How to Manage the Negative, and Create Positive Feelings Towards Practice and Performance
During the past year, I have taken a lot of time for self-reflection. Although I got a relatively late start, I am a horn player. I grew up around music, playing piano early, so I already knew how to read music and had a basic understanding of music theory. I had a wonderful piano and flute teacher throughout my middle school and early high school years. She was gracious, and funny, and always yelled at me to cut my nails because they were too long! She was a fantastic teacher. She really made me realize my love for playing and inspired me early to aim high and go after all of my dreams. Once I entered high school, my band directors thought there were too many flautists and asked me if I’d like to try French horn and Mellophone. Sure! Why the heck not? The next rehearsal, they handed me a horn, told me to blow, and suggested I find a private teacher. With no connections to a horn teacher, I ended up studying with a jazz trumpet player, who really helped to quickly shape me into a good high school horn player.
I started to find success playing with youth groups and community bands in the area, with horn players much older, and wiser than I. I placed very high in Region Band and All Shore bands and I was also moving up the ranks very quickly in the drum corps I was a part of. I was really grateful for the people who were supportive and helped get me where I needed to go.
What I didn’t have? The support from the people who put this instrument in my hand in the first place. Band became a place of dread for me. Where my talents were swept under the rug and everyone else was noticed for their accomplishments, except for me. It became a completely unwelcoming environment to the point where I started to question myself. Why wasn’t I good enough for the two people who put me in this position in the first place? This was the beginning of my self-doubt.
Flash forward to college. Here comes the continuing theme of, “why am I being unnoticed? Why am I being undervalued? What am I doing wrong? What am I missing?” While my primary teacher, and my Alexander Teacher were a godsend, I found that things that went on behind the scenes, in ensembles specifically, were completely unfair. For example, having a grad student pick our parts for ensembles based on personal relationships and being ranked lower in ensembles than where I actually had placed. Why do these things happen? Why is it okay for my education to be affected by subjective decisions like these? Does the faculty really think I’m not good enough to play in certain ensembles and play certain parts?
When you start to experience these feelings, usually the first reaction is to assume that you, yourself are the problem. We as performers begin to experience self-doubt. We go through periods of wondering why we aren’t good enough. These thoughts turn into something bigger. It leads to us being so focused on trying to be perfect, that we become unkind to ourselves and begin to relentlessly beat ourselves up whether it be in the practice room or post performance. I’ve left performances wondering why I just couldn’t show up, and I’ve left performances feeling like I let the people beside me down. I’ve also sat in practice rooms and have become so completely frustrated with myself, that I have to put the horn down, let out a little scream...or an expletive.
We become our own worst critic in the absolute worst way. We criticize everything we practice, and perform, from the smallest crack to the biggest miss. It becomes a daily cycle of self-deprecation and self-doubt. For many it’s a personal struggle, not being good enough in that moment. For others it gets to the point where they eventually give up on their dream because they believe they’ll never be good enough to be successful and win a job.
What are some factors that contribute to us feeling this way?
What heavily adds to this self-doubt is not having the support of your teacher(s).
There is a difference between a teacher being hard on you, and a teacher being mean and bringing you down. Your teacher does not have to be your best friend, but your teacher should value you enough as a student so that it is clear that they support you and your goals. It doesn’t have to be verbal affirmation, but it could be by the way they speak to you, how much they push you, and their reactions when you make a breakthrough. It could be as meaningful as coming to a performance you’re having, or reading your most recent blog post. Having a good connection with your teacher is so important, especially because you need to be able to talk to them about the doubts you have. They can definitely help move you forward.
When you don’t have a supportive teacher, it leaves you feeling disheartened, just like how I felt in high school. If you find that your teacher may not be the right match for you, I’d encourage you to take a few lessons with other teachers until you find a good match. Having the right student-teacher fit is crucial for being able to get everything you want out of your lessons and time at school. Your teachers are the people who help mold you and your craft into what you envision for yourself. Don’t settle for less than what you deserve.
Additionally, it could be a variety of other factors such as unfocused practice, or no practice plan, tense school situations like excessive competition throughout the studio, people telling you that you aren’t or never will be good enough, a lack of thorough preparation before performances; these can all lead to performances that leave you feeling mediocre or even result in levels of generalized anxiety.
The Big Question: How do I deal with self-doubt and self-deprecation?
The good thing is, there are so many ways to help you manage this and you aren’t alone in how you’re feeling. Here are a few ways to keep yourself in a neutral, and positive state of practice and performance:
Find something you like in everything you do. If you just ran through the Strauss 1 Concerto for Horn and it wasn’t the best you’ve ever played it, instead of focusing on what you didn’t like, identify what you thought you did well. Was it your sound? The musicality you poured into it? Did you like how supported your air was when you were playing? Identify 3 things you liked about your performance. This will remind you that there is good in everything you do, even when you feel like you haven’t done your best. Focus on the positive.
