The Balancing Act - 7 Things to Keep in Mind When There is A LOT on Your Plate
It’s easy to get overwhelmed when it feels like there’s so much to do. I have to work on my tone, my articulation, flexibility, language, scales, tune list, piano, etudes, pieces, composition, arranging, sight-reading, ear-training, have a social life, read books, have friendships, have relationships, spend time with family, get some sun, cook food, exercise and also
Take a moment.
I’ve had the opportunity this summer to work with a large student base ranging from all skill types. One common factor I’ve noticed is the tendency to stress over all of the things left to learn. It all seems like it piles on the list too, the more you learn, the more you realize you have to learn. It’s no wonder so many people get burned out and stop playing altogether.
As the summer has gone on I’ve made an effort to put together some tips for staying motivated and pushing forward when things feel like they’re piling on top of one another.
WRITE THINGS DOWN
Keeping a practice journal was a game changer for me in my undergrad. As a late starter I’ve always felt like I’ve been chasing something. Everyone around me was glowing and growing, and I was just trying to get a grip on my instrument. Writing down my goals, both short and long-term, and then making a list of things I want to work on was a crucial step in me being able to break down my practice into more easily digestible bites. I was able to schedule out my practice routine and be able to savor each minute of practice. Writing down how I felt, whether it was directed at my practice, or something in my personal life also helped me manage those emotions as well. I chose to write things in my practice journal, but making a vlog, writing it on a blog, on a computer, on your tablet, on your phone is just as good. Put it somewhere where you can go back and read it or watch it. We are always looking for something to relate to. Families like our own that give us hope for what our families can grow into. People who have started in similar situations overcoming obstacles that make us believe we can do the same. It’s inspiring to watch these stories. But we have these stories of our own in small victories all the time. Writing things down has given me an opportunity to truly understand that I am able to do great things. There is something so beautiful in looking back on something that troubled us, burdened us, or challenged us and realizing that this difficult task has now become a warm up. Give yourself a chance to inspire yourself. Write things down. HERE is a template for how I organize my journal.
HAVE A PLAN
When starting your practice, it’s important to have a plan. I always recommend for all my students to read “How to Practice Jazz” by Jerry Coker. Being able to go into your practice with goals and a plan will be the difference between learning something in a day vs. learning it in a week. Though we should always be patient with the timing of our learning process, often times we can learn faster than we know just by being efficient. This book is a great example of the types of things to practice, and how to break things down. Spending a focused 15 minutes on something is better than semi-focusing for an hour. If you looked over my PRACTICE JOURNAL TEMPLATE, you’ll see what I mean! Have a plan.
We play music because we love it! Just like in any other field, growth can be a lifelong process if we remain curious. The fact that we are able to continue learning, continue growing, and continue changing is a really beautiful thing. It’s our job to keep finding things for ourselves that inspire us and make us want to keep practicing. This is especially true once you’re out of school. It’s like an endless high school summer, so easy to stop pushing when someone else isn’t keeping us accountable. I like to listen to an album every week to keep me learning new tunes, new language, and about new musicians! If we listen to records we’re giving ourselves a chance to sit with our heroes. So although we may not have a teacher telling us “you need to learn this tune”, we have the album telling us! Follow along with my ALBUM OF THE WEEK to listen to new music every week and keep the learning going. Remain curious.
