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Playing Music is About Having Fearless Style

There are two things holding back most musicians: lack of practice and fear.

Most good musicians are acutely aware of their weaknesses when it comes to their particular instrument (your voice counts as an instrument). It could be a lack of dexterity or strength, weak lung capacity, weak knowledge of musical theory and how it applies to your instrument, a weak sense of rhythm, the inability to feel a consistent tempo, or something else entirely. These are all things you can improve with time and practice. Some people are lucky to be born with a natural talent for these sorts of things, but if you put in the time to be a master musician you’ll walk away with most, if not all of them. (On being a master/expert: I think it was Malcolm Gladwell who pointed out that it takes 10,000 hours of work to be one, which may or may not be true… fodder for a later post maybe.)

Fear is somehow something else to musicians. I suppose I’m not talking about generic fear here, I’m actually talking more about performance anxiety, but it’s still fear. This is an irrational block  people have that prevents them from being their best. A lot of people never get over their fear, and I sometimes wonder why. We’re not talking about a fear here that is tied in to a life and death issue. I understand fears of spider and snakes a bit better. Some of those things are lethal. I have an irrational fear of heights myself. Even leaning up against a sturdy railing, if I’m up high enough it freaks me out that I could fall to my death.

Performance anxiety is not at all linked to life or death. If you miss a note you’re not going to be stricken down by the god of music for your insolence. Life goes on, even if your B was a little flat. This is a social thing. It’s a fear of being judged and ridiculed.

Well, I hate to break it to you, but no matter what you do, someone somewhere is going to judge you for it, and probably ridicule your for it too. It’s unavoidable. Get over it.

Seriously, I want you to get over it. Why? I think you’re awesome, and screw anyone who doesn’t.

There, I said it.

The fucked up thing about performance anxiety is that it’s not just about being on stage. Sure I get nervous when I play for other people. I don’t want to disappoint them. If I let that take over and don’t go out and have fun, I will almost definitely disappoint them. So I get over. With musicians, though, there’s performance anxiety around other people you have to perform with. Some musicians have this shitty prima donna attitude if someone they’re playing with screws something up. Those people can all go and play with each other in hell. Playing with other people is about holding yourself to a higher standard than you hold anyone else to, and encouraging everyone you’re playing with to do the same. An naturally, If you’re working out material you should always provide constructive criticism when something doesn’t seem right. Just don’t be an asshole about it, and be sure to listen to their perspective too. It’s not rocket science, it’s just not being a douchebag. If you encourage the people around you, they’ll encourage you, and everyone will be better.

However, since so many musicians are epic douche-bags, a lot of musicians get nervous playing around each other. If one musician thinks they’re not as good as the other guys, they’ll retreat in to themselves and start to actually prove it. I’d rather work with a musician that takes chances and screws up than one who plays it safe but “right” all the time. You never get anywhere interesting if everyone is being timid and safe.

If you want to impress me as a musician, be bold and take chances. Own your style and your approach to music. Don’t give a crap what other people think, especially me. There’s no guarantee that I will like what you do, but if you have integrity and confidence and own your performance, you will damn well have my respect.

There’s a difference between knowing your limitations/what you need to work on, and living by your perceived limitations. Sure if you can’t shred maybe you shouldn’t write a song that requires a shred solo in the middle of it. However, if you’re in the middle of a song and are inspired to do something with a solo that you’re not sure you can quite pull off, just go for it. If you screw up, own your mistake. Hell, repeat your mistake. Make people think it was intentional. Defy their ability to call you on it.

You are a rock star. You are the greatest performer ever. Act like it. Own that shit.

Then go home and work your ass off so the next time you’ll be even better.

– B


2 thoughts on “Playing Music is About Having Fearless Style

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  1. ObHerbert: Fear is the mind-killer. One of my greatest challenges is playing well with others. I play demonstrably worse with an audience, and accompanying other musicians is even worse than playing for an audience. Yeah, I mess up in front of the audience, but they might not notice. Other musicians can tell immediately I’m a fraud.

    And as you point out, that’s all crap. In fact, I found that I could mitigate my performance anxiety by
    1) practicing playing with others! I know, shocking.
    2) giving myself permission to, well, not to suck, because then I’m wasting people’s time, but rather giving myself permission to be deeply imperfect. Because I’m letting a combination of training and instinct drive my choices. Sure, I play each piece slightly differently each time, but every now and then I reach this place where I can’t believe how good what I’m doing sounds.

    I’m aware of my limitations. These limitations are almost all derived from my lack of practice. But what I like best about my limitations is that they give me something to struggle against. I like to exceed them. Push them out further. Make them harder to reach. It’s too bad I balance this drive with an utter total complacency that cripples my drive to practice!

    I regret not finding some time to play with others more. Hell, I regret not packing my piano in my car, driving it over to your place, and trying to convince you and Dave to jam with me on no particular theme or topic.


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