Do you ever feel like the worst musician in the room/ orchestra/ world? I'm sure we've all been in situations where we feel like we're much worse than everyone else at whatever it is we're doing. Sometimes we are, actually, technically, the worst. I could recount many memories of playing various sports or games where I was the weakest, the least coordinated, the slowest runner. There was the time I played rounders with some work colleagues and everyone else was good or at least passable at it. I failed to catch anything, other than a ball to the head when I entirely misjudged how fast it was coming at me.
I have also been in musical situations where I've been the least technically-accomplished player or the least experienced. I remember sitting at the far end of a row of six flutes in a youth orchestra, feeling like everyone else was so much better than me, probably because they were.
It's something I hear from a lot of other people too - they worry about playing in a group or coming to a workshop because "I'll be the worst there", "everyone is better than me". It's fairly common with adult learners, as they feel they 'should' be more accomplished simply because they're adults.
I understand that worry, but if you can re-frame 'being the worst' it can help you enjoy and benefit from experiences that you might have otherwise avoided. For one thing, the language of 'better' and 'worse' is fairly unhelpful, and suggests that it's in some way a failing not to be as 'good' as someone else. It is language that sadly pervades some musical environments so it's no wonder that people feel intimidated by this sense that they're being ranked into levels of 'how good you are'. It's part of the (damaging, in my opinion) discourse of 'natural talent' that suggests you're somehow inferior if you can't currently do something.
However, I think it's better to think of yourself as at a different stage on your musical journey - perhaps you started later, or you haven't had as much time to dedicate to it. It may be that some people have found solutions that work for them to problems you're still struggling with. This is all OK, and nothing to be ashamed of. If you're willing to learn and try to find solutions, then the only people who should be ashamed are those who look down on others for not being at the same stage as them. Maybe you could have practised more/ better, but it's more productive to go and do some constructive practice now than to beat yourself up about not having done it in the past.
Yes, it is difficult to feel like everyone else in the room can do things that you can't. It is OK to feel like you've got a long way to go, and even a bit envious of someone else's lovely tone or amazing finger-work. But you can turn that around - see it as something to aspire to. Learn from them. And don't forget to appreciate your own skills too - maybe you can't play super-fast but you can get amazingly loud volume. Maybe you don't yet have the tone you want (if you're a flute player, that's a lifelong search!) but you can sight-read/ busk your way through most things. Maybe you aren't the best at any of these things, but you're a generally reliable, happy soul to have around in rehearsals. Whatever the case, you have your own unique qualities in your playing, and none of these things make you a better or worse person (except maybe being reliable and cheerful to be around, which is definitely a good thing).
The vast majority of people will not be looking down at you because you're not a virtuoso - in fact, most will be too busy worrying about their own playing, but those who are more advanced can make things easier on other people too, by being sensitive to the fact that others might find their level of skill and/ or confidence intimidating. If you find something easy, it can feel natural to always be the one volunteering to demonstrate, or play the solo, but you can support other people by stepping back sometimes, by being supportive, offering encouragement and sharing things you've found helpful in your own learning (without sounding like a know-it-all!). Teachers can help by making their teaching constructive and encouraging, rather than a list of things that the student has done wrong. They can openly talk about the aspects of playing that they find/ have found difficult and how they've worked on them.
I've written before about awareness as part of my series on being a reliable musician and I think that applies here too - be aware of how your behaviour is affecting yourself and other people, whether that's putting yourself down and grumbling about finding things too hard, or acting in a way which might make other people feel bad about themselves and their playing. And remember that how you play is not a reflection on your worth as a person!
I signed up to Seth Hanes' email list a while ago, after coming across 'The Musician's Guide to Hustling' through a Facebook group. Seth is a musician and a marketing consultant, having realised before graduation that he needed to know about marketing and entrepreneurship and throwing himself whole-heartedly into getting to know all about it. He now advises artistic clients and businesses such as the Pennsylvania Philharmonic and The Conservatory of Musical Arts. I was impressed by how he'd combined his musical and marketing knowledge.
So when an email came through from Seth asking for beta-readers for his new book 'Break Into the Scene', I jumped at the chance to combine my own skills - a musical background and editing/proofreading - and offer my help (plus, I have to admit I was really curious about the book, and this meant I got to read it early!).
When the book came out a couple of months later, I ordered a copy - in fact, it was the first thing I used my new student status to get a discount on! I read it (again) on the train back from a day at Uni - it's about 160 pages, so a quick read if you want to sit down to it in one go, but also written in easily-digestible sections, so you could grab it for ten minutes at a time and still get plenty out of it.
The book is part myth-busting and part practical advice. Essentially - yes, you need to practise your instrument to get good at it, but that alone will not get you work - the gigs will not 'magically' come to you. Certainly when I was training, the myth of 'discovery' was quite powerful. If you worked hard and got really good, someone would come and find you and propel you to stardom. Maybe that happens on very rare occasions, but the vast majority musicians need to put some effort in to 'getting themselves out there'.
Seth uses his marketing knowledge to set out steps that you can take to get in touch with people and make opportunities for work as a musician. Yes, he uses the word 'networking'. This is a word that always makes me cringe a bit. But I like Seth's take on it - he quotes his friend and mentor Charlie Hoehn: "The best networkers don't call it networking.... they call it being friends" and says that "actively trying to network with people almost always comes across as fake... it should always start from a place of creating authentic relationships". This rang huge bells for me - having friends who share your experiences in different areas of your life is utterly invaluable (in my case, musicians, academics, people who are self-employed in different fields - although of course I have friends who aren't any of those things and I don't value them any less!). And the best, most enjoyable work, I find, is with people who you really get on with.
