Make Friends With Your Doubt

I recently took a musical field trip to India to learn more about Hindustani classical music. I took lessons, learned informally by playing with people, went to a lot of concerts and even did a recording session with some local musicians.

About halfway through the trip, I started to feel anxious because, compared to a lot of people I met, I was not that serious about studying this kind of music. If you grow up in a musical family like the Khans, you start hearing, learning, and practicing the music as a child. I also met a lot of westerners there who were devoting their lives to learning Indian music. They were completely focused, had a guru (a teacher), were living in India, learning the language, and practicing several hours a day.

I started to feel like an interloper, like a charlatan. I just showed up without a plan and was trying to figure out a lifetime’s worth of learning during a three-week trip. I started to think, “I’m not that serious. I’m always just dabbling in this style and that style, jack-of-all-trades, master of none, bla bla bla…”

And then I had an epiphany: I don’t want to be a classical Indian musician, so why am I getting so worked up? In fact, it was never my goal to devote my life to this style of music. I just really liked it and wanted to learn more. A feeling of relief washed over me. I was able to continue learning with focus and joy, knowing that I would be following my own path, but that I would be able to add a whole new palette of sounds and techniques to my playing.

Putting it in perspective, I realized that the anxiety and doubt I felt during the trip were not something new. In fact, it’s something I’ve been dealing with my whole life. Any time you learn something new or do creative art, it’s inevitable that doubt will arise.

If you’re a beginning fiddle student, you know what I’m talking about. Your doubt may be expressed in the question, “How long will it take for me to sound good?” If you practice you eventually get the satisfaction of sounding better. But if you keep going, you find that the satisfaction doesn’t last. You become critical of some new aspect of your playing, “Why do my double stops sound so uneven?”

This doubt never fully leaves you alone. But if you keep learning and creating, you get better at recognizing and dealing with it. Though I’ve learned to see doubt arise, it still has a way of sneaking into my mind before I realize what’s going on. And then I struggle, realize what’s happening, and find a way to let go. It’s a lifelong process.

And perhaps in small doses, doubt can be helpful. It’s just a critical voice pointing out weakness. With the right attitude, this doubt can be transformed into productive and creative work.

So now I’m back home, practicing the things I learned in India on a daily basis: sliding scales, different variations, and raga yaman. I’m trying to play Irish tunes as well as songs with my band using some of these techniques. I don’t have a final goal with Indian music, just enjoying learning it for the moment.

Until the next time doubt sneaks in and I find myself asking, “What am I doing with my life???!!”

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20 responses to “Make Friends With Your Doubt

  1. Good living is all about knowing yourself. Such an inspiring story, thank you Jason! You artfully weave good living into learning to play the fiddle, this is key to playing from the heart and enjoying the journey.

  2. This is a great post, and it’s a perfect one to recycle as we start the new year of 2020. I hadn’t seen it before, since I began to play in May of 2018. Love how you described the relief you felt when you stopped comparing yourself with others and saw your actions in light of your original purpose. Back to basics is almost always good advice!!

  3. Hi J,
    In reading the comments it seems many of us are anxious when learning something new.

    I tell you. This last year has been a struggle for me. Not only learning the fiddle but keeping myself motivated so I don’t get too down on myself.

    I just noticed this week that I am able to actually hear the notes to play in tune. I thought there was something wrong with me, I just couldn’t decipher weather I was playing in tune or not. I was giving up at one point but forged on.
    Now I’m over that struggle lol
    Thanks so much for all your encouragement, it really makes a difference when I’m struggling.

  4. You just solved my problem, thank you! I was struggling with all the possibilities that music offers and I like too many styles too. Becoming so stressed not to be able to make up my mind wich style to choose. Now you made me see that its allright, I don’t have to make a choice, Jay!!! Because its not my goal to become master in one style, I am allowed to be happy playing all kind of styles and it doesn’t have to be perfect!
    The problem is that other people cannot handle it when they cannot put you in a certain box, they become frustrated: “What is your style? Make up your mind!” Now I can tell them: that’s not my goal, and that’s a choice too, and it’s allright! Jay!!!

  5. You have the gift to explain things to those of us who struggle with learning. We all have anxiety, I believe, although we hide it well .. it feels good to read that it is part of a normal learning process. You are very humble and honest. I love all kinds of music and always have music playing, especially when I am gardening. Indian music is the best for the plants to grow, the vibrations of this music has shown this to be the best also the peaceful Hangdrum. There are many sites that show the science of music and plants. I’ve just signed up and look forward to many happy hours of practise!

