Updated: May 7
Ok, here’s the Truth.
Learning to play or sing is a - typically long-haul - journey.
If you want to get to a point where you feel able and free in your music-making, it takes time.
It’s a weeks, months, years process. It’s an on-going practice.
Sometimes, it can be a bit like a game of Snakes & Ladders, or a huge jigsaw for which it takes ages to put the pieces together, or a game of Trivial Pursuit where you just don’t know the answer (yet).
It’s easy to feel like we’re not making progress (fast enough), to get a bit down on ourselves for ‘not being “there” yet’, to ignore or forget the significance of the small steps we make when we practise.
Well, if you can spot yourself doing that, there’s help at hand. Inside.
It’s time to strike up your internal marching band and do some triumphant self-trumpeting!
Celebrate the milestones. They happen much more often than we might think.
One of the things I really like about tutoring in music is that I not only get to play and sing a lot, but I also get to talk and think about music all day long. The inner-geek in me is very satisfied by this. There are ample opportunities for him to dive into the nitty-gritty of many aspects of music, unlocking the little windows of insight that help his own and his students’ music-making a better - happier - experience. Well, that’s the hope.
Also, I get to hang-out with other people who share this passion and thirst to know more: the students seeking to understand how today’s lesson fits into what they already know, and other musicians and music tutors who are so excited to tell me about their latest discoveries about music or music practice. We share the ups and downs, the experiments, trials and errors, and delight in a common sense of joy in the learning process.
Our inner-geeks get their kicks together!
I think a fundamental part of being a music tutor is to share that joy and delight with students. This is certainly the case of all the best tutors I know: the ones I look up to and am inspired by in various ways. Their lessons are uplifting, motivating, full of enthusiasm, fun, connection and compassion.
When I reflect back on my own experience of music lessons as a student, I remember feeling so empowered on hearing the simple ‘well done’ from a tutor. It was like a mini celebration in itself.
It could come after I’d performed something very fluently - the few times that happened! - but also after ‘getting through’ something for the first time, no matter how messy it was, or even after a ‘difficult lesson’ in which I felt I made no progress or couldn’t manage something. Maybe even especially at these times, that ‘well done’ was really important: a well-done for showing up, for having a go, and not necessarily with my best effort or energy. The deeper message was: “You’re here. You’re doing this. And that really matters.”
Unfortunately, it wasn’t all my tutors who taught in this way, and impact of that was quite damaging. I’ll write about this another time. But I’m so grateful to those teachers made the effort to take a moment to congratulate me for the tiniest step forward or for just trying, even though I felt I had ‘failed’. Because it’s these moments that I still have in my mind when I’m struggling alone with my own practice for whatever reason. They flash in my memory as little messengers of motivation and encouragement. They remind me to look at the bigger picture and see that, yes, that tiny step today was actually really important, and something to enjoy in itself.
The key in all this for anyone who is on their own musical journey, is to internalise this idea and be your own self-congratulator: to say ‘well done’ to yourself on a regular basis, particularly when you’re feeling a bit blue. That doesn’t mean over-doing it in a grandiose way. It’s a simple, straight-forward, healthy reflection about what you have achieved in the grand scheme of things. (Or it’s a mini-fist-pump. Whatever suits you!)
It could be that today you’ve played or sung or written something you hadn’t before. Literally: it exists where previously it didn’t. Or maybe you felt you “couldn’t” do it up till now, and then suddenly you can - a bit better. Or that you’re that lttle closer to being able to master a tricky passage or understand some complex aspect of music. You can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and although you’re only two steps closer, that’s still two steps more than it was. Or it could be that, when you reflect on your music practice from a while back, you can see the journey you’ve made to now: all the ups and downs, the confusion, irritation, and disappointment, but also the determination, perseverance, pleasure, and even euphoria.
You’ve got all that experience. That’s yours to keep. You do know more than you used to. You kept showing up, despite all the times you didn’t, and despite all the other things in life that pulled you away - sometimes for years. You did it.
These are the milestones that we need to recognise and celebrate in a simple and calm way. A ‘well done’ to ourselves is just one way. Whatever it is, that self-celebration, however quiet and subtle, is important because it not only motivates us to keep going, it also helps us become the better musicians we want to be.
It’s a powerful psychological tool to ignite our inner enthusiast, awaken our natural intelligence, and aid us on our musical journey. It’s a pinch of self-induced happiness that makes us more relaxed-but-energised in our mind and body.
Happiness. Yes: that’s the key. It makes us more cognitively alert and therefore able to take-in information needed to make our practice better. It also makes us more at ease physically: in the way we position ourselves and the way we move. This in turn means we’re much more likely to be able to do the things with our body that music-making demands.
That’s the real magic of it.
So, please, just keep going with your music-making. I know it’s hard sometimes. We all have a long way to go. But we also all have a lot to give. We may not be ‘there’ yet. But we’re on our way. The fact that we’re on that journey needs celebrating for its own sake.
“You’re here. You’re doing this. And that really matters.”