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Perfectionism, Music, and Me

I am a perfectionist.

Yes, I know it’s hard to tell from some of the things you’ve seen me do but it is true. Over the years, I think I have become much better at knowing how far to take it and when to let it go. I have seen this referred to as something like the 80/20 rule or some proportion like that. When you get to 80 or more percent complete that last little bit you are trying to get perfect can become consuming and you get much less return for your effort. I am not saying I have that mastered, but I am usually better at knowing when to stop than I used to be. Or as I am fond of saying, “good enough for government work!”

However, what I have realized recently is that perfectionism is a big issue with my playing music. It is all over it. For instance, I spend too much effort trying to get a riff down in one key before trying to learn it in all keys. More generally, I think “I suck” because I don’t have something nailed, and I spend too much time trying to nail it. I tend to beat myself up over mistakes, weak performances, and not getting a part down right away.

The worst place this turns up is playing for other people. When I am playing for someone new, whether auditioning or joining them, I don’t know what they expect from me. I think my reaction is that I have to be perfect in order to cover whatever they are looking for. There are several problems with this. The biggest is that perfection in music is impossible. We are all human and there are differences in what each of us play. I can only play like me, and like any relationship, if I’m not being myself it won’t work in the long run. Even if I can play exactly like someone wants, if that’s not me, in the end I’ll get tired of pretending. It is a little different than a personal relationship in that I might want to play more like this person or that person anyway and it’s not all the time. But if the other person is always looking for me to be like someone else that just won’t work.

What this does is make me worry about trying to play to some vague goal of perfection, instead of accepting the fact that I can only play like I can play, and if they don’t like it, that’s just the way it is. Ideally, everyone will like me and want me to play for them, but that’s not realistic. That’s not a judgement on me nor them, that’s just life.

It’s funny in that this is a lesson I learned thirty years ago in another performance area. I was part of a ceremony where I had several poems to recite. I was struggling with remembering my lines and I wasn’t too happy about it. An older person saw what I was going through and talked to me about it. He recognized that I was being a perfectionist because he was one as well. He pointed out that what was important was to tell the story of the poems, not the exact words. He also suggested that if I did forget what to say that I could make it look intentional, throw another log on the campfire, and resume when I was ready. I was in control. I did what I could to take his advice, and it worked. In fact, I’m pretty sure that for the most part, I did nail the lines because I was relaxed about them. There might have been a time or two where I didn’t recite them word-for-word, but I was close enough and glided through them if I recall correctly. I’m sure you can see how this applies to playing music, too. I literally only did yesterday.

Here I am, some thirty years later wishing I had realized the applications of this lesson a bit better. There is nothing I can do about that now. I am glad it took in other parts of my life, though.

Thu, 2014 05 22 at 11:20 AM |Permalink for this entry

A Good Week

Overall, I think last week was a good week for me musically. I didn't get done nearly as much as I would have liked, but that list is so long I can't get too caught up in it.

I wanted to do some recording which is something I have not done in a while. Because I wanted to make sure it sounded good and my time didn't drift, I used the metronome. I quickly realized two things. First, my playing was sloppy and my articulation was a mess. Chords that should have sounded clean and tight weren't, and my playing of repeated parts was inconsistent. Second, I have the dreaded "red light syndrome." This is where you know the part you have to play, but when the red record light comes on, you mess it up because you're trying too hard.

Believe it or not, I am really happy this happened. Both of these problems are very curable. For the first, just knowing the problem exists helps a lot. I wouldn't have known had I not recorded myself and listened to the playback. This is something my piano teacher has suggested for a while, but I haven't tried until now. Also, counting while playing the part instead of winging it made the playing fall where it should have. Being conscious of the poorly articulated parts made me play them tighter. As far as red light syndrome, it's a matter of letting go when recording and not being too concerned about the outcome (this subject is something that I've been learning a lot about lately and its own blog post for another time).

Saturday I played a gig. We didn't have a bass player, and I needed to help prop up the bottom end with my left hand (playing, not literally). I was surprised to find I didn't do a terrible job of this, even though I hadn't done anything to prepare for it. In fact, there was a time or two during the set when I didn't play anything down low at first, and things in the band almost came apart. But once I played some bass stuff, it brought everything together. We don't need no stinkin' bassist.

On one tune, the bandleader decided at the last moment to play it on guitar instead of keys like he usually does. Normally, I play my part on organ, but with this arrangement I wasn't feeling it. So I said to myself, "F**k it" and played it on piano instead. I haven't listened to the recording, but I felt like I played a very cool part. It was fun.

Both those things made it a fun and rewarding gig for me.

Yeah, I had a good week.

Sun, 2013 04 07 at 8:30 AM |Permalink for this entry

A Theory About Confidence

When you think that you don’t know what you’re doing, seeing someone else do it makes you realize that it’s okay or that you’re doing it right.

When a musician sees another musician play, they’re almost always doing it differently. This can make the first musician think or wonder if they’re doing it wrong or not well enough.

It can really be a perception problem because sometimes a musician will think that they can do what the other one is doing. It can just depend on what aspect they’re looking at.

