For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been forced to slow down due to illness. It has been extremely frustrating for me, since I don’t like sitting still and doing nothing for long periods of time. In my Nyquil-induced state, I somehow repeated a phrase I heard all too often in my musical upbringing:
“If I’m not practicing now, somewhere someone else is getting better than me.”
It brought back so many feelings of shame, loathing, anger, and fear. I’ve heard so many mentors, colleagues, and students use this as a motivational mantra. During peak flu symptoms, I started saying it out of traumatic habit.
At first glance, this phrase can be considered noble and pedestal-worthy. The person saying it may think they are making necessary sacrifices to mind, body, and soul in order to attain some better musical form. Regrettably, these kinds of sacrifices are only going to cause more problems.
“If I’m not practicing now…”
This half of the mantra normalizes skipping meals, neglecting other responsibilities, or pulling all-nighters to “practice now.” This is not sustainable. In fact, this is how injuries happen and how careers end. Forcing oneself to not sleep, not eat, and practice “countless hours” is ridiculous. Sure, every once in a while, all-nighters may be necessary. But, consistently deviating from a healthy lifestyle only makes everything, including your music-making, worse. In one way or another, you will break down.
“…Somewhere someone else is getting better than me.”
Elitism. This vile half of the mantra is pure elitism. Competition can be a healthy form of rivalry. But in many ways, competitive mentality harms what we do. Music isn’t completely a sport. Yet, we’re constantly devising ways to quantify it via grades, competitions, juries, etc. Technical proficiency aside, what wins one competition may lose in another. Competitions pit one person’s artistry against another’s, even though both can be equally valid.
If your goal in music is to be better than everyone else, then you’ve picked the wrong profession. Music is social. In most cases, you will be making music with other people in bands, ensembles, chamber groups, classrooms, etc. And if you truly believe in hierarchies, you won’t stay at the top for very long.
Lastly, the entirety of this mantra falsely suggests that if you do the time, then you will be rewarded. Unfortunately, life is also not always fair. You can practice and prepare for hours, days, weeks, months, and years and still not get the payoff or recognition you deserve. That is life. So why should we even bother?
…because you love music.
It’s simple and corny, but true. Believe me, I have personally struggled answering this. For whatever reason, you should keep making music because you love it. Perhaps, music to you is fun. It may be your form of expression. It may be because you like song writing. Maybe you like playing in a band. Or maybe you like sharing music through teaching. Find a reason and let that motivate you. You will have hard times, and you will struggle. But as long as you keep your reason for loving music close, your journey won’t be too arduous.
So if you catch yourself saying, “If I’m not practicing now…,” I urge you to stop and reflect upon your relationship to music. Why are you making music? What do you really want to do with your music? Life is too short to get stuck by false ideologies.
Also, make sure you’re getting enough sleep, eating healthy, and taking your vitamins. ❤