It can be very tricky to keep momentum, particularly as a solo performer, and especially as an amateur musician. Faced with the choice between doing hard work learning (potentially challenging) new material, or spending time refining something we already know, many of us will choose the latter option. It saves us the pain and trouble of learning the new piece, and we have the instant gratification of improvement. We feel like we have achieved something, even if we secretly know that we haven’t really achieved very much at all.
There are good reasons why we avoid the harder task. Engineering professor and learning expert Barbara Oakley reminds us that “we procrastinate about things that make us feel uncomfortable.” In her book A Mind for Numbers she recounts a medical imaging study of mathphobes. When the math phobic subjects thought about doing maths problems, the pain centres of their brains lit up. But when they actually started working on the problems, the pain went away. In other words, the anticipation of doing the thing we find uncomfortable is actually painful! But if we get on and do the task, the pain goes away and we are open to the rewards of our labours.
This ‘inertia of mind’ is nothing new: FM Alexander wrote about it in 1910. He reminded us that most people live very narrow lives, doing and thinking the same things every day. But he also reassured his readers that once this inertia of mind is overcome, “it is astonishing how easily [the brain] may be directed.”
So what should we do to get out of our musical rut? My suggestion to you today is to try setting a goal or a deadline for yourself – something that is public, time limited, and just a little bit outside your comfort zone.
Doing the slightly scary…
Setting a slightly scary new goal (like a new performance, or one with a new partner, or with brand new music) has the following benefits:
Deadlines – a performance gives you a deadline to work to
Accountability – other people will know about what you’re doing, so you can’t procrastinate
Novelty – humans like things that are new and shiny. New and shiny goals are more attractive, so we are more likely to spend time on them.
Uncertainty – a bit of uncertainty is good. It’s good to occasionally find oneself doing things that might not work – as FM said, “I could do no harm by making the experiment…”
It’s a tactic I am currently using myself. Long term readers of my blog will know I dabble in running; I’ve done the local 10k event a couple of times. This year I’ve decided to challenge myself and try out the half marathon instead. It has had an immediate impact upon the consistency and intensity of my training runs, even though the event in in late September, and as I write it is only early May!
Similarly, my son isn’t particularly ready for his cello exam. But we decided to book for an earlier date rather than waiting a couple of months, as he and I agreed that he will be more motivated by the earlier deadline. We both think that he’ll just get bored if he has the extra time!
But only slightly scary!
But make sure that you put enough safety features in place so that you aren’t paralysed by fear. For example, when I was recovering from stage fright, an important step was playing a solo piece in performance. I pushed myself by picking a stupidly difficult piece (the first movement of the Bach Partita? Please!), but I made sure that I picked a small venue where it wouldn’t matter if I messed up, and I had my consort friends around for support. I also gave myself plenty of time to prepare.
So if you’re stuck in a musical rut, see if you can find a way to create a goal for yourself: a new piece, a new performance, or a new collaboration. Make your new goal interesting, time sensitive if possible, and just a little bit scary. And don’t forget: the anticipation will be painful, but once you get stuck in, the discomfort goes away. Then you just have fun.
 Oakley, B., A Mind for Numbers, New York, Penguin, 2014, pp84-5.
 Alexander, FM., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, IRDEAT, p.67.
 Alexander FM., The Use of the Self, IRDEAT, p.413.