We have all experienced it. You are doing great, everything is clicking right along. Your scales are perfect, all the way up and down the horn. You are in tune practically all the time. Your lessons are filled with praise, and you performances are well reviewed every time.
Then suddenly you stop growing.
People call it a lot of things, “hitting the wall” or “stuck in a rut” or “writer’s block”. But I think there is a more accurate name for the phenomenon that helps us to see the solution more clearly:
Success is a two-edged sword. One the one hand the benefits are clear, the praise and the playing and the external reward for our practice is important and helps justify all that work. But perhaps the pitfalls are not so clear.
When we are doing well, slowly inside of us an expectation develops. “I’m on fire, I’m the best and I can practice as fast as I want from now on and get better at MY super-fast pace instead of slowing down like the rest of these ‘humans’.” To quote Admiral Ackbar:
IT’S A TRAP!!!!
As you do well, this pride will overtake you, and you will ignore the kind of practice that surely got you to be successful in the first place. You will become impatient, take on more than you can chew, and eventually have to crash in order to be humbled appropriately again. That crash may even be so hard as to cause you to quit the thing you love most forever.
The desire to sound good at all times and be accepted by the public is fine, but it cannot be the criteria you use to determine whether you are worthy of your own love or not. I see it so often, and it is the greatest tragedy of our era of art. Our generation of artists seems to believe that without this hate, and this doubt, and this general hurtful striving that great art cannot be had.
We are told the stories of Beethoven, and Picasso, and all the “suffering artists” of the past. We are raised with expectation that art must hurt, otherwise it means nothing. Here is a hint, this is garbage.
My favorite artists are not those who are hurt by their art, but rather those who use their art to further their love for themselves, for their community, and for their spirit. Take Coltrane, take Maynard James Keenan, take anyone with a smile on their face dangit!!!!!
You needn’t suffer to play well, and in fact it hurts your practice.
If you hate yourself, and the way that you play, you will rush through material before it is done. You will ignore deep-seated issues in order to protect you ego. You will play tensely, and not be able to practice for long periods of time because of the strain it places on your whole being. You will reach beyond what you are capable of doing to try and “catch up” to the greats.
In short, hate will cause you to stagnate. (see how cleverly that rhymes so you will remember it? Boy I’m cool!)
But if you practice with love for yourself, you will be patient with the material and slow it down, perhaps even shortening the exercise or admitting which part you are struggling with and focusing on it. You will make it to the those few practices which are most necessary, and be okay with them sounding “bad”. You will be able to relax, and thereby practice indefinitely, building that superhuman “endurance” that the greats sometimes seem to acquire through force of will. They don’t. You will be honest about where you stand and be able to take those small steps forward that are the basis of all progress in all fields.
You cannot do calculus without being able to do algebra. Even in math the principle is clear! Those who hate themselves will see the wrong answer as an indication that they are a bad person and will give up. Those who practice with love for themselves will see the wrong answer and know that it is not the end of all time. They will see through it to the causes, and know truly what to do to fix it. They will even be able to ask for help, knowing that they are not weak and stupid to do so!
It is through love that all progress occurs, in all endeavors. Therefore it is not what you practice that is important, but that you practice from a love for yourself. You must know that this can be done, and not wait until tomorrow to do it. Do it now! You will have plenty of time to hate yourself later 😉
While you practice, you accept who you are.
You can only move forward from where you stand.
We are all afraid, but some are more so than others. Sometimes people are so afraid it causes them to be unable to do things that most of us see as being totally normal.
A Harvard student cannot board a plane. Her fear is too great. So she chooses to sign up for a three-day marathon session with her cognitive behavior specialist to try and get on a plane to see her family. Close to the end of the session, he suggests that she do some exercises to simulate the physiological feelings she will have at the airport.
To her surprise (but not his) this causes her to actually THINK some of the thoughts that cause those responses. He tells her the following:
“We shouldn’t be running from those thoughts, but rather going out and trying to find them”
This, from a scientist.
I cried at that very moment, and the camera shifted to her and she was crying. I cried because I identify so strongly with that sentiment, and how it has alleviated a great deal of fear from my life, and no one I know personally has ever told me not to run from my thoughts. It was so nice to hear that I wasn’t alone in my approach, even if only from the TV.
She cried, I think because she felt the fear fully in that moment, and took that first odd step in not fighting it. But rather, as her therapist told her to, allowed it to come and diminish on its own.
To once again quote Dune:
“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
You are your thoughts. And in order to not be self-destructive or self-violent, you cannot fight them. Nor can you run from them (if they are you, how will you ever escape?). These are options that yield no positive result.
Perhaps instead we can embrace them, like a mother caring for a crying child, and say to them “I am here for you.” and permit them to do what they need to do to be okay. As we would care for a close friend in need, or a family member.
The fact is that these feelings are closer to us than that, closer to us than any of our friends or family, and to ignore them, fight them, and hate them is only to hate the self.
Once, the Dalai Llama was asked by a ‘westerner’ how he deals with self-hate. It was the first time he had ever heard the phrase, and he responded “How could you hate yourself?”
You love yourself. Everything you do, you do out of love for the future and past you. Sometimes you feel flustered, and frustrated at yourself, but this is not hate. This is you, wishing like a parent for your future self, for a better life for your child. Sometimes our love, while well intended, cannot succeed in its course because it is violent.
Do not be violent toward yourself. What good could ever come of that? Learn to love your fears, and your anger, and even your hate when it arises. To do so is to love yourself, and even the smallest step in that direction is incredibly important. Because learning to live with yourself in this way, you will one day be able to get on the plane, and go home to see your family. You will learn to just go over and talk to her, and finally go after that perfect job, and keep after your art.
You will do these things out of love, and not out of expectation. You will do these things thinking only of the path, and not of the destination. It will make taking those small steps OK, because you are in no hurry.
You are already in love.