What does “good” practice look like?
For most musicians, it goes something like this:
- Play a passage of music
- Evaluate what needs improvement
- Make adjustments to enable improvement
This system works really well. By listening carefully and evaluating your performance in the practice room, you can improve quickly.
But there is a dark side.
If left unchecked, self-evaluation can turn into negative self-talk. And this never ending barrage of self-criticism can quickly switch from productive to debilitating.
Consider your inner dialogue in the practice room.
Do you ever find yourself thinking things like:
“Wow, I sound really bad.”
“I can’t do this.”
“I’ll never be as good as _______.”
If so, you’re not alone. Most musicians I talk to struggle with some form of negative self-talk.
But if you regularly reinforce this kind of negative thinking, you may soon discover that you believe all the negative stuff that you think while you’re practicing. You might start to doubt that you have what it takes to be a musician.
Here’s the good news: You can switch to a more balanced mindset. It just takes a little practice.
“Bad” vs. “Needs Work”
Your ability to accurately assess what areas of your playing you need to work on is crucial for your continued development as a musician.
However, you can get into trouble when your thoughts switch from “I need to work on X” to “I’m not good at X.”
Early in my development as a violist, I used to really dislike playing double stops (that’s when string players play two notes on two strings at the same time).
I disliked them so much because they were super difficult. I knew I needed to improve my double stop technique, but I never wanted to practice them.
Until one day I heard a colleague practicing double stops in a practice room nearby.
They were beautiful. Stunningly in-tune. And so impressive.
I realized that I had two choices.
I could continue to identify myself as “bad at double stops.”
Or I could acknowledge that “I need to work on double stops.”
I decided to embrace the idea that I simply needed to work on this challenging technique. Every day, for many months, I made sure to spend at least a little time developing my double stop skills.
And guess what.
I started to love double stops.
It didn’t take long before I discovered that I had become pretty good at them. But only because I gave myself time to consistently practice them.
So, instead of identifying yourself as “bad” at something, simply observe that you need to work on it. No matter where you are today, you can improve with consistent effort.
Trust me, I know how negative things can get in the practice room…
But chronic negativity can seriously hurt your motivation to practice.
Unfortunately, once you’re already in a cycle of self-doubt, it can be really hard to break out. But not it’s not impossible!
The first step is to balance negative thoughts with positive ones.
These three strategies will empower you to understand and appreciate what you do well. With that knowledge, you can leverage the skills and strategies you learned to get where you are today to make progress in areas that you need to improve.
Next time you play for your colleagues, ask them for honest, detailed, balanced feedback.
Ask for feedback in two categories: 1) what you are doing well and 2) what you need to work on.
When you receive praise, resist the urge to shrug it off. As musicians, we often fall into the habit of taking for granted the things we do well. But when a friend gives you a positive comment, it’s really important to value that input.
Allow yourself to genuinely appreciate positive feedback and weigh it equally with feedback on what you need to improve.
Making a recording of yourself can feel painful.
Suddenly, when you listen to your recording, you hear all the little details that you missed in real-time.
And that is extremely valuable! The ability to hear all those details can be crucial for your improvement.
But if you only focus on the weaknesses in your playing, you’ll get a seriously warped view of your abilities.
Just like when you ask your colleagues for feedback, give yourself balanced feedback. When you listen to yourself, acknowledge the things that you need to work on, but don’t forget to appreciate what you’re already doing really well.
Notice areas of your playing that have improved. Acknowledge all the deliberate practice you’ve done to get where you are now. Then apply the skills you used to get where you are now to take your playing to the next level.
3. Be Your Own Best Teacher
“Oh my, you sound terrible.”
Would you ever say that to a student of yours? How about a colleague?
And yet this is how we often talk to ourselves when things get tough in the practice room. You know how crushing this kind of self-talk can feel.
The best thing you can do, starting today, is to be your own best teacher.
Part of being a great teacher is giving balanced, appropriate, constructive feedback.
So when your internal dialogue turns negative, self-deprecating, and angry, pause for a moment and consider if you are being a good teacher for yourself.
We all get frustrated sometimes – that’s part of being human. But you don’t have to let that frustration get the best of you.
Take a deep breath. Observe your thoughts. Feel free to be honest with yourself, but in a way that is constructive and will empower you to make progress.
It’s the Climb
Every musician is on a long journey.
A journey that is sometimes easy, sometimes hard, sometimes frustrating, sometimes rewarding.
When things get difficult, just remember: we’re all at different points on our musical journeys.
The best we can each hope for is to take a step forward each day. That’s all. Just a little improvement, day after day.
So no matter where you are on your musical journey, be kind to yourself.
Do you struggle with negative self-talk? I’d love to help you. Send me an email and let’s work together.
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