It happens to all of us. We get impatient with our musical progress and suddenly we start questioning whether we should bother playing music at all. We start wondering, are we really cut out for this? Are we ever going to get any better? Have we reached the limit of our capacity to play violin or some other instrument we play?
If we never really wanted to play an instrument in the first place and were only doing it to please others, to look “cool,” or do what a friend or potential love interest was interested in doing, these kinds of thoughts might be worth considering. But if we genuinely want to express ourselves musically, these are the thoughts we must keep carefully in check. A musician’s journey is lifelong. We will never run out of things to learn and songs to play, and that’s actually quite wonderful! So these kinds of thoughts will only make us feel depressed and doubtful. While we can simply try pushing them away, some honest perspective can help in digging out from under them.
Once we leave the beginning phases of learning, in any discipline, it actually becomes more difficult to notice improvements. It’s such a shame that as we learn to play better and better, we find it harder and harder to recognize our successes. Everything we’re working on and polishing up is becoming increasingly subtle. It’s no longer the difference between playing a note in tune versus out of tune. It becomes what style of vibrato shall we add to this phrase, how fast should we roll out the crescendo in measure 46, and many other questions concerning tone, dynamics, phrasing, fingering choices, etc.
Many of us get to the point where we can only truly know that we are improving as a player if we hear an old recording and can compare it to our playing now, by pulling out some sheet music we might have struggled with at some point in the past and being pleasantly surprised at how easy it is, or by recognizing a technical aspect, like a certain bowing style, which we can perform now but could not at some point in the past.
I think a similar phenomenon may be how a day to a kid seems to go on forever, while a day to an adult, or even a month or a year, can seemingly go by in a flash. When we’re first starting out on our musical journey, just playing a single note is a huge accomplishment. We go from not being able to play anything at all, to playing our first few simple pieces and we’re ecstatic. Oh to return to beginners mind?! Everything is so new and exciting and we don’t have the awareness to hear all our mistakes yet, at least not as many of them as we will when we have years of experience!
But in order to advance, our ears must open up to the more subtle details, and often some details which will drive us crazy. Some sounds can be downright depressing to hear, especially when we grow impatient with our progress, or frustrated that we don’t know how to fix everything we hear right away. But we simply can’t expect to be 100% happy with everything we’re hearing, even when we are able to play at a high level. We’re human.
I think it is possible and healthy to return to that “beginners” state of mind, at least in order to rekindle the excitement and joy we once felt for the prospect of playing a musical instrument, but we must work at it. Negative thoughts are the beasts we must continuously tame or they’ll take over our lives. The best way I’ve found to balance them is to magnify and focus on the small improvements as if they’re big improvements, really allowing ourselves to feel the small accomplishments thoroughly, even if it feels like just going through the motions at first. Let’s pump up the positive!
A couple creative ways to encourage a more positive mental outlook:
- Write down at least one improvement after each practice session, something you couldn’t do a week, month, or year ago, and pretend like it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to you. “I nailed the shift in measure 18!!!!” Let yourself really feel it - excited, joyous, proud, accomplished. It IS a big deal.
- Pretend you are going back in time to a younger self who couldn’t play half as well as you do now. Maybe it’s even the you who couldn’t play anything at all, or who only knew a few simple songs, and imagine how impressed that version of you is to hear you now!
A couple practice suggestions to encourage measurable progress:
- Well, the first one is obvious, decide upon a specific goal and create a method for measuring your progress towards it! Choose one aspect of your playing you’d like to improve and create a journal or chart dedicated to this goal. For instance, maybe it’s shifting. Really get into the details of what about shifting would make a big difference in your playing and life. Do you want to be more accurate with intonation? Be able to tackle more positions? Hear cleaner shifts? Be more fluent at sight reading in different positions? Nail the shifts of a certain piece or section of a piece every time? The list goes on and on, and each element you wish to improve could be practiced and measured in many different ways. See how important it is to be specific about your goals? If we aren’t specific, it is very difficult to measure our progress. It might even be impossible.
- Record yourself! We’re often afraid to hear what we actually sound like, but over time we’ll have a record of ourselves trying different approaches and be able to determine which approaches are paying off the most. Gradually, we’ll also hear ourselves getting better and better! And as terrible as an early recording of a piece, scale, or etude might be, don’t erase it! You’ll thank me down the road a bit. I promise.
Once we reach a certain level, even though there just aren’t the same dramatic improvements we had as a beginner, a day is still a day, at any age, and the fact is, if we continue to put in the time and dedication, day by day (or at least year by year) we’re a better player than we've ever been.