Oct 132014

If you’re attempting to do creative, artistic, imaginative things, then you are facing a tough trail. When you feel down about your efforts, try to be kind and forgiving toward yourself.

Forgive yourself

  1. For projects that didn’t turn out
  2. For not starting
  3. For not finishing
  4. For decisions that led you away from the best path
  5. For withholding praise and support from yourself
  6. For telling yourself your work was good enough when it wasn’t
  7. For telling yourself your work wasn’t worthwhile when it was
  8. For treating your imaginations and dreams as silly, when they hold meaning for you
  9. For drinking too much
  10. For not being your own best friend
  11. For doing what others wanted you to do instead of making yourself happy
  12. For being confused
  13. For being frustrated
  14. For reading books and blogs about creative work rather than doing your work
  15. For wasting time
  16. For using harsh words to describe your work when you’re frustrated
  17. For spending money on courses as a way to avoid your work
  18. For telling yourself you should be amazing without breaking a sweat
  19. For thinking that writing is never hard for anyone except you
  20. For being too angry, too moody, too anxious
  21. For not taking care of yourself
  22. For resting on yesterday’s successes when you need to be working on today’s challenges
Feb 182013

Every time a musician says “no” to a gig, he is making his circle of opportunities a little smaller. When he’s feeling tired and wanting some chill time at home on the couch, someone else with more motor will take his spot and keep it.

Every time a pianist says “no” to practice, she’s saying that music is not as important to her as it is for some others. On the days she doesn’t practice, someone else is racing ahead to push the music a little further.

Every time a singer says “no” to fixing a mistake in practice, he’s telling himself the mistakes are OK. He’s made that mistake twenty times in the past, and he’s sung it correctly maybe once or twice. He may need to sing it right fifty or a hundred more times to patiently untrain the mistake.

Every time a novelist says “no” to writing, she is missing the opportunity to make her draft a little better. Other writers out there aren’t skipping as many days, and some of them will make it mainly on their drive and dedication.

Every time an artist says “no” to his most important project in order to dabble in something else, he is robbing the left pocket to fill the right one. Spending energy on a frivolous diversion with no intention to complete it diminishes the soul of his main pieces.

Every time a poet says “no” to working because she is worrying and doubting, she acts unkindly toward herself. Doubting herself means she doesn’t consider herself equal. Worrying denies that working very, very hard is what makes brilliant art. She does well to hold onto the truth: She is equal, and the best thing she can do for her creative heart is to work like she loves it and means it.

When you feel discouraged, lazy, distracted, or worried about your artistic work, bravely say “yes” to your creativity.

Apr 162012

Stefon Harris has this great discussion on Youtube on the topic of jazz and mistakes. Check it out

Harris says that mistakes are opportunities. If you want to take the music somewhere, you can’t push and pull the others forcefully. You contribute to the motion and color and feeling by listening and responding. Forcing things to go in a certain direction will alienate your collaborators more than inspire them. As long as one accepts the other’s music, then the group plays and creates a big music with deep feeling and meaning.

Let The Musicians Play

I’ll talk about myself a little, though I’m certainly not the perfect example that all musicians should follow. I do tend to take unusual approaches to music sometimes. For example, I don’t tell others what to play very much. I know this has thrown a few of my musical collaborators off a bit, because lots of folks are used to finding a specific part and playing that. “This is my part, and I’ll play it this way.” I figure the music works best for me if every practice and every performance has a spontaneous and present flavor to it. It has to smell and taste like “now.” And I tend to gravitate towards musicians who can put a lot of “now” into their playing.

I once heard an interview where mandolinist David Grisman said that playing with guitarist Doc Watson was always a great experience in the 80s and 90s, because Watson never told anyone in those sessions what to play or how to play. That’s trust and respect.

This “free” approach isn’t a magic formula. Sometimes musicians do need more direction, of course. There are settings, such as orchestral music, where freedom is the opposite of what makes the music come alive. You have to find the approach that works in your situation, so you can’t just follow this or that dogmatically. No matter what the approach your music needs, the trust and respect you give to your collaborators is a potent fuel for feeling a great moment with the music.

Earning and Giving Respect

What if the musicians around you haven’t earned your trust and respect? What if you’re frustrated because they aren’t playing very well? maybe they are playing fine but you’re just in a bad mood. Maybe you just need to give folks a little more room to play. The competitive nature of music and the music biz makes a lot of folks grouchy, arrogant, and disapproving jerks. Watch out so you aren’t becoming one yourself.

(Insert here your favorite memory of a conductor throwing a tantrum, because that is obviously what music is all about.)