  6. are more than a jack of all trades,you are a master teacher, I was born visually impaired and have always loved the nuanced sounds of the violin, and in Scotland ceildhs are part of the fabric,my birthday is even on Burns Night and every year I say I wish I could his wonderful songs,Auld lanng Syne is one of his and you have that as a beginner tune,I digress, I am waiting for the trad fiddle music lessons to begin,te tutor also takes the Scottish youth fiddle orchestra and won’t be available for a couple of weeks,so I liked on you tube for a stop gap and found you,not a sop gap any more,Have learned so much from you,even though I can’t see the strings,no problem,stop and rock,learn scales everything,vision not required,you have given me so much more than lessons,just the sheer joy of learning to make the open string sound good,I am totally in love with learning the different sounds ,It’s a queer thing but it has added such a rich ness to my life,beautiful tapestryof sound,I love your lessons,Love jane

  7. Good thoughts, and spot on. I used to think I shouldn’t even waste my time trying to play anything at all because I’m not dedicated to music and have little to no native talent. But I love music, and I love making music (or, at least, trying to!) so I do it anyhow. You’re obviously a talented musician and teacher, but you also ventured into the unknown and I’m glad you shared your doubts here. I think a lot of amateurs and adult learners are held back by the idea that we should only pursue something if we’re both dedicated and talented. Hogwash, I say! I used to feel guilty about my old student violin mouldering in the closet and then I found fiddlehed on youtube. I’ve played nearly every day since then. Not particularly well, but not always horribly either. And it’s made my days happier.

  8. Jason,

    As ever, you pour your mind and soul out for us and I, for one, am very grateful to hear it. Cate said it also, but what you are giving to the musical world is positive and wonderful. Your musings came to a great point- it isn’t your path to spend a life time learning Indian music, and to admit that is not anathema- you are no imposter, only someone open to learning and hopefully you were humble in your approach to do so.

    I hope you enjoyed your trip- I really do. I hope it was a relaxing experience and that you didn’t get caught up in a mentality of stressful learning and I hope this doubt that plagued you was only temporary, because you deserved some true peace…

    I actually ran out of good words to say right about here, so please just, like, feel some positive vibes and continue on, knowing that you are helping so many people, and that is a path that is MORE THAN worthy of praise.


  9. Thank you for this honest, thoughtful comment, Jason. It really helps a lot. While I am an intermediate player, learning and playing for four years now, I still have tremendous bouts of doubt from time to time. I feel I am not where I should be, etc. Fiddle playing is hard; it is a tough instrument to master for sure. Your words are so honest and encouraging, and just hearing you speak of doubt in someone who’s been playing as long as you have and what a professional you are, really helps us learners who are struggling with intonation, double stops, keeping the bow straight, etc. Thank you so much for all you do!!

  10. Ha ha!!! Double stops uneven??? Ha! I wonder why my doublestops don’t even sound like doublestops!!!

    This was a good description of what happens to me (and probably everybody), not just with music but with career, hobbies and important life choices, like to marry or not, have kids or not, and just about anything and everything.

    Here’s 2 things I thought of right away that you have taught that have helped me with my doubting regarding fiddle:

    1. Play every day. Even I can do that! I might sound like crap (The Bassett hound cries when I play) but I always remember to play every day.

    2. Looping. Sounds almost obvious, but I sure did not do that or even think of it before Fiddlehed. Looping has helped a lot – to get started on a new piece and then to navigate through harder parts that just don’t seem to sound right.

    Thanks for sharing your experience! It helps this newbie to know that even a smooth fiddler has these struggles. Kind of a good example of how we all need each other, too.

    1. My beloved Lab, Lola, got up and left the room when I starting playing 4 years ago. We said goodbye to Lola in November, at the age of 13+, and in her last couple years she had become quite a fan of my playing. Not only did she stop leaving the room, she moved closer to me. Over time I discovered that she truly liked certain tunes better than others, I became her mama iPod.

  11. I think what you’re doing with your life is sharing the gift of music by posting lessons,tips and advice. I’m taking classical violin lessons to learn solid foundation and fundamentals. I don’t wish to play classical music. I study some old time tunes but don’t wish to play about boiling cabbage. My goal is to play with a guitar player or small group and a couple of your videos are the only place I’ve seen information on this anywhere. So thank you for doing this with your life.