I’m sure you’ve all met the gear obsessed musician: The person who thinks their new mouthpiece will be the answer to all of their fundamental issues, and that they’ll finally start that recording project if they just get the right $400 ribbon microphone. That they’ll start composing for big bands any day now, we just have to buy the right digital piano. That they’ll start doing online collaborations with their friends eventually, they need to finish setting up their home practice studio. They’ll go to the jam session when they know every tune in all 12 keys… That they’ll ask that great player for a lesson when they sound better. Wait a minute, we aren’t talking about gear anymore… We’re just talking about excuses.
Sound familiar? Well, I can tell you that I’m fairly familiar with that kind of musician because I’ve been that person. In many ways, I still am that person.
How many times have you ever talked yourself out of doing something because you felt like you weren’t “ready” or “didn’t have the right tools for the job”? If you’re reading this, I’d wager it’s more than once in your life. This phenomenon is something I’ve been struggling with for all of my life, and it ultimately stems from three things: Fear of what others may think, a desire to always be prepared, and society’s expectation that we only put out work that is considered good and profitable.
Now, on the surface level, none of these are bad things. In a profession where you’re putting yourself “out there” constantly it’s not necessarily bad to care about what others think. In fact, if we never cared what others thought about our playing, teaching, attitude, appearance, etc., we probably wouldn’t get much work because we wouldn’t have anyone who cared to collaborate with us. This is not to say that you won’t come across those who care for you unconditionally (I mean, dogs still exist), but every relationship is an equal exchange of interaction, and it’s beneficial for humans to be pleasant and useful to one another so we can work together. Getting along with others and being liked is an animal instinct to us: Whether it means joining a tribe so you don’t starve to death, or getting enough jazz gigs to pay your rent. Caring what others think of you is survival.
Always wanting to be prepared isn’t a bad thing either. All of our lives we’ve been told to plan ahead, “always do our best” and that “on time is 15 minutes early” (did you read that in your high school band director’s voice?) and so on. This isn’t bad. Being prepared keeps us organized. Those that actively plan ahead aren’t often caught by surprise- Either on the band stand with a new tune, teaching rhythms to 6th graders before lunch, or making sure we have enough crops to survive the winter. People love people with a plan.
Society expecting us to be good and profitable at what we do goes hand in hand with those things. In order for “society” to function, groups of people have to work together to have skills that benefit the whole. Farmers need to be good at their jobs so we can eat, electricians so we can have hot water, politicians so we don’t go killing each other too much, and artists so we have a reason for going on in the first place.
All in all, not bad motivators. The issue, however, lies in when those three motivating factors consume us to the point where we can’t do anything at all. A giant well-wishing anxiety monster, if you will.
So how are we supposed to get out of this vicious cycle? Well… You can’t approach everything the same.
A wise teacher of mine once told me “You shouldn’t ALWAYS do your best. Some things don’t deserve your best, they deserve ‘done’. Save your energy for the things that DO deserve your best.” Cue lightbulb moment.
From that point forward I started viewing my life differently and holding myself to different standards…. I realized that the people I aspire to be like aren’t the best at everything. They don’t always give everything their best effort, and they plan ahead and make decisions based on what things they need to give their all right now.
“Right now” can mean many things: It can mean this year, this month, this day, this 30 minute practice session, this lecture to the french horns on articulation. Those successful people I admired were doing the things I often put off until I thought I had the right tools for the job. Sure, tools matter. Can’t be a racecar driver without a racecar. But what matters way more than the right tools is the right decision: Successful people decide what needs their complete focus right now.
Now, I would be ignorant not to mention the times in which I’m writing in - and I’ll spare you any of our new vocabulary words I’m sure we’re all tired of reading and hearing - but the truth is if you’re an artist you’re probably finding yourself with some time on your hands to figure out what needs your focus right now.
Lately I’ve found it helpful to compartmentalize my day (almost like a school day) in 30 minute to 1 hour chunks where I attempt to fully devote myself to one activity at a time during that chunk (Inspired by Christian Lindberg’s personal schedule he’s shared on his Youtube page). This has been nothing short of life changing during these times.
I know what you’re thinking, “Oh boy another internet person telling me about their super perfect daily life routine that I’ll never be able to do because I’m depressed and anxious about not knowing when I’ll be able to leave my house again” but hear me out. When was the last time you weren’t multitasking? Looking at your phone at dinner, checking email during your practice session… Multitasking is a staple of our gig. Right now, however, we have a chance to change some of that and put some control back into our lives and our focus.
Start by picking a few activities that deserve your all. For me, some of them are: Exercise, reading, journaling, practicing, and lesson planning. And there are subcategories within those things of course, but I have a certain time each day where I get rid of distractions and focus on one thing at a time. I set an alarm on my phone, and when the timer is up I stop.
Am I perfect at it? Absolutely not. Do I still get distracted and binge Netflix? Yes. But I’m finding more focus and inspiration by making the choice to selectively give my best. At the end of the day, having the right tools for the job means deciding which things matter to you and when you’re going to commit to them fully each day.
So, start today. Pick at least one thing and decide what time each day is reserved for that thing… And go for it.