First published in Victory Review, September 2000.
Each of us musicians has his or her own demon, some musical bit of business that we've been avoiding for years, some Achilles heel or blind spot or embarrassing truth that we try to keep out of the public eye, that we constantly must work around in our musical lives yet never face head-on.
My bugaboo was sight-reading. For years, I'd got by on the strength of my highly developed ear, my chops, my versatility, my working knowledge of theory. But I had a phobia about sight-reading, much like some peoples fear of math or car repair or finances. I was a fluent speaker of a language that I could barely read. When I did try to work on it, I was too proud to play "kiddie" music and instead tried to read pieces that were far too advanced for me (Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" is a particularly grandiose example). As you might expect, I just ended up feeling frustrated, embarrassed, and even more convinced that I'd never learn to sight-read. It became my demon, my dark secret, a curse that I carried with me for years, even after I graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in music.
In order to finally face my demon, I had to literally start at the beginning. I had to read pieces that were very simple, childishly easy, even embarrassing to play. I had to take my time. I had to let myself make mistakes. I had to give myself the patience that I now give my own students. I had to work at it every day. For a musician with years of experience, a high level of ability, an over-reliance on his ear and his wits, and a deep-seated fear of failure, this was not easy. But going through that process was (and continues to be) one of the best things I ever did for myself, both as a musician and as a person. It's difficult to describe the joy I've felt as I read a piece of music that once would have completely intimidated me.
Perhaps you have a demon of your own. Perhaps, like mine, it's sight-reading. Or perhaps your demon is the exact opposite, and you feel unable to play by ear. Or perhaps it's rhythm. Or singing, or theory, or ear training, or improvising. Whatever it is, I invite you to look at the ways in which your own fears and self-images limit you.
A student of mine recently said, "I have terrible rhythm." Such statements are more about belief than fact, and have the effect of prophecy if we repeat them often enough. "I have a tin ear." "I'm just no good with theory." "I'll never be able to play by ear." Listen to the pronouncements and prophecies playing in your head, and notice how they wall off entire areas of music-making that you long to explore.
This is the real power of the demon, that we give in to the fear and judgment and shame. We become convinced there must be something wrong with us, that we can't do these things that others find so easy. We must not be such good musicians after all, if we can't do ________ (your demon here).
None of which is true. You are not fundamentally flawed. There is no missing ingredient that everyone has but you. There's no "magic" you don't possess. Yes, some people are more obviously talented than others, but the skills of musicianship are very democratic. With time and patience, they can be mastered. You needn't be a genius to read music, pick out a tune by ear, or keep a beat. It only seems to come easily to everyone else because you haven't gone through all the little steps they went through to master that skill. But you can. You just need time and patience.
Patience is especially important if you've played music for years. You must let yourself be a beginner again. Begin at the beginning, where everyone else did. Don't try to defeat the demon all at once, in one grandiose assault. Take it slowly, step by step. Practice every day. Watch as you gradually master that skill. Watch as the demon loses its power, as you gain confidence, as you learn to do something that you once believed impossible. You can work with a teacher to guide and support you, or you can do it alone -- whatever best meet your needs. And just in case you missed it the first time, I'll say it again — practice every day.
Don't listen to the demon any more. It tells lies. You can do that thing the demon says you can't do. Don't listen. Just be patient, have faith, and try.
© Copyright 2000 by Richard Middleton.
All rights reserved.
Richard Middleton is a musician, songwriter, producer, educator, and writer based in Seattle. He is the author of "Rhythm Guitar Secrets" (Countersine), and his music writing has also appeared in Smithsonian magazine, Victory Review, and SingOut! magazine.
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