If the way other people play holds you back, it’s just a matter of letting go of what other people are doing or how they’re doing it and finding your own way of doing it. Influence and inspiration are great, inhibitions and insecurities are not.

Tue, 2013 01 15 at 6:58 AM |Permalink for this entry

Boon or Bane

Sometimes, it’s a real boon to figure out what is holding you back or making you do something wrong. On TV shows, “it’s because I hate my father” or some such nonsense. In real life, a lot of times just knowing what the cause is and often saying it out loud as well as discussing it with someone else can be the first steps in fixing it.

On the other hand, it can be a bane to find out something. I recently realized one of the reasons I love and want to play music. I hear a great tune and think, “I want to do that!” (It’s not that I want to play that song like the way they played it, it’s that I want to feel the way they made me feel while they were playing it. It would also be cool to make others feel that way, but that’s not absolutely necessary for me.)

For the past week or so, I have not felt it. I have put on some of my favorite music, and while it is cool, I am just not as excited by it. I also have not been inspired to play, practice, nor learn, either. I am wondering if this an evil part of my subconscious or something that is preventing me from progressing. I think I have made a lot of progress lately, and to hit this now is really annoying.

All I can do is try to plug away at it and hope I get over this soon. I have thought about taking a break, but I don’t want to risk not coming back. I also have had a couple of gigs come up and I don’t want to turn those away.

Sat, 2012 03 24 at 5:53 PM |Permalink for this entry

Dance Partners

In my previous post, I talked about what I saw as the challenges for the Houston music scene and why it’s in the state it currently is. I also briefly discussed what we can do about it. I want to talk about that a little more here.

To sum up, you have to “dance with the one that brung ya.” In other words, the scene here is what it is, and we have to move forward and make the best of it. All of those other scenes I described previously happened naturally, at least initially. It wasn’t someone’s idea to create jazz, blues, country, or grunge. I think it’s also likely that Beale St., the French Quarter, and East 6th St started “accidentally” and then grew once people saw what was happening there.

I think Houston is best off celebrating what it has. If you plant a bunch of seeds, some will grow and some won’t. With music, there are all sorts of reasons some things take off and others don’t. To quote the great Del Paxton, you have to keep playing, no matter with who.

Fortunately, we have some really great people doing great things to support the Houston music scene. Dan Workman and Ross Wells are doing cool things with
The Houston Sound | Introducing Houston to its music and its music to the world and ZenHill Records | Sustaining Indie Music™. Houston’s blues heritage is about to be celebrated at Jones Hall. I know of at least three Houston groups planning to have their own Houston representations at SxSW week in Austin [1] [2] [3]. I’m sure there are many others doing what they can for the Houston music scene.

What can you do? Go support the music you like. It’s out there.

Thu, 2012 02 23 at 4:00 PM |Permalink for this entry

The Houston Music Scene

Howdy folks, and welcome to the Houston Music Scene, where we give ya the straight scoop on what’s happenin’ right here in H-town. So set yerself down, buckle in, and enjoy the ride.

I was reading a blog post by a previous bandleader of mine, where he was talking about the music scene in Houston and tried to figure out what was wrong with it, why it doesn’t work the way it should. After a while, I realized the issue was focus.

We actually have a very cool, interesting, and eclectic music scene here in Houston, and that’s the problem. It’s sort of like, “jack-of-all-trades, master of none” if you are familiar with that expression. We can compare it to other scenes in other towns.

When you think of music scenes in places like New Orleans, Memphis, Nashville, Austin, Seattle, and Chicago, usually two things come to mind. One is a style of music, and the other is a part of town where you can go hear the music. I am not saying that these places are merely one-trick ponies. What I am saying is that these places started with one thing and possibly one area that gave people something to latch on to. This is useful both for residents and out-of-towners. Then, from there, these places were able to grow into other styles and places as people were attracted to the scene and had the original for support. Nashville and Austin are really good examples of this.

What Houston did is the opposite. We have a ton of different styles, clubs all over the city with very few concentrated areas for music. In other words, here you either go to a specific club because you like the club or you like the band(s) playing there. If you’re just looking for a night out and you’re not sure what you want to hear, you have to be ready to split the first club, hop in the car, and drive to the next place you want to try. If you have to pay cover charges, you’re probably even less likely to do that.

Here is another way of looking at it. If someone asks you what the music scene is here in Houston, what do you tell them? I don’t know either. Like I said, it’s cool that we have a lot of choice, but it’s hard to narrow down when you want to tell someone what’s going on.

I have hinted at another problem when I talked about having to drive from club to club. Even if you’re going to one club, sometimes it’s a big hassle. There’s a club on 1960 that a few friends’ bands have played, but the location is so awkward to get to from here that we haven’t been out there yet. Other times, we’ve seen that a band we want to see is playing a club that we’ve never heard of in a part of town we’ve never been to. Most times, that’s fine, but sometimes it’s more than you want to deal with.

(It may sound like I’m complaining, but I’m not. I’m just discussing this and trying to suss out why the scene isn’t where it should be.)

