“I sound awful. I’m a horrible player.”
We all have at least a couple of musician friends who habitually put themselves down. Especially after a discouraging audition or grueling practice session.
In fact, at some point in your musical career, you may have said some pretty rude stuff about your own playing.
It’s OK — we’ve all done it. Even when we’re not saying negative things about our musical abilities, we’re often thinking negative thoughts. As musicians, we train ourselves to hear tiny flaws in our own playing so that we can make adjustments and get better. But all too often, this hyper-awareness of our flaws makes us hyper-critical and self-destructive.
I used to fall into the trap of Negative Self-Talk more often than I’d like to admit. After a lot of trial and error, I discovered 3 key concepts that empowered me to escape destructive thinking, love the way I sound, and still maintain full awareness of what I needed to improve in my playing.
1. Constructive Awareness vs. Negative Self-Talk
You might be thinking, “Wait a second, are you saying that I should ignore the negative aspects of my playing and only focus on the positive?”
Not exactly. If you want to continually improve your playing, you need to know what areas are relatively weak…so that you can practice them! If you only focused on the positive aspects of your playing, you’d ignore all the stuff that genuinely needs work.
The key lies in switching from Negative Self-Talk to Constructive Awareness.
When you’re stuck in a Negative Self-Talk loop, you:
- insult yourself (or your playing)
- ruminate over mistakes
- feel pessimistic about the possibility for improvement
- believe that you’ll never reach your goals
With Constructive Awareness, you:
- observe your musical abilities objectively
- let go of errors (even big, embarrassing ones)
- believe in your ability to improve
- trust in the process and focus on day-to-day improvement
For example, imagine that you are practicing a difficult fast passage. You’re struggling to keep a steady tempo and you’re running out of practice time – the performance is looming.
You could engage in Negative Self-Talk by telling yourself that you’ll never get it, it’s too hard, you’ve tried everything, and “Oh well, what’s the point, I don’t care anymore…”
OR you could use Constructive Awareness. You would take a moment, pause what you’re doing, and give yourself a quiet 1-2 minutes to consider what’s preventing you from nailing this passage. If you’re feeling anxious, you would use a breathing exercise to calm down. Then you’d objectively assess what the problem is. You would focus your energy on determining what tools you could use to improve the passage with the time you have, rather than becoming exasperated.
To learn more about breathing exercises for calm focus, get your free copy of the Calm Down Cheat Sheet:
The best part is that Constructive Awareness consistently enables greater improvement in the practice room and better performances than Negative Self-Talk.
2. Observe Your Thoughts
When I first tried to quit my Negative Self-Talk habit, the biggest problem I had was that I often didn’t realize when I was engaging in negative thoughts.
I knew that when I internally said, “I suck,” that I was stuck in Negative Self-Talk. And fortunately, it was easy to quit doing that right away.
But other, less obvious forms of Negative Self-Talk stuck around for a long time.
For example: “Ugh, I always play this passage out of tune,” “I’m not good at this technique,” “I hate the way this sounds.”
On the surface, these statements seemed useful. I was acknowledging areas in my playing that weren’t good enough. But instead of fostering the kind of calm focus that enables progress, these thoughts reinforced the idea that there was something permanently wrong with me or my playing.
So I just needed to quit thinking that way, right?
Well, the problem was that I didn’t even realize that I was thinking negative, unhelpful thoughts. These thoughts were so habitual, so engrained, that they stuck around in the background of my internal dialogue for a lonnnnnggg time.
Ultimately, it was when I developed a mindfulness practice that I realized how I was sabotaging myself.
As I learned to practice mindfulness in the practice room and on stage, I became much more aware of my thoughts. And that allowed me to start switching away from “I’m bad at this” to “This is what I need to work on.”
3. Find Your Inspiration
If you want a long career in music (or any field for that matter…), you’re going to need inspiration to keep you heading back to the practice room day after day after day. And even a small dose of inspiration can go a long way to silencing that pesky inner critic.
Unfortunately, we spend so much time critiquing ourselves and our peers that many of us have a difficult time enjoying music. We struggle to flip the switch from music critic to music fan.
In fact, try this: Next time you go to a concert, observe how many times you internally critique the performers. If you’re like I was at the height of my Negative Self-Talk phase, you might discover that your internal dialogue is nothing more than a constant stream of sharp criticisms.
At first, this realization can be unsettling. But don’t worry – you’re not alone. I used to do the same thing.
To make a change, start by simply observing your thoughts (negative or otherwise). Notice that they exist and allow them to be. Then consider if they are helping or hurting your enjoyment of the performance. There’s a good chance that if you give your critic brain a break, you’ll find the performance more inspirational, more exciting, and more pleasurable.
Seek out positive experiences for inspiration, both in music and in other areas. Go to an art show or a play. Read a great book. Hike a mountain or head down to the ocean. You might even surprise yourself and find inspiration on your daily commute when you notice a field of blooming flowers or a flock of totally awesome looking birds.
And when it comes to your own playing, listen for inspiration there too. Grab an old performance recording and listen for all the things that you did well. It won’t be perfect and that’s OK – no performance is. Commit to being inspired by your own incredible performance, your long-term progress, and your enjoyment of performing.
It takes work to replace Negative Self-Talk with Constructive Awareness. But as your awareness improves, it gets easier. As your toolbox of mental techniques grows, you’ll become even more masterful at keeping yourself on-track, happy, and inspired.
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