But of course you need to make contact with people in the first place. Seth's take on this is a bit different from the usual advice. The biggest surprise for me in this book was the advice not to bother with a website. Since I'm writing this on my website, and my website is where a lot of my work comes from, my immediate reaction was to reject this... but actually, he's not saying never to bother with a website, just that it (along with professional photos, social media, etc) isn't vital to start with. Instead, Seth offers an email template for getting in touch with people and offering whatever it is you have to offer. And while you might want to tweak the wording to suit your own style, the basic premise of 'putting yourself out there' and the guidance for taking the first steps is what I think really makes this book. It's like a reassuring voice saying, it's OK, you can do this, I know it's scary, but I've done it, other people have done it too, and here are the good things that can happen. Some of the 'good things' described really made me smile - as well as being success stories, they sounded like a lot of fun!
There's some excellent practical advice on what to do when you get work too - the 'Skills That Have Nothing to Do With Talent' chapter contains some 'rules' which are aimed at freelancers, but can apply to most musical situations - in fact, a lot of other situations in life too. These fall broadly into practical skills (timekeeping, replying to messages, being prepared) and social skills (be friendly, offer help, "don't be a whiner"). All common sense really, but well worth a reminder.
It can be easy when reading books like this to come up with reasons (excuses) why you can't do these things, why your situation is different, why that wouldn't work for you. Seth is in the US, so some of the systems and organisations he described don't exist in the same way elsewhere (I'll admit to still not quite understanding how the US high school band system works), but it doesn't take too much of a leap of the imagination to think of alternatives in your own area. And of course, not every bit of someone else's advice is going to be right for you. I still felt some resistance to the 'marketing' language (I can't imagine myself sending an email saying "I wanted to reach out" but again that's probably a bit of cultural difference, and the need to adapt things to suit you!). But if you need a quick dose of motivation, along with lots of straight-talking advice and some virtual hand-holding, I think this book strikes the right balance.
In my last post I hinted at some of the similarities between learning an instrument and training for a sport, and since I've just come back from my induction at a new gym, it seems like a good time to explore that a bit more. In some ways music and sport seem worlds apart - maybe music is seen as more of an 'intellectual' activity against sport's physicality. I know when I was at school I was 'rubbish' at P.E. and was definitely put in the box of being good with my brain rather than my muscles. The funny thing was, outside of school I took dance classes for years, and whilst I wasn't brilliant at that, I got to a decent standard - I reached the point of dancing on pointe in ballet and won a few medals in Highland Dancing competitions. So why was I no good at basketball and hockey but alright at dancing? Partly I think that comes down to one of the similarities between music and sport - that mental attitude is a big part of doing well. I wanted to dance, so I worked at it. I've no doubt that the fact it was movement to music helped. I had teachers who were encouraging, who paid a lot of attention to each student's physical make-up and explained to them what particular aspects they would need to do more work on to succeed. There were exercises to work on at home between classes (although I fully admit to getting lazy with them in my teenage years!) which meant that there was more progress than if you just turned up once a week. In other words, very much like practising an instrument! In my MA research I discovered discourses of 'learning music as training' in terms of taking small steps, having goals and aims, tapering your practice before an exam. I also came across terms which flagged up discussions around mental preparation techniques often used in sports training, such as visualisation - where an athlete might visualise how they'll run that race, a musician could use the same technique for a performance. Learners described exams as hurdles and like a treadmill, suggesting a need to mentally push past barriers.
However, the similarities between sport and music aren't just in psychological approaches. Making music is a physical activity. Playing the flute doesn't (normally) involve any running or big jumps, but it does require the movement of many many muscles - in your face, your tongue, your fingers, for breathing and blowing. You need to hold something up with your arms for prolonged periods of time. It ideally needs good posture and a strong 'core' (I've found that Pilates is wonderful for that). But from thinking of myself as not a 'sporty' person, it took me a long time to realise just how physical playing an instrument is. In the text I analysed for my dissertation I found learners talking about building up strength and about the best thing to eat before performances or exams, and I was pleased to see this awareness of the physicality of it. It's certainly something I try to explain in my lessons - that learning to play is partly about building up strength and flexibility in new muscles. Students (especially adults) who've done a sport often find these comparisons helpful - if someone has trained for a marathon, they understand the idea that you need to build up from short runs. It takes time, but if something feels difficult now, it can be worked on, steadily and gradually and it will get easier. I suppose this may be one of the reasons why adult learners feel they can't make as much progress as younger students, that age is physically 'against them' - something I want to look into a bit more, to find out whether research shows that really is the case or whether it's more assumptions about what they 'can and can't do' that hold people back.
This need for 'work' ties in with one more similarity between sport and music - the idea of talent. I do think that some people find it 'naturally' easier to do particular activities - that might be because of their natural physical build or because of previous experiences that mean they have strength in particular muscles, or have developed particular parts of the brain. However, talent will only get you so far without willing and work. Someone who really wants to do something, and is prepared to put in the time and effort, is going to get far further than someone who has a physical 'advantage' but doesn't practise. This video from SportScotland (which I've posted before) makes this point really well.
I can really feel the difference in my playing when I'm physically fitter, one of the reasons that the start of this term sees me back at the gym. To read more from some inspiring musicians about their take on flutes and fitness, have a look at Music Strong and the Flying Flutistas!
Keep in touch
I have an email newsletter where I share my latest blog posts, news from the flute and wider musical world, my current projects, and things I've found that I think are interesting and useful and would love to share with you. Expect lots about music and education, plus the occasional dip into research, language, freelance life, gardening and other nice things. Sign up below!
The Reliable Musician - a series of blog posts on the skills that make the sort of musician people want to work with!