Updated: Nov 15, 2020
Many of my students get frustrated all the time because of things they can’t do yet (don’t we all). I have been there countless times myself. Have you ever stopped to ask yourself: Why am I always so frustrated?? Well, I may have part of the answer.
When we practice and progress through high school, undergrad, grad school (and sometimes 6 years of grad school) we start to have higher expectations of ourselves. This is absolutely critical to improvement of course, but in the moment we really need to think a bit differently. `
After years of training we expect ourselves to just play the rhythm already. The thought I should be able to do this probably crossed your mind. That is just it. Why should you already know how to play the Ibert Concerto (for example) if you’re just learning it? You shouldn’t! You’d have to be some sort of wizard (still crossing my finger for my Hogwarts letter) if you could just some how play it perfectly right away. Yet, we are extremely brutal to ourselves when we can’t “just play it.”
Some of my former very uncool self-talk phrases of this nature include:
Seriously? I teach this stuff I should be better at this by now.
Really? Ten years of music school and I can’t play this?
The expectation is our downfall. We don’t want to view ourselves as beginners in any way anymore (we are advanced flutists after all). But how often does this get in our way? If we view ourselves as experts during our practice time, we leave ourselves no room for error. What is practicing if not trial and error? We set ourselves up for frustration when we assume we are experts.
If you don’t talk to yourself this way, that is amazing! Keep up the good self-talk! However, I know there are a lot of people (especially flutists) that have this dangerous sort of dialogue, and it is never productive, ever. Let’s break this down, if you talk to yourself this way and believe it, there are going to be a lot of feelings of guilt and shame. If you took the passage you’re stuck on and went into practicing thinking: I don’t know this piece, I shouldn’t be able to “just play it.” I have some stuff to work out, but I’ll get there.
Another thought I find helpful when I get into these spirals: “It takes as long as it takes.”
I personally like this one because it emphasizes the quality of the work I’m doing rather than the speed in which I achieve it. There is definitely a place for learning things quickly in my tool box, but I always prioritize the quality over the speed whenever possible. If you need more time on a passage, you need more time. It doesn’t matter if other people got it quicker, that doesn’t mean anything. (Read that sentence again). What matters is the quality of your performance. I have found myself being embarrassed AT MYSELF for not learning things more quickly, how crazy! Nobody knew how much I had to practice the one finger change or technical passage, I just shamed myself.
I used to go to flute festival days and hear great artists talk about how they do their warm-ups and exercises everyday and how that is what their teachers did even with established jobs and careers. This puzzled me because, I thought, “why would they do that if they aren’t learning anything new?” But that’s just it, I’m sure they were learning new things and discovering new things about their fundamentals in these exercises, even if they had played them thousands of times. That is what makes them great performers and artists. If we pursue this thought further, we can play and think about an exercise in an infinite number of ways, so why do we assume we know them all? Curiosity is your best friend in the practice room.
You shouldn’t “just know things,” or “just be able to do things.” Performances of quality take time and thoughtful preparation, people who skip that part ultimately lose out. The process is where you find the good stuff.