ALLOW YOURSELF TO MAKE MISTAKES
A common thing (especially in younger students (or for anyone learning a new unfamiliar concept), is to be scared to mess up. I get it! To me, trying something new in front of people has always felt like baring my naked body to the world. It’s intimidatingly exposing, it’s easy to feel judged. But making mistakes is an incredibly important part of the learning process. Let’s think back to what it’s like for a baby to learn how to walk. When the baby falls over, it doesn’t judge itself or tell itself, “you’re stupid how do you not know how to do this by now?” You simply take a moment to assess what went wrong, and try again. This is the mentality we should take with everything. Nothing is “hard,” it’s simply unfamiliar. If we take that attitude, we can embrace that learning means REPETITION. To get familiar with something we have to see it, and hear it, and feel it over and over and over and over again. If you’re going to criticize yourself, make sure it’s constructive. Think for a moment, if the voice inside your head was another person, would you be their friend? If you don’t talk to your friends that way, why should you talk to yourself that way? (“The Inner Game of Tennis”, Gallway)
LEARN THAT BEING HONEST AND BEING KIND ARE NOT MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE
There is a fine line between giving yourself constructive criticism and being too self critical. I want to be positive but I want to address things that bother me. I am learning that I can be a masterpiece and a work in progress at the same time. The way that I speak to myself has been a powerful tool in learning how to teach myself. I’ve always been the kind to tell myself “this sucks and it’s unacceptable, I have to do better.” I think it’s been in an effort to keep myself humble, but in reality I was just humiliating myself to myself. It’s been a process, but I’m learning that forgiving myself doesn’t mean I have to abandon the potential for growth. I’m able to be honest with myself without degrading myself if I’m careful about how I chose to speak to myself. Let’s find an example. I did a gig a few weeks ago where I wasn’t proud of how I did. My first reaction was to think, “I suck.” Instantly I humiliated myself. Maybe if I do this I’ll make myself angry and it will push me to move my a**, I told myself. But I went weeks of just being salty, angry with myself for being a bullsh*tter and doing nothing to change it. There came a point where I felt I had to do something different. Okay, so I didn’t play up to par, but what does that mean? After taking a moment, I decided I wanted to focus on how to do better instead of why I wasn’t doing good enough. So I sat down and wrote down what that meant - I need to transcribe more and learn how to maneuver keys I haven’t really familiarized myself with. Now I had a plan, I knew how to address this and I actually started practicing it. Practicing made it get better - who’da thunk! Some days I forget and have to get myself together, remember I’m doing the best I can, and if I’m not to focus on how to do better instead of vibing myself for not doing good enough. Being honest with myself and being kind don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
We’ve talked so much about efficiency, but an equally important thing is being patient. The learning process will not always be quick, sometimes is will feel heart wrenchingly slow. There will be moments when we’re putting some more time in our long term goals and the movement will be a lot less perceivable in any immediate time. This isn’t a bad thing! If we take a step a day we have taken 365 steps by the end of the year. Just because we don’t feel the growth happening doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. It’s important to embrace these moments of slower growth and take it as an opportunity to take our time with a new concept. Though it’s easy to feel like the next thing is coming at us really quick, and everything is happening all at once, the reality is that we have our entire lives to grow. There is no rush to get things by X day or in X amount of time. In the book “Bounce,” Matthew Syed goes into depth about the learning process and why it takes such a long time to build a new habit. Learning slow is all a part of being human. Take a moment to be thankful for a moment to breathe. Be patient.
SPEND TIME WITH YOURSELF
When I was studying at UNF we all had a tendency to think about things in regards to hours. “I practiced 10 hours today,” “I wrote for 3 hours today,” “I only slept for 4 hours so I could use the day to shed this piece.” Not only did it stress me out, make me lose sleep, and affect my health, it left very little time for anything else. While I was looking to spend a lot of time doing “productive” things, I was inadvertently causing myself to feel shame for any time I wasn’t being productive. “If all you have in life is music then you don’t have music.” -Wayne Shorter. Although giving ourselves dedicated time to our craft, if we spend all our time in the practice room then all we leave room to inspire us is the practice room wall. I found myself practicing all day, but never finding time to jam with friends, or go to shows, or spend time with my friends, or savor a meal. I started to feel resentment towards my instrument rather than love, and it made me feel like my value was attached to my performance. Music is not just the notes we play, but the beer we have in between sets, the conversation we have over dinner, the smell of the grass on our walk, the meal we cook together, and the inside jokes we have with our friends. We have to remember that in order to take care of the music, we have to take care of ourselves. Sometimes being productive will mean taking the day off and going to sleep early. And all of these things are music because “everything is everything” -Bunky Green.
Learning to treat myself with kindness has been an adventure, especially in a city like New York where it’s easy to feel like the hustle never ends. Some days I have to remind myself of these things, some days are harder than others. But I can get myself to a point where instead of feeling overwhelmed, I start to feel inspired again.
“Look at all this stuff I need to work on” vs. “Look at all this stuff I get to work on.”
Words are powerful.