Perhaps you are standing next to someone who really doesn’t have his technical chops down solid. If you’re trying to play with someone who is seriously in over his head, that will drag you down. In that case, you can be respectful to the person by trying to help them out as much as you can, even if you can’t trust the musician to stand up to the challenge. We’ve all been in that situation where we’re just struggling and fighting with the music, and nothing good is coming out of it. So be respectful when someone else is struggling, even if you have to shake things up to get the music right. Respect the person even if you can’t respect the music.

There is a difference between technical mistakes and improvising opportunities. You need to have sound musical technique. Bad timing, slowing down the groove, playing out of tune, and making lots of rattle and clunk are not what your audience is listening for. The mistakes can be opportunities for learning and improving, as I wrote in the previous post on this blog.
Bottom line; A lot of bad music is made in the name of “freedom” and “breaking the rules.”

on the other hand,breaking the so-called rules, listening, following, accepting, and trusting are all the breath and heartbeat of the spontaneous improv side of music. Can you follow the rules, break the rules, play freely, play strictly, whatever your approach, and carry the life and the story across to your audience?

Tell A Story

Performing music well is like telling a great story. Folks usually don’t worry if someone makes a few small hesitations, mistakes, and “ums” while telling that great story. People are more interested in you and what you are saying, as long as you are making that story come alive.

Imagine a person who doesn’t speak the lingua franca well because she grew up with a different language as her first tongue. There’s no reason why that person can’t tell a great story despite her limitations in grammer and vocabulary. Carry that over to your music, and you get the point. Try to get the technical things write, but at some point you have to get past musical grammar and spelling. At some point you have to make the story come alive, even within your technical limitations.

John hartford used to say that style is a function of one’s technical limitations. That’s a good thing to tell yourself once in a while. “I can only work within these limits and parameters, so whatever I come up with, that is my style.”
the next time you practice, alone or with others, think about the stories you are trying to tell with your music. What story, picture, and feeling can you speak into each piece of music you practice? Try to go beyond the rote and get to the story behind the notes.

Mar 252012

Imagine a person who builds a house making frequent mistakes from beginning to end without even knowing it. The foundation is not level and solidly laid. The supports are not plumb, the walls are not sturdy, all because the builder did not do anything about the mistakes. If the builder would recognize and correct each mistake as it happens, then the house would turn out beautifully. Maybe all that correcting and reworking would take three times as long to complete the house. But which result is better–a rapidly completed house that is flawed and worthless, or a slowly built house that turns out wonderful in the end??

Last night I was out for dinner and some live music with a crew of friends. The topic of practicing guitar came up. We talked about how hard it is to notice mistakes, and then to decide what to do about them. It seems like the whole point of practicing is to improve, but seeing mistakes and fixing them can be tricky when practicing becomes mindless routine and unconscious habit.

Watch yourself as you practice to notice as many mistakes as possible.
Once you find a mistake, then you must decide what to do about it. You can choose to ignore it, because you are intentionally focusing on another part of your playing. Or you can stop and work on the mistake until you are playing the passage correctly. Or you can plan to work on the mistake later. Do you make a deliberate choice with your mistakes, or do you follow a habit or routine without much awareness?

The most obvious choice is to stop and fix a mistake when it happens. How does a musician fix a mistake? By repeating the phrase or passage and trying to play it correctly? By improvising an exercise to focus on the underlying skill needed to correct the mistake? By focusing your mental attention to the trouble spot to clarify the connection between mind and muscles? Identifying the cause of the mistake might point you to the best remedy. If the problem is mental distraction, then you will need to put more focused attention on the problem. If the cause is physical, then you will need to work on muscles and technique. Sometimes a mistake is more stylistic–a weak or forced presentation. In that case you will need to combine your imagination and technique to develop a more effective interpretation for the piece.

Here’s a novel way to make some good use of your practice-time mistakes. Watch for mistakes as you play, and write down a nice long list of them. Do this for fifteen or twenty minutes, and suddenly you have a list that can serve as your practice agenda for the coming weeks and months. If your practice time is boring or uninspired, build your mistake list and get to work.

I once read in a book of Zen sayings that “life is a continuous mistake.” That saying has stuck with me for years. Life is messy, and people make mistakes all the time. Sometimes we don’t see our mistakes, and they just continue to happen. Other times we can recognize them and use them to grow and improve. It works for practicing music, and it works for other areas of life. Look for your mistakes in your relationships, your finances, and the way you spend your time. It’s a good thing we are all so flawed, because we have lots of mistakes to help us learn and grow.