The Perpetual Beginner: confidence, competence, and self-limiting beliefs.

May 8, 2017

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past year talking with people about how they see themselves as players and musicians. I work with students with widely different levels of skill and musical goals, so of course everyone has their own story. But one thing I hear from a lot of people is that they don’t feel like they really play. Some have played for years, but feel they haven’t improved in a long time. They know some chords and can play some songs, mostly, but it’s often a struggle and the music doesn’t flow.

Why do so many people get stuck? Is it just a matter of talent, that some people just have “it” and some don’t? What does it take to move from perpetual beginner to confident player?

There are some very simple answers to those questions, and they can set you on the path to where you want to be. That’s the main goal of this blog: many people struggle with the same challenges, so I firmly believe believe that the solutions that have helped so many others will help you too.

If there’s ONE single biggest problem many people share, it’s a lack of confidence. Not just confidence in their ability to play a particular thing: underneath is often a deeper unease, a sense that maybe you’re struggling because you just don’t have the talent. This is possibly the biggest and most damaging obstacle, because it often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

We celebrate excellence and achievement in all fields. In most areas, everyone recognizes the amount of hard work and dedication that it takes to achieve excellence…but when it comes to music, so many persist in the belief that if it doesn’t come easily it’s not meant for you. This belief gets reinforced because musical talent is common enough that most of us know someone that obviously has “it”. Young musicians that quickly master multiple instruments, or develop the ability to play songs easily by ear seemingly overnight. Even the ubiquitous videos of shredding seven-year-olds on YouTube and Facebook, though fun and impressive, can also add to this overall negative impression.

While we celebrate the gifted, we can discourage the merely interested. What this misses is that both the gifted and the struggling learn and improve the same way: through exploration, trial and error, and enough love for the process that obstacles are challenges instead of barriers.

The simple solution for the perpetual beginner is to realize that your immediate goal is not to be a great player. Your immediate goal should be to be able to play whatever it is you’re working on with confidence and authority. That means that your goals need to be modest in the beginning – but setting one modest and attainable goal after another is a sure path to progress. You may not have the skills to play what you want to play just yet, but you can learn to play something easier and play it well. And there’s a LOT of gratification in doing even a simple thing very well.

If you feel like you’ve been struggling, take a good look at what you’re trying to do. A good practice routine should absolutely include some challenging things…after all, it’s how we grow our abilities. But it should also include some much simpler things: a song with just a few easy chords, or a simple melody at a slow tempo. Along with practicing your ability to land the fingers in the right place at the right time, you should also be practicing your ability to just play…no matter how simple the song is. It should be familiar enough that you don’t have to think much about the mechanics, just the music. Can you play a song beginning to end in a way that’s satisfying to you? Not even without mistakes, but with enough flow that your mistakes are bumps along the way instead of roadblocks. That’s an important immediate goal, because it builds your confidence…and in music as in many other things in life, confidence is half the battle.

In subsequent blogs I’m going to explore this topic in much greater detail. For today, think about your mindset. Do you have self-limiting beliefs about your ability to learn to play? Are your practice goals reasonable and attainable? Do you practice different things with different levels of difficulty? And most of all, does playing make you want to play more?

There are no barriers to entry in playing music, and no arbitrary standard you have to live up to unless you choose one. So play what you love and love what you play. Do the work that it requires, but remember that even the simplest sounds can touch people. And the person that most needs to be moved by the music is the person who plays it. It really comes down to just one simple thing: find the love and don’t let go. The rest all follows from there.

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