The Importance of Critical Thinking In The Practice Room. Stop Being an Asshole... to Yourself.
Updated: Oct 31
Hello, good morning, and welcome to the Saturday Morning News Post!
The practice room is more than a place to learn your lydian-dominant-diminished scales (that's not a thing... I just made it up), it's a mental journey which requires, to some degree, passion, patience, and critical thinking. That last part is key; it can also be volatile. It's the part that determines what to practice, how long to practice it, what issues need to be overcome and how to do so. It's the voice which says "That can be better" but... that can turn into "It's not good enough" which can quickly turn into "You're not good enough."
If you're pursuing music as a career, critical thinking will be turned up to 11. And if you want to achieve a level similar to your favourite artists, then the demands you place on yourself will be intense. They have to be. Also, all of this is probably happening at a younger age while a student is still "growing up" and so it can be difficult to balance intense self-critique with healthy self-esteem. But there's a couple reasons why it's important: #1. You will enjoy a more content existence on this planet. And #2. (the reason most students actually CARE ABOUT) You will improve faster.
This all ties into a question one of my students recently asked me:
"What do you do when you don't want to practice because you really hate the way you sound?"
I could absolutely relate, but it's been a while since I lived in that headspace (not that I don't dislike the way I sound sometimes, but I don't live in that headspace for very long these days... maybe because I don't have time to!), and the answer felt too complicated to lay out clearly.
Given a day or two to think about it, I don't claim to have the complete answer, but these are some thoughts which come to mind. So here's some advice for this student, and 17 year-old James Danderfer, and perhaps some of you out there.
Here we go:
Stop being an asshole: I mean this in the nicest possible way, but really, stopping being such an asshole... to yourself. If anyone else came to you with this struggle, you’d be genuinely WAY kinder and patient than you would be for yourself. Imagine someone told you they were learning how to play basketball but they stopped practicing because they were just disgusted with how they couldn't shoot 3 pointers like Stephen Curry yet.
The Tomatoe. The Train: when you plant tomatoe seeds, do you return to the garden day after day to shout “You MOTHERF***ERS are such absolute tomatoe-less SHIT!!” until they finally bear fruit? I mean, you could. But why would you!? You can be frustrated and angry or you can chill and and find ways to enjoy the ride; your train’s going to get there when it gets there. Sounds cliché perhaps, but it’s true. If you’re passionate and hard working? It’s gonna get there. The only thing that will delay it is if your burning out all the time by berating yourself for not already being better. Again, stop being an asshole to yourself and treat yourself with the kindness you would offer to almost anyone else.
Focus on what is within your control: achievable goals (sometimes called Objectives & Key Results in business) which will objectively move you towards your goal. Ie. I will work my way through ______ etude book with a good teacher. Once I’ve finished this book, I will be a better player than I am today. Or, I will learn 10 standards in 12 keys and apply this vocabulary to all of them. Once I’ve done this, I will be a better musician than I am today. Etc.
Your attention should be taken away from the end goal and focused squarely on the quality, regularity and engagement of your practice sessions. THAT is what is helping you to improve. THAT is where your focus should be.
Points 1 and 2 are really about dealing with your mindset. If you read them and thought "Oh, yeah... why was I being such an angry child?" then you're on the road to recovery. You'll still need to practice this kinder mindset though, and you practice that in the practice room. No, you don't LIE to yourself to make yourself feel better but instead EMBRACE THE PROCESS with grace and humility. You're not supposed to be great right now, that takes time, so help yourself along the journey. Practice being patient with yourself.
Okay, gotta run! Thanks for reading and happy practicing everyone! JD