When mastering any craft, I tend to compare myself to the greats. It’s unfortunately easy to write something and say “It’s not nearly as good as Charles Bukowski”, to play something and say “I didn’t play that was well as Michael Brecker”, or to cook something and say “It doesn’t look as delicious as what Gordon Ramsay cooks”.
This past week, while I was playing pentatonic scales in quintuplets, I said “I should be able to do this!” in frustration.
Earlier in the school year we got a tune in B major, and I was struggling to improvise. I was angry because I have practiced B major as much as any other scale, so why was it difficult?
I once heard of an alcoholic who said “I’ve been sober for three days, and nothing has gotten better!”
One thing I have been learning daily for several years is that mastery requires patience. I am going to make mistakes, have off-days, fail in more ways than I can imagine. Also that an hour’s work feels much longer than it really is. And I only have one life so I might as well not beat myself up over mistakes.
My practice is definitely more effective when I am in brighter spirits.
But it’s not really enough to tell the human brain “stop thinking negative thoughts”. It’s programmed to focus on the negative, remember the negative, and brush off past success. The brain forgets all the times things felt impossible that I actually ended up being able to do.
Since I started noticing my negative self-talk, I have developed and practiced great techniques to alleviate it.
One way is to take a deep breath and rationally confront it. Why should I be playing as well as Charlie Parker right now? He certainly put in more time playing jazz than I have. It was virtually the only thing he had in the entire world. I am grateful to have a relatively stable life, sobriety (he was addicted to heroin and probably other substances), and the way I spent my time in the past which wasn’t always practicing. I can’t have the friends I made, the positive memories, and the wisdom I have now if I had spent all that time playing jazz in late night clubs In New York.
Why should I be able to play pentatonics in quintuplets? Sure, I can understand the theory of quintuplets and I know my pentatonics, but that doesn’t mean a human being can automatically put those two ideas together on the saxophone. The reality is that it’s difficult.
This is great for reminding me that all I have is right now. So begin again, and be patient.
Another tactic I use is to pretend I’m talking to a friend or teaching a small child. I wouldn’t tell them “you suck and will never make a living as a professional” because they struggled for 10 minutes to improvise in B major. Instead, this tactic helps me treat myself with kindness and patience. “Try again, slower. You can do it. It might take some time, but stick with it for a few days”.
My favorite technique was invented by James Altucher (prolific entrepreneur, interviewer, writer). It is simply to pretend I am an alien sent to inhabit this human body and improve the human’s life as much as possible in 24 hours. There is no time for ego or expectations. The proper way to learn is with slow, focused practice. Not malicious self-talk. The alien has no expectations of what should be easy or hard; all it knows is what the human body can do right now and what it needs to learn.
And finally, allowing myself to celebrate or even just acknowledge small successes. Today for instance I played melodic minor scales in a 7/2 polyrhythm. It wasn’t perfect 100% of the time, but I certainly was better than I was before I never attempted it. The old me would have said “you are terrible at 7/2! You need to practice more!” Now I give myself credit for trying, and for the progress I made. No need to put myself down after making an honest effort.
I mentioned this once several weeks ago, but all the videos I’ve embedded in the daily practice posts are now on the Youtube channel CollegePracticing.