How to Uncover Your Artistic Confidence
Over the past year, I have been on a journey to conquer my self-doubt, and learn how to enhance my artistic development. There are a multitude of things that I’ve realized throughout the past 8 months or so, and the big picture is that it’s really hard to be confident, when you lack perspective, structure, and approach in your performance life.
...Alright... What does that really mean and how do I fix it?
Let’s talk about it. This is How to Uncover Your Artistic Confidence.
There are three big elements to this. Confidence, Effective Practice, and Comparison, and they all go hand in hand. You can’t be confident without knowing how to effectively get through a practice session. And you can’t be confident if you’re constantly comparing yourself to others, or worrying about the “competition”. Confidence is not as easy as it seems. There isn’t this magic on-off switch of just being confident, even though some will argue that there is. The truth is, confidence is manifested within yourself, and is something that one may need to grow and develop to uncover its beauty.
We all have an idea of what confidence is to us. Some may think that confidence is going on stage and having no performance anxiety. Some others may think that confidence is not beating yourself up in the practice room for missing a note. Whatever you believe that confidence is, is right. There is no right or wrong idea of what confidence personally means to someone, or what it is to someone. We all have different paths, ideas of thinking, and learning, and ultimately ideas and visions of success. Do we become successful by hiding behind the stage curtain, refusing to go out and play? Do we become successful by highlighting our insecurities and making sure everyone knows that, “well, I’m not that good at double tonguing”? The answer is no. Confidence is learned over time, and learned by being secure in what we do and present to the world. Confidence is being able to love the products we put out. To love ourselves in the practice room even when we can’t get a certain phrase quite right yet. Confidence is knowing how to solve technical problems, and not make them personal. Confidence is knowing how to track your mental health, and make decisions that aren’t a detriment to it. Confidence is loving what we do all around, and doing it at our best physical and mental capacities.
I am someone who would preface everything in my lessons. “Oh yes so I have the Standley today, but I’m still working on it and I can’t always get these notes to speak.” “I really don’t think I’m that good at this excerpt, but here it is”. I would always make a statement why what I was going to play wasn’t good before everything. It wasn’t because I hadn’t practiced it, but because I firmly believed that nothing I played for my teachers was ever good enough. At my first lesson of the semester last Fall, I said something and my teacher stopped me before I played a note and said, “You’re a better horn player than you think you are”. From that moment I began to self reflect. I began to analyze what I was doing in the practice room, performance, and in my daily life that made me feel so insecure. Part of it was learning self-love. I needed to learn to embrace my horn playing. I was someone who always progressed and worked hard, but never saw my own results. During my first year of my Masters, I made a lot of changes. I changed the way I practiced, I changed the way I worked on things and viewed problems in my practice, and most importantly, I implemented some changes that forced me to acknowledge my strengths and hard work. Thus over a matter of time, I grew out of many of my insecurities, and began to feel confident in my abilities.
So what exactly did I change in my routine? How did I develop effective practicing?
First and foremost I changed my practice structure. No more going into a practice room knowing I need to practice, but not having a game plan. Something I realized is that when you can get yourself organized and know exactly what you came here to do, you become more productive. I can guarantee that everyone on this call has sat in a practice room for way too long trying to get something right, and then left and later thought, “what did I even accomplish?” The truth is, it’s really easy to walk into a practice room, say, “I have two hours”, and then don’t know where to begin, or what to work on, for how long, and what specific factors within the piece you need to work on. Create a game plan, and here’s how we do it.
Step 1. Get a practice journal. I’m serious. My undergrad teacher had told me countless times to get a practice journal to start writing down what I did each day. I 100% regret not doing this sooner. Nothing fancy. Swing by your local Target or Walmart and just grab a notebook you like.
Step 2. Pre plan your practice sessions for the week. Usually right after my lessons I re-write any notes I took during the lesson in my notebook. I’ll take notes on a white board during my lesson, and I’ll also record it so I can go back and reflect and catch anything important that I didn’t get to jot down. Right after, I know what I need to work on for the week. Take the time to plan what you’re going to play each day, as well as for how long, and what exactly needs work in each piece you’ll be working on.
