“Accentuate the Positive, Eliminate the Negative…”
These motivational words are the opening lyrics of a 1945 song by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer The song won the Academy Award that year and was a huge hit for Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters.
Negative thinking is one of the hidden dangers in music practice. It can masquerade as perfectionism, striving to be your best, trying to make everything correct, even as being “objective” about your playing. And it is probably impossible to banish it entirely; after all, music is a demanding pursuit at any level.
But I feel it is important to recognize negative thinking and negative actions for what they are – self-sabotage. If we can acknowledge the ways in which we actively work against our own success, then we enable ourselves to defeat the negative and pursue a more positive course. I’d like to suggest positive antidotes to three common (and sneaky!) negative habits.
Negative Habit 1: “I’ll never be as good as…”
Good musicians are critical listeners, that is to say we learn not just by playing but also by listening to other musicians play. We consider the subtleties of their performances and compare them to our own ideas of how the music should go, thinking about things like tempo, technique and facility, and musical expression.
But there is a point where learning stops and unhelpful comparisons begin. Even if you are sure you are correct that you will never play as well as that other person, reinforcing that idea can lead you to feel dissatisfied with your own efforts in a non-productive way. Being inspired to practice harder is good; feeling that you should just give it all up is not. And feeling envious or resentful does not help you do your best practice. And like many habits, the most dangerous thing about this particular phrase is that we often say it automatically and thoughtlessly, without realizing the damage we are doing to ourselves.
Try changing your language. The next time you catch yourself about to say, “I’ll never be as good as..,” substitute this instead: “Someday I’d like to play like that, but right now, I’m on the path, not yet there.” Recognize yourself as on the journey to that destination and do the work you need to do to keep making progress. Becoming the musician you want to be takes time, patience and persistence. If you’re doing all those things, then you’re right on track.
Negative Habit 2: Bright, Shiny Object Syndrome
How big is the pile of music on your music stand? Do you hear a piece of music that you love, order it, and add it to the stack of music that you are learning? Do you get overwhelmed by too much music and to little time? If you scamper from piece to piece like a squirrel distracted by the next bright shiny object, you need to take some time regularly to focus.
Focus isn’t just a part of practice and performance; it’s also part of planning for success and growth. Creating a goal and maintaining focus on that goal is a powerful key to progress, second only to taking the action required to achieve that goal. In other words, it is best to have a plan and to stick with it.
While I love to try new things and learn new music, I am careful to keep my overall goal in mind and to stay committed to it. Once I have set a recital program, for instance, I arrange my practice plans to prepare that program, no matter how tempting it can be to change out one piece for another one that I just discovered or one I just remembered was in my file. I have learned that changing my plan is usually more costly in terms of time and energy than it is rewarding in the long run.
Negative Habit 3: Self-fulfilling prophecies
It is a helpful thing to “know yourself,” to understand your learning habits, strengths and weaknesses; it is not helpful to use that information as a crutch or excuse for results that you could actually change. Words like “I always…” or “I never…” are often signs that we are repeating and deepening a detrimental habit, one that holds us back from progress and results in strengthening the very condition it describes. We are essentially predicting our own failure.
Of course, the difficulty we encounter in trying to combat this is that the situation we are describing is at least partially true. For instance, if we say, “I never can play arpeggios smoothly,” it is based on our experience of playing uneven arpeggios. But those same words do more than state the fact that our arpeggios aren’t smooth; they predict that our arpeggios in the future will continue to be uneven. And that’s where the problem lies.
I would suggest that changing the words you use, even if you are the only one hearing them, is a critical first step in addressing both parts of the underlying problem: the arpeggios that are uneven and the frustration that builds up when you believe that your arpeggios will never get better. Consider these more useful phrases, less fatalistic phrases:
- “I need to…(keep working on my arpeggios).” This gives you an action to take.
- “I sometimes…(play arpeggios unevenly).” This statement is non-judgmental.
- “(My arpeggios)…aren’t the way I want them yet.” This shows the problem as a work in progress.
- “I should ask my teacher how to improve…(my arpeggios).” This proposes steps toward a solution.
A subtle shift, yes, but one that can have profound, positive results.
Are there other ways you sabotage your success?