Overcoming failure and perfectionism to grow as a musician

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We live in a society where we are constantly expected to grow, develop and improve. Where we are expected to reach specific standards by a certain age or timeframe and if we don’t then we are behind, failing and not good enough.

These ‘society’ expectations start through school and childhood – the stress placed on us to be in the top set, getting great grades, going to the best universities, making the sports teams, being the perfect son / daughter, etc.

When we become an adult these ‘society’ expectations are still there. Such as, being in a perfect relationship, working hard and creating an amazing career, owning your own home, having the exotic holidays, cars, material goods and even how many children you should have.

The problem with these ‘made-up’ society expectations is that we often find ourselves judging ourselves negatively against them and this leads to increased feelings of not being good enough and not worthy of love.

If we apply this concept to music education we will see the judgements are still there. You should have started lessons by a young age, you can only have a professional career if you practice 8 hours a day, there are no opportunities for classical musicians, that music is not a career path for the majority of people and we shouldn’t even bother starting. Sadly the list goes on.

In truth we often believe and absorb these limiting stories for ourselves without even realising and this can lead to fear of performing or only sharing your musical skills when it is totally perfect. This negative mindset will not bring you joy, gratitude or happiness in your music making. In fact for a majority of people it will be the reason behind why they stopped learning and playing.

In one of my lessons this week, my adult student was really struggling with his confidence and self-worth. He is a great singer, dedicated, practises and is making great progress. In fact there is nothing for him to fear as he is totally going in the right direction. However, he completely worries about pitching the first note of any piece he is going to sing. This week he was hard on himself near the end of the lesson expressing that he thought he would feel more confident after the lesson.

So where did this fear and doubt come from? Well when we delved into the fear further, it transpired that it actually had originated from singing at karaoke in previous years. He had found the experience uncomfortable and embarrassing because he had struggled to sing songs that he knew well. It had clearly impacted his confidence and self belief. In fact, it was still impacting his confidence without even realising it.

So how do we help our students in these situations?

By normalising an experience, we can take out the fear, particularly for students who are new to music and music lessons. It’s normal to squeak, play the wrong note, come in at the wrong place, play a Bb instead of a B natural, to feel nervous on stage, to knock the music stand over, etc. However, if we don’t normalise this then how would a beginner know?

So when talking with my adult singer I was honest and I said how I found pitching a starting note when singing was a tricky task. It’s easy to play an F on the piano – you can find it and it will play an F every time. But for a singer just singing an F out of nowhere without a piano, tuning fork or even perfect pitch can be a challenge for everyone. This is what I mean by normalising – even professional, experienced musicians find challenges in the same areas as beginners. The difference is we understand that it is part of the challenge of music as opposed to us not being good enough.

We also talked about backing tracks and the varying qualities that are available when singing karaoke. There are lots of great backing tracks made but there are some equally awful versions. The key will have been changed, instrumentation missing, and even chunks of the harmony you are so used to hearing in the original not added to the karaoke track. Again, even for a professional, this would be incredibly off putting and lead to more errors in performing than normal.

Lastly, we tend to sing karaoke without warming up or practising with that specific track. How often would we normally do this in our music lessons? Would you stand and do a presentation in front of a large crowd without practising what you were going to say?

Musicians are not perfect and mistakes do happen. This is all a natural part of the process of learning music and being human. In fact, I believe that mistakes are important and learning how to recover as a musician is what makes us grow.

Music is a life-long hobby and with ever new piece you learn you will be asked to become a beginner again – starting the piece from scratch and learning all the aspects that create a musical performance. There will always be someone who is more confident, more experienced or more talented around. But that doesn’t matter.

You really don’t need to judge yourself against their progress. Your job is to honour your own journey, progress and successes. Music is such a wonderful way for people to be connected through the beauty of sound – don’t let that part get lost when you are learning. You are bring a gift of music to others!

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