That was the opening to a personal email I wrote a couple of weeks back, addressing a confused romantic situation. (Who knew I would ever be sharing such a thing in this space?! But I did promise I was going to get more transparent with you all.)

After I sent it, I couldn’t help but think about its application to so many other conversations I have had recently with friends, family members and astrology clients* about their own lives. Parenting. Career moves. Healthcare situations. When you strip away the specifics, it always seems like the path forward is roughly the same:

1) Don’t just stand there; do the part you understand now.
2) Pay attention to what goes by and try to get more right the next time.

Life doesn’t come with pause or rewind buttons, so this is the best we can do. It means we might not “play the tune” right the first five or fifty or five thousand times we try, but if we stay engaged and don’t give up, we’ll get it learned. Then we’ll be able to participate fully, and with pride rather than stress.

(*Yes, as some of you already know, I moonlight as an astrologer. I don’t tend to make a big deal out of it with you guys because I know it’s not what you came here for. I’m also mindful of wanting this space to feel safe and welcoming to folks who may have religious or other perspectives that would make them uncomfortable engaging with astrologer-Kat. But if you’re interested in learning more about that part of what I do, including a super-secret limited-time offer (oh my!), you can click this link.)

There’s a reason I focus my teaching business around improvisation and jamming skills, unlike 99.9% of other teachers who specialize in helping folks develop technical proficiency on their instruments. I do have plenty (plenty!!) of things to say about the technical fiddle stuff, too, as any of you who have taken private lessons from me know quite well. I have a college degree in the classical side of things, and decades of experimentation and research into the ergonomic aspects of playing this crazy instrument.

But honestly? I don’t get that juiced about sharing it, except as a means to a more interesting end.

Here’s what I do find juicy: those moments when a person (you, me, anyone) realizes that in order to jump up a level in their musicianship, they’re going to have to jump up a level in their whole approach to life. And that doing the musical work is a concrete, manageable way to do that life-work.

Music’s not just for shits and giggles; it’s a laboratory for conducting experiments and developing strategies that increase our wholeness and effectiveness as human beings.

For my money, improvisation and playing with others are the two musical skills that most often elicit these epiphanies. (“Freakouts,” you may prefer to call them, but epiphanies they are!)

I’m not saying that technical skill-building brings zero of these benefits. Certainly there’s a reason many parents put their kids in music lessons. (It rarely means they want their kids to be professional musicians someday! Ha. Sorry about that, Dad.) Learning an instrument strengthens our neural connectivity, and teaches us the value of routine, patience, and the pursuit of excellence.

But I don’t teach kids (usually). I teach adults, and adults usually have those skills dialed in about as well as they’re going to in this life. What more of us are working on are skills related to perfectionism, self-consciousness, mindfulness, and so many of the other big hairy blocks that stymie so many of us as grown-ups.

Collaboration and improvisation are so, so useful in dragging up our issues in these areas and giving us a chance to work on them.

There’s overlap between these musical and life skillsets, of course. Working on technique certainly requires us to confront issues around perfectionism, for example. I just wanted to get you thinking about the relationship between your musical life and the rest of your life.



Questions to ask yourself:


  • What area of music do you know you could benefit from putting more work into, but find yourself strangely averse to exploring? (We all have them!) Is it playing with others? Getting more solid with your rhythm? Improving your tone? Improvising? Studying a genre you’re attracted to, but think might be too difficult for you? Look inside yourself–what’s holding you back? What’s the psychologically scary part of diving into that thing?
  • What life lessons has music been teaching you lately? Where are you stuck musically that mirror other stucknesses in your life?





Let’s chat in the comments!

(…and if you missed it, here’s that astrology music-friends-discount link again.)



Edit: I received an email from a reader expressing disappointment at my use of the word “shits” in this article, because it made the reader uncomfortable sharing the post, even though it didn’t personally upset them. If you’re in the same boat–well, first off, thank you for wanting to share the post! You’re awesome, and I hope this is useful to your friends, too. I’ve made a second copy of the post which omits the offending scatological reference. Please distribute as you see fit!

Here is what I said to the person who emailed their concern: “Thanks so much for your kind words, and for your feedback about the swearing thing. It was definitely something I gave serious thought to before sending. Ultimately I decided that the reason I felt moved to use the phrase was because the people who would resonate most with what I offer would be able to relate to a surprising moment of earthiness. So I went for it.

“My experience in 10 years of marketing my teaching business is that the more widely I cast my net, the fewer people pay attention to me, and the less I appeal to the ones with whom I could really connect well and whose goals are most aligned with my skills. So my strategy is to show up as myself, with my cards on the table: who I am, what I care about, and how I experience the world in general and music specifically. Then people can choose for themselves if they relate to me. Just as they would any other friend. The closer I am to a robot or a blank projection screen, the more impossible that choice becomes for people.

“All that said, I don’t disagree that this particular article is easily edited to a G rating. Here’s a link to a thusly censored version, if you or your wife still want to share it. I’d be honored!”


You might also like:

Ira Glass on the suckiness of being a beginner.

Why being an adult learner is awesome.

How to practice when you don’t have time.

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How to practice when you don’t have time

Some weeks this is just how it is.

One of my teenage students walked in the door today, obviously frazzled. I asked how she was doing. “Tired!” she said, with uncharacteristic force.

“Are you tired from good things or bad things?” I asked.

“Good things. But they’re wearing me out.” She went onto explain: she’s just joined a gymnastics team. Their first meet is only a few days away. The team has only a few practices to learn a lot of moves and put together an entire routine. Most of them have never done gymnastics before, including her.

As we settled into the lesson, it became obvious that this situation had taken a toll on the amount of time she’d been able to spend practicing this week. That’s natural enough. It’s not that she’s losing interest in fiddle; she’s just engaged in an intensive project right now in another part of her life.

I see this all the time with my teenage students; they have so many opportunities available to them, so many adults in their lives encouraging them to express themselves creatively and athletically and to do it all right now. Hey, I’m one of them! We adults like to enable kids to overcommit themselves with fun stuff since we know they won’t have as much time to pursue these opportunities later. Of course, we need to be careful to avoid burnout, and we need to teach kids how to set boundaries that will support their emotional and physical health. But that’s a different article.

This busy-busy theme is obviously not limited to the teenagers I work with. My adult students are even more likely to come to their lessons buzzing with stress: “I’m sorry I’m late; my business meeting ran over time and then I hit all the red lights! They’re restructuring my department and now I’m doing the jobs of two people, for three-quarters of my old pay!” And then “I didn’t have time to practice,” often followed by “I’m sorry” or “I know I should be practicing” or some other self-deprecating comment.

Look. We are all going a mile a minute. Want to know a secret? There are weeks I don’t practice at all. And I’m a full-time musician! The important thing is to know what our priorities are, and to live according to them. Some weeks, music and the personal growth it facilitates are top priorities. Some weeks, they aren’t. And that is okay.

But we also know that we do need to practice regularly if we are to keep making progress. A day we don’t take a step forward is a day we take a step backward. What we need is a way to be kind to ourselves by continuing to press forward in our music projects at the same time that we allow ourselves the freedom to respond to the rest of life as it happens dynamically around and within us.

We need to practice efficiently.

We need to know what the bare minimum is that we have to do in order to keep moving forward, even in baby steps. Or at the very least, we need to know what we have to do to stop going backward–even if we’re just treading water.

So, okay: how to do that.


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