Today I realized that this month marks my 15 year anniversary playing the clarinet! That got me thinking about some of the biggest life lessons I have learned from attending music school and spending so many hours mastering an instrument, and I wanted to share these with all of you. Some of them might be a little cheesy or cliche, but I do like me some cheese every now and again!
Failure is OK
When I started undergrad, a strange fear of mine took form: fear of becoming better on the clarinet.
I know, I know, totally weird! I just couldn't shake this feeling that if I kept improving consistently, I was going to reach a point where I was as good as I was going to get and had achieved as much as I could.
Exposure to a huge pool of incredibly skilled musicians contributed big time to this fear. Starting music school is a load of pressure for new students, especially since most music majors come into college having been top dog in high school. Then Day 1 of your undergrad begins, and you get squashed down like a little bug.
It also doesn't help that playing plateaus become longer the better you get, so it often seems as if you will never master those sneaky techniques you've been working on for years and years. "Maybe this is it" you think, you'll never be better than all of these other musicians.
It boils down to a huge fear of failure!
What especially solidified the "failure is OK" lesson for me, I think, were the failures I did experience during college. Like all of the seating auditions I totally botched (so, so many). Or the solo I didn't learn well enough and then performed terribly on a recital.
(Pro tip: run through a piece in entirety before performing it!!)
After the fact, though, you realize the failure didn't matter as much as you had built up in your head. Yes, it was unpleasant and not ideal, but you came out the other side, and the experience ingrained a new and better mentality to help you prepare for next time.
So don't limit yourself, don't make assumptions about how far you can go, and don't be afraid to fail!
Value "Smart" not "Hard" Work
I once believed that if something was not difficult, you were doing it wrong. That it had to be a huge effort to show you were working hard and not being lazy. Please, please, please, do not mistake efficiency for laziness! That was one of my biggest blunders early on, and it was a difficult one to overcome.
The point of practice is to make a task easier, "effortless." Effortless is not a perfect word, because playing music always requires focus, intention, and skill. But proper practice equals more ease in accomplishing the task at hand, like an athlete who knows their movements so well they no longer think of every minute detail in the moment of execution. The more you squeeze, and tense up, and work "hard," the worse your playing will become.
Allow yourself to enjoy how good you have become, how much easier those high notes are, how clearly you can now articulate! One of my professors often said "clarinet is easy," and it completely altered my mindset when I played. Telling myself that everything was difficult made everything difficult, and hearing that playing wasn't really so hard made it seem not so hard.
So much of life is about mind games and perception! Keep up with the mental game and value efficiency in practice.
Focus on the Good, not the Bad
This last one is said often, I think: focus on your successes and not your failures. This is not exactly what i mean by "focus on the good," though, because I think examining failure helps us understand how to improve.
What I do mean is this: focus on the good result you want to achieve, rather than the bad result that might come about. When you start a piece, don't think "I really hope I don't squeak on that note" because then of course what is your brain focused on? Making sure you let out a nice loud squeak! Instead, focus on the beautiful clear tone you want to achieve on that high note, what it would sound and feel when produced.
Normally, I am a "prepare for the worst" kind of person, so this was a huge mindset adjustment for me. Honestly, the biggest push to change was the incredible difference in my playing when I began solely focusing on the good result I wanted. Listening to really great recordings of music you love helps as well.
Fill your ears with your aspirations, and keep them in mind constantly as you play!
It's fun to reflect and fully appreciate all that studying music has done for me as a person. Somehow this rambling post only skimmed the surface--here's to the next 15 years of perpetual growth and learning!