What would it take to change this? I don’t know. I could say that if we had a group of clubs in one area that might help, but that’s been tried several times and it has never taken off. I’ve seen a few different areas named as that since I moved here almost twenty years ago, and none of them have developed to the point where the city would need them to in order to create a scene.

It’s unfortunate that two of our biggest universities don’t have a culture around them that could have made this happen. University of Houston is mostly a commuter school, and the area around it has nothing for college-aged people to do. While Rice University Village is a nice area, it’s a higher-end shopping center, not a place where there are a lot of late-night hangouts. Houston (the city overall) has a ton of college students (UH, Rice, TSU, HCC, HBU, etc.) but the impression is that they all scatter when evening and the weekend comes.

Wed, 2012 02 22 at 10:56 AM |Permalink for this entry

I Give Up

I was talking with some other musician friends recently and they admitted to the struggles they endure as musicians. This was really gratifying to hear. Too often, we think we’re the only ones having these issues as musicians.

There have been many times I’ve considered throwing in the towel. I think I could make better or steadier money writing iPhone apps (I have sold other “software” online before, and when it is doing well, the money nicely rolls in).

But lately, I’ve developed and noticed a change in my habits. I’m practicing more than I ever have before. I will think of things I want to or even need to do, and go, “okay, but first I want to practice a little.” Then, I will practice for an hour. I also feel like practicing throughout the day, and actually indulge that desire more often than not.

How did I get to this point? By making it a habit. By convincing and allowing myself to want to do it, and doing it. By not expecting nor demanding anything more of myself than to spend a few minutes doing it. By enjoying every moment of it. By not thinking about what I cannot do while I am doing it (“I’m still not good enough to play X”).

I’ve put way too much into music to give now, nor ever.

The title of this post? It’s a complete lie. You’re stuck with me.

P.S. I credit Leo Babuta’s Zen Habits blog for the help and inspiration to change my way of thinking to develop this and other good habits. I highly recommend it.

Fri, 2012 01 20 at 9:00 AM |Permalink for this entry

Freedom

Sometimes, when you see someone play, we say they’re “unconscious.” This means that they are playing at a level where it just flows out of them.

This is what I aspire to.

I am way too self-aware when I play music. It’s something I’m gradually learning to overcome. Letting go, being in the moment, allowing the music to flow through me is where it really works. I am trying to be free, to play freely, to allow myself to express through music what I wish to. While practice and technique is a part of this, I am now convinced that the real battle is in my mind.

I’ve read Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Master Musician Within and Inner Game of Music, and I believe they both have the same goals via different methods. They are trying to free the musician within in order to allow the musician to play without inhibition. It’s a slow process, and patience is required. That’s another damned skill I’m working on.

I don’t know if I’ll ever get to the “unconscious” level, but it doesn’t matter. My only plan is to enjoy each moment as it comes, wherever it takes me. I suppose that’s true freedom.

Wed, 2012 01 18 at 12:14 PM |Permalink for this entry

Getting It Wrong

I saw this posted on Facebook recently, and it really bugged me.

When children are learning there are often grey areas. In music, a mistake is a mistake; the instrument is in tune or not, the notes are well played or not, the entrance is made or not. It is only by much hard work that a successful performance is possible. Through music study, students learn the value of sustained effort to achieve excellence and the concrete rewards of hard work.

While I get their point, what the whole thing says and implies really bothers me. For one, what grey areas are there when children learn in school? There’s no grey in math. How about history? Or science?

In fact, the one place where people could learn that things in life aren’t just black and white is music. That’s where there is room for expression, personalization at the very least. For instance, in a classical competition, everyone is playing the same piece, and assuming they all get it right, why are some judged to be better than others? It is because of the expression and interpretation that they put into the piece.

But my biggest problem with the statement is that it is exactly that attitude that keeps people from playing music. I don’t have an issue with “sustained effort,”  “hard work,” and “achieve excellence,” but I do have an issue with the idea that music has to be performed perfectly. People act like it’s life or death, but very few have died because they blew the entrance or missed a note. (I guess in this crazy world, someone might have died or gotten beaten or punished for such a thing, but let’s play the percentages, shall we?) So many people are terrific players, love music, love to play music, but they are deathly afraid to play in front of anybody. They are afraid they are going to make a mistake, that they will look foolish, that they simply aren’t good enough. Music should be used to teach the opposite, that despite the player’s uniqueness, despite the differences, despite the possible mistakes, we can all contribute, share, and have fun.

Tue, 2011 11 15 at 12:27 PM |Permalink for this entry

Improvisation and Inhibition

When the musicians improvised, Dr. Limb found, areas of the brain’s prefrontal cortex linked to self-expression were activated, but an area linked to inhibition and self-monitoring “kind of shuts down when you go creative,” he said. That did not happen when musicians played a memorized piece.

When Melody Takes a Detour, the Science Begins, New York Times, June 6, 2011

This makes me wonder if improvisation can be used as a tool to train oneself to turn off the inhibition and self-monitoring when playing.

Sun, 2011 10 30 at 8:05 AM |Permalink for this entry

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