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Practice Plateaus: Thoughts on the "Bad Days"

It’s a simple part of life. Some days are good and other days…not so good. In the world of music this natural ebb and flow is a little more acute than in other professions. As performers, we have a tendency to structure our confidence and perhaps our self-worth around how we sound. We are so fixated with “sounding good”.

Think about it. How do you feel when you have a really good gig? You feel freaking amazing! There is that electric adrenaline of creativity and the effortlessness you feel when you play at your best. You feel like you are on top of the world and your confidence level is off the charts, so much so that even the idea of soloing on “Giant Steps” at 400 bpm is a plausible feat! Now think of the opposite. How do you feel when you have a bad gig or a bad day in the practice room? You feel awful! Your mind goes straight to the dark side and conjures up negative thoughts like “I don’t know anything about music” or “I don’t work hard enough to be a great musician”. These thoughts make you less inspired and thus make you play even worse (a “self-fulfilling prophecy”). Even if you practice 10 hours a day or have a degree in performance, these pesky, intrusive, false thoughts will wrap themselves around your brain and consume you; no one is off limits.

So why does this occur? If everyone experiences good and bad days why are the polarities so stark in the world of music and what can you do to prevent these thoughts from occurring so you can power through a plateau?

Firstly, music is a very different career field from the typical 9-5 job. As performing and composing musicians we, ourselves, are the product. Think about it this way, Amy is a saleswoman who sells wigs. She must have many clients that don’t purchase wigs from her because they simply don’t like the wigs she sells due to their personal taste. This doesn’t discourage Amy. She understands that the client didn’t buy the wig because they simply didn’t like the wig itself and that there were no ill feelings towards Amy as an individual. However, rejection, or a bad playing day, is very (VERY) hard to not take personally because you are the product and it is very difficult to remove yourself from the transaction because of all the time and effort you have, personally, put into your craft, the building of your brand and your product (AKA you!) Because we, as musicians, feel so attached with our compositions or our playing an “off day” or rejection really hits home. In my time as a performer and composer I have experienced this personally and have witnessed others deriving self-confidence from how they sound, because sounding good and performing good feels good. But this attachment can have the opposite effect.

The way to avoid bad days, or in actuality make them less frequent and easier to deal with, is to mentally distance yourself from your music and your playing. You need to find a constant in your life that is in no way related to music. For example, if you are having a bad day or you are nervous about a performance, just tell yourself “how I sound doesn’t matter because I know I have a family that cares about me" or something along those lines. Now just to clarify, saying that it “doesn’t matter” doesn’t mean you don’t care in fact it means that you care much more, not only about the performance but your mental health, so much so that you have come up with a process to distance yourself from the ebb and flow of the highs and lows of musicianship. In other words you remove the egotistical voice in your head that clutters your thoughts with the superficial need to sound “good” (which is a dangerously subjective label and no artwork can universally be considered “good” “beautiful” or “bad”. Some will like it and others won’t) and this allows you to simply play music because your confidence is derived from an outside source, releasing you from the consuming need to play well which makes you more connected to the creative process.

This concept of redefining where you derive your self-security and confidence to create from drastically improved my musicianship and ability to perform effectively. If you are experiencing a practice rut or a series of off days here are some other ideas you can try that will allow you to push through!

1) Impose limits on your playing/practicing. When we sit down to practice or when we start an improvised solo or a new piece of music we stare infinity straight in the eyes. There are simply an insurmountable, overwhelming amount of possibilities that are viable in the world of music. By limiting yourself (i.e. only soloing on one string, or soloing in a designated pitch range or limiting yourself to composing only with a designated pitch set etc.) you force your mind to think differently and creatively within a more structured source of information rather than grappling with an innumerable amount of possibilities.

2) Exercise. Go for a long walk, a run, a swim etc. Anything that will elevate your heart rate for an extended period of time and gives you a sense of accomplishment has helped me, and many of my colleagues, immeasurably.

3) Take a break. This one is simple. Just take a day (or more!) off from practicing if you are finding that you are more frustrated and downtrodden than productive. Go hang out with some friends, walk the dog, eat some good food, catch up on Game of Thrones etc.

I hope you found this entry helpful in dealing with the inevitable off day!

Until next time!


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