Is there a secret that every successful musician knows - and you don’t?
“She always seems so confident.” “She never lets things get to her.” “She doesn’t seem to feel the pressure.” “She looks like she’s having fun.”
Other the years I’ve watched performers who just didn’t seem to get flustered. They didn’t seem nervous or worried about the possibility of things going wrong. I’ve envied their calm.
I’ve also been surprised when people have said the same things to me, commenting on how easy I made it look.
While I understand how performing can look easy when you’re in the audience, I know that it certainly doesn’t feel that way while you’re up on stage. And in the years that I have been teaching and coaching harpists through auditions, competitions and performances, I have discovered that there is one thing that successful performers do that separates them from the rest.
It might surprise you to learn that this “secret skill” has nothing to do with talent or a bulletproof nervous system. It is simply a decision and a habit, one that everyone can develop.
The Secret Skill
The problem isn’t just in performance nerves. The real obstacle is in our understanding of the entire music learning process, whether we are practicing, having a lesson or playing. For some reason, we expect that if we do the right things, the process should somehow get less difficult. As someone who has been at this music thing a long time, I can tell you that it doesn’t.
Of course, the more you practice, study and perform, the more accustomed you get to the process and the more efficient you become at it. The things that were difficult for you as a beginner are no longer even noticeable bumps in the road.
But if you expect that the process will cease to be a struggle, you are going to be disappointed. The struggle changes and the wins come more frequently, perhaps. What doesn’t change is the fact that we make mistakes, that we find some pieces or passages difficult to learn and play reliably, that we aren’t as consistent as we would like to be.
Don’t let this dishearten you, however. This is where the secret skill comes into play. The skill that successful, accomplished musicians have learned – no matter at what level they play – is to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Let that sink in for a moment: to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.
How many times are we uncomfortable in our music pursuits?
Comfortable vs. Uncomfortable
Certainly, performance is uncomfortable. Performance nerves, worrying about mistakes, unfamiliar surroundings or dreading an epic fail can all contribute to a musician’s discomfort. Great performers can’t always banish the fears; they just play anyway.
Perhaps you worry about playing well in your lesson. Yes, it feels good when you do, but you will learn more through making mistakes and having your teacher help you correct them. The opportunity for learning in a lesson is found in the hard, uncomfortable work your teacher does with you. If you played perfectly in a lesson, what would your teacher be able to help you with?
Practice is, or should be, the most uncomfortable time for a musician. It is where we push ourselves to do something better, to express the music more beautifully, to play faster, to do more than we could do yesterday. By allowing ourselves to embrace the discomfort of errors and difficulties, we increase our understanding and our capabilities. In practice, discomfort leads to growth.
Once we can get comfortable with the discomfort of making ourselves vulnerable to making mistakes, of being nervous, of doing something poorly in the pursuit of doing it well, we begin to conquer. We can conquer our fear of the mistake; stumbles and errors are just a part of the process for every musician. It’s not failure as long as you fail forward, choosing to learn and grow rather than shame and blame.
If this idea makes you uncomfortable, good; you’re on the right path. Now go practice!