Step 3. However to complete your schedule, you need to find a practice routine that works for you. Let me offer two suggestions made by my teacher, David Jolley. I tested them both out and did find one that I really liked.
There are two types of practice methods that you should try. The 40/30 rule, and the 10 minute rule. The 40/30 minute rule is you practice for 40 minutes, then take a 30 minute break. This helps your brain rest for nearly just as long as you practiced, encouraging productivity and focus. Typically your brain wants to be productive for 1 hour, and then requires at least a 15 minute rest period. The 40/30 rule gives you plenty of recovery time. The 10 minute rule indicates that everything is practiced for just 10 minutes. I personally follow the 10 minute rule because I’ve found it incredibly helpful in terms of both productivity and focus when intensely working on one piece for 10 minutes. Everything, except for my warm up, is just 10 minutes. If I feel like I want to or need to go back to something later, I will. At times, if a piece is brand new, I will allow 20 minutes so I can listen to a part of the piece, for example the first page, or just start working on basic notes and rhythms. But definitely no more than 20. Once I am more knowledgeable of the piece, or at least have it under my fingers, the 10 minute rule stands and applies to everything!
So referring back to step two, make your schedule based on your plan you have.
I typically schedule my warm up for 40 minutes. I’ll then move on to etudes, and start my 10 minute rule with these. After working on Rochut, Fearn, and Alphonse etudes each for 10 minutes, I will then take a 10 minute break where I will sit and do absolutely nothing. This gives me time to decompress and really come back with a clear head. Next, I schedule my solos. Each again, just for 10 minutes. For example, I’ll schedule the 3rd page of Strauss 2 for 10 minutes, the third movement of the Franz Strauss concerto for 10 minutes, and then Malcolm Arnold’s Fantasy for horn for 10 minutes. At the beginning of the week I’ll write down what the focus should be for the week for each of these pieces.. The focus could be articulation, speed, musicality in a certain spot, or really whatever I think I need to fix. I’ll write three things down for each piece. After I would schedule another 10 minute break to just decompress. Lastly, excerpts. I’ll schedule each excerpt for 10 minutes and do exactly what I did with the solo pieces. I’ll identify what exactly I need to work on for each excerpt. In the end, my practice sessions are typically 2-3 hours a day, but will vary. I don’t schedule the same exact things for every day, because sometimes I’ll work on a different solo, or I’ll rotate my excerpts. Either way, I don’t keep everyday the same. This keeps things from getting boring or tedious. I’ll rotate things every other day, or so.
In addition to scheduling, I’d actually encourage one day off the instrument each week to detox a little bit. Some of us over practice and then begin to ache, others of us just continue with frustration in a practice room. Let me be clear, DAYS OFF ARE GOOD FOR YOU. It won’t hurt you to shift your focus away from the instrument for a day and maybe take that time for some mental or physical healing, education/historic learning about what you’re working on, or simply just a day away from music. It is okay to give yourself a break.
Lastly, Step 4. This is a HUGE ONE. You have to learn how to separate yourself from your work. Oftentimes we may have a fundamental issue, or even an off day where we can’t quite get something right. In the moment we get frustrated, and then take it out on ourselves. “Why can’t I get this right? Why am I not good enough?”
These moments are where you need to look at your problem from a third party point of view and take a step back. “Okay this passage isn’t clicking. How can I fix this?” Rather than jumping on yourself and thinking it’s you who’s the problem, identify the technical problem and use what you know to try to fix it. Our issues on the instrument are never personal, or should not be a personal attack on yourself. This is a huge factor into destroying your confidence and is what I did for the longest time. Take a step back and look at it from an analytical point of view, and remember to ALWAYS be kind to yourself in the practice room. Even if you didn’t like the way you played something, take a closer listen and find one thing you did like about it. Find the beauty in the music you make, and your most favorite things in your music making that make you unique. Treat yourself kindly, and in return, you will completely transform.
Who has ever gone into a school placement audition, looked around, and listened around, and tried to scope out who your competition was? Who has ever idolized a huge name player with a successful career like Julie Landsman, Anthony McGill, or Yo-Yo Ma? Who’s ever idolized them and looked up to them and wondered how come they aren’t as good as them yet? Or, “why can *insert name here* win a big job so young and I can’t?”