When you need to focus on the negative, look at the things you struggle with from a third party perspective. Analyze what you just played as if you were telling a friend what they could improve on in their run of Strauss 1. “So your articulation sounded like it’s too heavy; what could you do to lighten up your articulation?” Then, after you’ve identified problem areas, don’t dwell on why they’re bad or that they’re bad, focus on what you could do to make it better. If your articulation is too heavy, try focusing on using a smaller portion of the tongue. Play slow scales, with different articulations against a wall so you can really hear what is coming out of your bell. Don’t make playing so personal when working on the nitty gritty.
Do things you like and want to do. For example, I love playing through Bach Cello Suites and Rochut etudes. As much as low horn is not my thing and one of my biggest struggles as a horn player, it's something I really like to do and work on. Many times we find ourselves playing the same excerpts over and over because we need to know them for auditions and have them right in our back pocket at all times. Sometimes excerpts get tedious and frustrating and we just need a break! Pop out something you like to play and just spend some time with it. You’ll come back to your excerpts another time, but for now, just do something you enjoy!
Walk away if you need a break. Many of us forget to do this and we sit there, and waste a bunch of time trying to make something work when it is just not. Put the horn down, walk away, and take 10 minutes for yourself. Mediate. Do breathwork. Just lay on your back and close your eyes. Take 10 minutes to regain some peace and find your focus. And remind yourself to not be so hard on yourself. This leads me to…
Talk to your teacher if you’re still in school. I’ll be honest, coming into my first semester at Mannes as a Masters student was intimidating. I didn’t know anyone or how anyone played. For me, it was important that I make a great first impression. So I worked my butt off on our placement audition excerpts. I had a fairly good audition and I felt good and content about my performance. In lessons, I used to preface everything I was working on, but not positively. I used to start everything out with a negative comment before I even put the horn to my face and played. I remember David Jolley stopping me in my first lesson. His words to me were, “you’re a better horn player than you think you are”. This was a moment that truly stuck with me.
Now I’m a full year into my masters degree and I have never worked harder in my whole life. Even now, we still talk in lessons about feeding and building my ego and in my practice sessions. I feel more like me. I feel me through my horn and what I’m playing. I feel confident, even if I miss 16 notes in a row. I find things that I like in everything I do. When I want to try something new and just go for it, I no longer feel as scared. If I’m going to miss, I might as well miss big.
Moral of this short story. Talk to your teacher. They will have some really good advice for you to beat this and I’m sure they’ll have a few words of encouragement too. Heck, they’ve probably been in your shoes at one time too. Everyone starts somewhere.
Use words of affirmations. This is something I’ve been getting into more during recent months. Remind yourself that you are fearless, and passionate, deserving and unique. It can even be acknowledging that you are on the right path. You have something special to offer yourself and those who listen or watch you perform. Use this as a mantra during meditation or look at yourself in the mirror in the morning and pick an affirmation that is meaningful to you. Always use one that feeds your soul and encourages positivity in your life, towards yourself and others.
Seek help from a therapist. Therapy can be incredibly life changing for some people. While I can offer everything I know, sometimes the problems are deeper than we think. It’s important to recognize that and to allow yourself to talk to someone when you need the help. I am always all ears, but feedback from a professional is always recommended. There is no shame in therapy.
These are just a handful of tips and tricks that work to help diminish that little devil on your shoulder. But, what if you’re unsure about the difference between being hard on yourself, and self-deprecation?
While they can look very similar, self-deprecation often leads to self-doubt; making one feel like they don’t have the ability to succeed in their field. Being hard on yourself, for example, is like making cookies and realizing when you taste them, that you didn’t use enough salt. You identify that they’re a bit flavorless and lack-luster. What you usually say to yourself is, “Okay next time I will use more salt”. That’s that. There is no beating yourself up and realizing that you’ll never be successful because a batch of cookies were a little flavorless. There’s an identification of the problem, and a solution to fix it.
While not everyone will appreciate, or like what you do, it’s important to remember that this is okay. If you ever feel like someone is trying to intentionally compete with you, or belittle you to make you feel like a lesser artist, do not feed into it. Learn how to cope with the self-doubt that has the potential to seap in when we are marginalized and diminished. Keep on your own path because you are headed in your direction. Your direction is the right direction for you. Seek help and support from those around you who want you to succeed. If you want it bad enough, you’ll always find a way to make it, even while treating yourself kindly!
That’s a wrap this week! Questions, Comments, Concerns, Need Advice? Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow me on instagram @mindoverpractice!
Stay tuned for a new entry, released every Friday at noon EDT! And for now, have a productive week of positive practicing.