perfectionism

composing is scary.

The thought of writing my own music is generally terrifying to my inner perfectionist. ("This is ridiculous. How can you possibly want to do this? There are so many people who are already awesome at it." she says. "Why waste your time? You might seriously suck. Don't embarrass yourself.") I've always had such high respect for the great composers and songwriters that I completely avoided any attempts at composing until three years ago when I wrote my first song. I haven't started another one until this week. (More on the details of it next time.)

Several years ago, I reluctantly delved into improvising (composing on the spot) in a fusion band. I desperately wanted to get better at improv, but I was paralyzed with fear. During rehearsal, the guys would signal that it was my turn for a solo. I'd do my best to avoid it. "I don't need a solo. No, really, you take one. I'm good. Seriously. I'll just play what's written here." Meanwhile, my inner voice is screeching, "DEAR GOD, PLEASE DON'T MAKE ME TAKE A SOLO!" Those poor guys were so patient with me. They were encouraging and kind, and even more importantly, they insisted on me taking solos. I started learning that the only way to shut up that nagging inner perfectionist was to actually do whatever it is she swears I can't or shouldn't do. Little by little, solos got easier. Enjoyable, even. I even found myself looking forward to them. My perfectionist voice was getting more and more faint. Did I play and sing sour notes sometimes? You bet. But I started learning to let those sour notes become part of the composition rather than trying to act like they didn't happen. On my best days, they just redirect the line and shape rather than being a smudge on the canvas. 

After starting to do some improv, I decided to try my hand at arranging. Performing tunes that you've arranged is a grand tradition in the jazz world. I love this practice because the artist can share their musical taste with the audience. It's fun to know you like the same things as someone else. I've discovered several musicians just because they covered a tune that I loved. My favorite instances are, without fail, tunes that are pulled from outside the jazz genre. The flip-side of paying homage to my favorite tunes and musicians through arranging was that somewhere in my subconscious, it felt safer to try out musical ideas without having to take full responsibility for the whole tune. Don't like the melody? Blame the composer. Don't like the words? Blame the lyricist. I can handle taking flack for the rest. This is obviously not a viable idea since the arranger's choices can totally ruin a perfectly awesome melody or lyric, but it made me feel better and at least got me started. Just like the improv experience, it got easier as I did it. I don't have many arrangements under my belt, but I'm finding it less intimidating with each tune. As I finish each one, there's somehow less pressure on the next one to be o-mazing. 

So now I'm trying this composing thing again, hoping to make originals a bigger part of my setlists. I'm getting used to that fact that the perfectionist will start mocking me every time I try something new. "Wasn't the arranging adventure enough for you? You should just sing the amazing music that's already out there! You're going to get worse at everything else if you waste time on this!" A knowing smile spreads across my face. She's wrong. And she's starting to know it, too. Yes, it's scary, but we're gonna do it anyway.

Getting to the root of procrastination

I don't know about you, but "procrastination" and "laziness" are words often used by my students when we're trying to get to the root of why they aren't spending time with their instrument. 

Procrastination was a personal favorite of mine for a long time. "I'm a procrastinator," I would say, very matter-of-factly. I didn't say it proudly, but it didn't feel much different than saying something like "I have feet." It was part of my identity. And whenever I would procrastinate, deep down I began to fear that I was innately "lazy," like a genetic mutation for which there was no cure and whose symptoms could be temporarily lessened only by shame and guilt. 

Thanks to Raleigh-area voice teacher Joyce McDonald, I was introduced to The Artist’s Way after grad school. It was life changing. Two of the most important ideas I took away from the first reading (of three, so far) were about the words procrastination and laziness. I learned to start calling them what they actually were: fear. Author Julia Cameron also calls these fears "blocks." She says, “Blocks are seldom mysterious. They are, instead, recognizable artistic defenses against what is perceived (rightly or wrongly) as a hostile environment.” 

I uncovered fears like...

  • If this can't be amazing/perfect/the best, I don't want to do it. 
  • There are already so many people better than me. What’s the use? 
  • There’s already someone doing the same thing as me. What’s the use? 
  • I’ll be abandoned by certain people if I fail.
  • I’ll be abandoned by certain people if I succeed.
  • Since there will be people who don't like it no matter what I do, I should keep it to myself. 

I started recognizing these fearful patterns in my students, too. The closer we would get to a solution to their practicing woes, the more they would want to wave it away with some version of "I"m just lazy/incapable/hopeless." To take a solution and run with was initially scarier than hiding behind those words. Real solutions mean we have to face our perceptions of hostility and be willing to experience a paradigm shift. Ultimately, I learned it's much more painful to be blocked than to just do the art, no matter the potential hostility. Some of the hostility is real. Some is not. We each have to learn how to deal with both kinds and move forward. 

Some of the most helpful practical ideas for me and my students have been...

  • Stop setting paralyzing, impossible, perfectionistic goals. It’s okay to take baby steps. They’ll take me a lot farther than I think, and they deserve rewards when they’re accomplished. 
  • The only way to get better is to do it, not to sit and stress about it. Any bad sounds I make are a necessary step to the good ones. 
  • The process is the point, not the product. As soon as I start focusing on the hypothetical audience’s reaction, the process loses its joy. My art will connect with the people who need it. Trust that this will happen. 
  • There is helpful criticism and damaging criticism. Learn to tell the difference. It’s helpful if it makes me think, “Yes! That’s what I’ve been trying to figure out!” It’s damaging if it leaves me with a general sense of shame and no specific next steps. Seek out helpful criticism. (Side note: The more I connect with full-time artists, the more I learn that they are often the most skilled in knowing how and when to provide helpful criticism.) 
  • Distance myself from people who use damaging criticism or yell at me in general. There is nothing admirable about being motivated by cruelty. Identify hurtful inner voices/thoughts and where they came from. The critics I fear the most often turn out to be more blocked than me. Learn how to defend, protect, and heal myself. Reclaim power by replacing cruel words with loving, encouraging words. 
  • Find ways to make the work feel like play. Play keeps me coming back to my music with a cheerful heart. Be wary of people who mislabel this as being silly.
  • Find people who already do all of the above and spend more time with them. 

What experiences have you had in regards to fear in your creative life? Share some helpful tips in the comments section.