Comparison is the thief of joy.
4 years ago I attended my first big summer music festival. My dad drove me 14 hours to Sewanee, TN where I lived and breathed music for a month. There I met my now good friend, Mikayla. She is such a bright light in my life and even though we can’t always constantly keep in touch due to just...life, when we do connect, we pick right back up where we left off. During our time there, I constantly worried about everything and everyone. We did auditions and I got placed into the top orchestra and then also helped fill out the sections in the other orchestra. But part of me just kept worrying about everyone else. I didn’t always feel like I deserved to be in the top orchestra. I thought that other people were just simply better than me. I was too hard on myself; always have been, but hope to not always be.
Anyway, in the midst of my frustrations during week 3, this is the piece of advice she gave me.
Comparison is the thief of joy.
And I always kept that in mind moving forward. When I got to my Masters degree, I realized how important my colleagues were, especially those in my studio. These were the people that you grow with. These people are sure yeah, in a way your competition, but also your biggest support system that you have. Too many people I’ve seen are worried about who they’re better than, if they’re better than, why they’re better than the people in their studios. Sometimes it's done out of fear of not being good enough, and sometimes about fear of not being the best, and feeling like you have something to prove. Regardless of what way you look at it, it's your insecurities coming through.
I’ll say it again. Your studio mates are your biggest support system. They are the people you grow with.
Do not tarnish your relationship with them over a petty sense of competition and the need to have to be better than everyone else. Don’t be so intimidated by them because the odds are, many of them are more than willing to help you.
I learned to mind my business at school, but also get advice, support, and constructive criticism from my colleagues. The amount of stuff I learned from other students… it’s incredible. These are the times that you need their support. You need to form relationships. I formed some great ones at Mannes during my first year. I played mock auditions with multiple friends and this TRULY made me a better auditioner. Mock auditions are a great resource for feedback, confidence boosting, and even overcoming stage fright or performance anxiety. Use your friends and colleagues to your advantage. Don’t TAKE advantage of them, but motivate each other, support each other, and grow together because at the end of the day, you can really make or break relationships in this way, and you can also really tank your self confidence by being too concerned with what everyone else is doing.
In terms of comparing yourself to other musicians who made their way into the field early, everyone took a different path. Everyone had different schooling and experiences and no two people are the same. The expectations of people winning jobs at 22 is unrealistic. Have people done it? Yes! But that doesn’t mean that they’re more successful than people who made it in their 30’s. Everyone has their own path. Keep to yours, trust in it, and put the work in. You’ll get there.
So… how do I uncover my artistic confidence?
The big picture? Change your perception and your approach.
Broad? Yes. But let's briefly recap on things today.
1. Your definition of confidence is not right or wrong. It is what you believe you want to change to be more empowered. What is confidence to you? What do you want to change to get there?
Ex. I want to change being so hard on myself. Confidence to me is firmly believing in what I do, and believing that I am better than I think I am.
2. Change your practice point of view to a third person perspective. Don’t take everything so personally. Be more analytical in your approach to fixing a problem and don’t make a personal attack on yourself because you’re struggling in the moment.
3. Learn how to effectively practice. Practice Journal, Scheduling, Structure, Breaks. This changes the game and sets you up for success. You’ll feel much more powerful and in control when you’re organized.
4. Comparison is the thief of joy. Don’t compare yourself to others. Learn to focus on your success and your growth. Your colleagues are your support system, and winning jobs at 22 isn’t realistic so don’t feel pressured to win a job straight out of school! Everyone has a different path and you need to continue down yours.
I hope this has been insightful and has provided you with a guideline to be able to uncover your artistic confidence. We all have it. For some it's easier to find than others. Sometimes we just need to do a little damage control and reorganization of our approach and perspectives and that’s okay! Finding that confidence is a long and winding road, and I hope these tips will help you find a direct path.
Question, comments, need advice? Message me on instagram @mindoverpractice, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For now, have a positive week of productive practicing!