Updated: Jan 3
"What progress, you ask, have I made? I have begun to be a friend to myself." - Hecato quoted in Seneca's Letters from a Stoic
Self-discipline is a critical part of the formula for musical success. We need to show up every day to do the work, examine and actively address our weaknesses, and say no to a lot of other things so we can say yes to music more often.
For many musicians, especially those of us who are ambitious, being disciplined is easy. We tend to have high standards, and will gladly do whatever it takes to measure up.
What we might struggle with is being kind to ourselves when we fall short of our own expectations. At even the slightest failure, we become judgmental and self-critical. This can work against us once it’s time to take action. As Brad Stulberg explains in his book The Practice of Groundedness, when you judge yourself, “you’re liable to feel shame or guilt, and it is often this shame or guilt that keeps you trapped in your undesirable situation, preventing you from taking productive action.”
If you instead practice self-compassion in these situations, you will have the “strength to move forward in a meaningful manner.” If we want to be able to take the necessary steps to improve our weaknesses, we need to start with kindness and understanding.
The next time you fail in some way and feel the urge to berate yourself, try flipping the script. Instead of saying: “I should have played better, I’m not good enough” try: “I wish I had played better, but at least now I know what to work on for next time.”
You can also try adopting a mantra: a simple phrase you can use to stop negative self-judgment. Brad suggests using the following: “This is what is happening right now. I’m doing the best I can.” Try this the next time you feel shame for practicing too little, or for procrastinating on a project. It likely won’t feel natural at first, so be patient and treat it like you would any other practice. It becomes easier over time.
We build musical lives to make the most of our time as musicians. While a large part of this comes from the discipline to do and be better, beating ourselves up at every mistake and misstep isn’t helpful. If we instead “marry self-discipline with self-compassion,” we can become friends to ourselves as we work through musical challenges to grow and reach our full potential.