It’s almost Halloween, a strange holiday when we get to try on different identities. By dressing up as demons, ghosts, zombies and other monsters, we explore the dark side of our personality: fear of death, doubts and self-loathing.
Are these monsters real? Do they actually exist? I can’t say for sure. I’ve never seen a ghost before. But maybe I have. Maybe I’ve seen one but didn’t know I was seeing it. Or maybe when someone says they’ve seen a ghost, they’re actually seeing some other strange thing and just don’t know what to call it.
In any event, demons, monsters and ghosts can be very real from a psychological point of view. They are the thoughts that haunt us. And as music students, we are periodically visited by the demons of doubt and self-loathing. They manifest as the voices which frustrate and discourage us:
It was better yesterday.
I’ll never be as good as Mark O’Connor.
Maybe it’s just too hard to start as an adult.
Though I’ve been learning and playing for over forty years, I’m still haunted by monsters. My own demons tell me things like:
You talk a lot about practice, but sometimes you only practice half an hour a day. Kinda lame.
You’ve been playing a loooong time. Forty years! Shouldn’t you be further along? You’re just a dabbler. A dilettante.
You’re not a real fiddler. You grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, not in the Ozark mountains. You learn tunes from books and videos instead of from the blind fiddler in the holler. You a faker.
Looking and letting go
It would be nice to not let demons keep us from doing the things we love, right? If you try to ignore or fight the demons of doubt and self-loathing, then you might actually become more wrapped up in it. This will hinder you from simply playing and enjoying music.
Instead, I suggest you simply acknowledge the existence of these demons. Say to them, “I see you!” If you start to do this, you’ll notice that these thoughts tend to come and go. They have no permanent residence in your mind. In this noticing, they start to lose their grip on you and become less powerful.
Realize that everyone deals with these unkind voices on some level. And it happens all throughout the day for our whole life. Unless we start to notice it.
It’s key for you to understand that you’re not alone in this. The greatest artists in the world grapple with their own particular demons on a daily level.
Set them free!
This is good and maybe bad news. If you attain your goal of learning twenty fiddle tunes in six months (or whatever your personal goal is), you might feel great…for a little while. Then you’ll have some new demon pop up to make you feel bad about yourself. Unless you start to pay attention to this process NOW, it will continue to haunt and threaten your well-being for as long as you fiddle or practice other creative arts.
Action Step: take note of the demons in a practice journal
When you notice that you’re feeling doubt or self-loathing, just take note of it in your practice journal. It can be a quick note like, “Felt a lot a doubt today.” Or it can be a more in-depth description. Whatever works.
This is a way to become intimate and friendly with your demons and monsters. They come to resemble the masks that little kids wear on Halloween. When you set them free, you also free yourself.
Use a paper journal or perhaps one of the online workbooks I provide:
If you experience this a lot, then try using this workbook to take note of your doubts over the next week or two. Continue to use it as long as you feel it’s useful.
In addition to simply noticing these kinds of thoughts, make an effort to be a little kinder to yourself.
A simple form of self-kindness is to just take time to warm up before doing more challenging things. Get a good sound on an open D string as you play with a D drone:
Allow yourself to feel good about this! Then allow yourself to get a good sound on D0-1. Do this even if you think you’re much more advanced. Continue with incrementally more complex things, like scales and string crossing patterns. Then play some easy tunes. My student Fiona likes to warm up with easy tunes. She says, “It makes me feel like a fiddler.”
If you do this for 5-10 minutes, then you have been kind to your mind, hands, and fingers.
And if you start to hear demons talking when you practice something challenging, then simply run through the warmup sequence again. This is the very essence of practice! Just returning to a simple sound over and over again. Make just one little thing sound good. Allow yourself to just enjoy the sound. No pressure, no expectations, no big deal. Eventually, return to the more complex and challenging task.
Fiddling with life
One great thing about learning an instrument is that you learn certain cognitive skills that help you with the rest of your life.
- The noticing of negative thoughts like doubt and self-loathing.
- The active practice of being kind to yourself.
- This practice of kindness becomes kindness towards others.
What’s another great thing about learning an instrument? Hmmmmmmmm. Oh yeah. It’s fun. And fun is not over-rated…