Overthinking and performance don’t mix

Last month, my guitar teacher held a group class/recital where all of his students play two pieces for each other and receive feedback. As you can imagine, in the weeks leading up to the group class, all four of us freaked out to varying degrees. At the last group class in December, one student even refused to play and attended the class only as an observer. Did I mention we’re all adults?

Knowledge isn’t the same as skill

Culturally, it’s hard being an adult beginner in anything. Children and expected to screw up while they’re learning, but for some reason we expect adults, including ourselves, to be good at a new skill right away. Why? I’ve observed a lot of adults who erroneously equate knowledge with skill and believe they can read/watch/think their way to acquiring a skill.

It doesn’t work that way at all. I understand why people do it, though. Actually practicing a skill, as opposed to simply reading about it, smacks us into our real-world limitations, and that can be too humbling an experience for some people. We’re learning–of course we’re not going to be perfect. We never will be. Yet we put so much pressure on ourselves that we either shy away from the challenge or we overthink the challenge and end up sabotaging ourselves.

Overthinking and getting in my own way

I’m no exception to this. In last December’s class, I didn’t exactly choke, but I played scared. I chose tempos that were too slow for the pieces and overthought each chord change and right-hand fingering. Sure, I didn’t make too many mistakes, but my playing was robotic at best. My teacher often tells me I’m a control freak (guilty) and I need to trust my ears and fingers more. Think in phrases and the piece as a whole, not the individual notes and chords. Perform and communicate emotions rather than simply execute what’s on the page.

He’s right, of course. As Met Opera timpanist Jason Haaheim says, the job of a musician is to vibrate air at people and make them feel a thing. If I play something note-perfect but don’t make listeners feel a thing, I missed the mark.

Turning off my critical brain

So for the June class, I purposely chose two pieces with wildly different styles. One was a romantic, moody piece and the other was a playful piece called “Danza del Gatto” (“Dance of the Cat”). After the usual hours of practicing, I made up my mind that the group class was simply another thing to practice. I have very little experience performing music as an adult, and the group lesson would be a good opportunity to get more used to it.

So when it came time for me to play, I turned off my critical brain and focused completely on the music and the emotions I wanted to convey. I managed to forget that I was even playing in front of other people.

My teacher said it was the best he’d ever heard me play those two pieces. I finally got out of my own way. The new challenge: remembering how I did that and repeating it.

There are no end goals: it’s ALL practice

People who play sports understand that overthinking ruins performance. Overanalyzing causes players to choke, I think people in creative fields can learn a lot from sports psychology in this area. Everything is practice, including things we consider THE end goal–big games, job interviews, auditions, performances, published stories. We believe that a particular event is the be all and end all capping off our hard work.

Nope, it’s just another practice session. I think that’s a healthier way to approach whatever we set out to do.

A steep learning curve isn’t a wall

After last month’s post about struggling with discipline, I had a good month in June. First off, Rockin’ 1000 accepted my audition video and I’m in the band! So now I need to learn electric guitar for real. Also I have about 2000 words left to write in a novella project I drafted in 2016 (I ended up tossing it out and redrafting it from scratch). So overall, June was a good month for me.

Learning how to dictate my writing (ack!)

If this post feels different than my previous posts, it’s because I dictated the first draft. Yes, I’m teaching myself how to voice-type. I I don’t want to be chained to a chair all day, especially since sitting for long periods of time is terrible for your health. Practicing guitar already requires a lot of sitting–a classical guitar doesn’t use a strap. Since I also want to be more more prolific in my writing, sticking with typing would require me to sit even more. I also don’t like looking at screens more than I absolutely have to.

So now I’m adding dictation to my writing toolbox. I dictated the first draft of this post on my phone and used an AI transcription service called Otter.ai to convert it to text. I enjoyed the actual act of dictation, but Otter isn’t designed for long-form writing, so the transcription required a bunch of cleanup. Ugh. Apple’s built-in dictation function yielded better results, but I plan to invest in Dragon software and a dedicated voice recorder for even greater accuracy. My ideal: dictating stories while I go on long nature walks. Kevin J. Anderson does this (and has written over 175 books!), so I know it’s possible.

When you stop to think about it. storytelling and communication started with the spoken word, not the written word. Speaking should feel more natural, but after decades of typing, it’s not. The dictation learning curve is no joke. I guess many writers who try dictation give up and go back to typing, but I’m forcing myself to stick with it and give it an honest try.

Anything worthwhile takes time to learn. I remember when I started learning how to batch cook all my meals from scratch. My first attempt at cooking a week’s worth of meals took six hours and it was a struggle. Now I can finish in two to three hours, including cleanup, but it took almost a year before I locked down my system and routine. I made it over that steep learning curve. Dictation is just another one, and I have to remind myself that a steep learning curve is not a wall. I can always climb over it.

Creativity advice from Dave Grohl

In 2013, Dave Grohl gave a fantastic keynote address at SXSW about his music journey. What caught me was his independent attitude, especially when he set up his own company to hold the rights to his post-Nirvana music. I think more writers should adopt this mindset toward their own work.

I could write my own songs, I could record my own record, I could start my own label, I could release my own record, I could book my own shows, I could write and publish my own fanzine, I could silkscreen my own T-shirts . . . I could do all of this myself. It may have been an entirely different world now, but once again, there was no right or wrong . . . because it was all mine.

From day one the Foo Fighters have been fortunate enough to exist within this perfect world. WE write our songs. WE record our songs. WE make our albums. WE decide when the album is the album. WE OWN the album, and we’ll license it to you for a little while, but you gotta give it back. Because it’s MINE.

Because I am the musician. And I COME FIRST.

Here’s a video of the whole speech. I particularly loved his demonstration of how he multi-tracked his own songs when he was 12 (starting at 9:50).

Ugh, discipline

Discipline is choosing between what you want now and what you want most.

– Often attributed to Abraham Lincoln, but there doesn’t appear to be evidence he ever said this.

I do a good impression of a disciplined person, but more often than not, I lapse into slug mode. Inertia is no joke when I try to kickstart myself into action from a dead stop.

I’m at a dead stop often. I’ll have a burst of productivity for a day or two or a week and then nothing. Burst, stop, burst, stop. Interval training works for exercise, but in other areas of my life, I prefer consistency.

It doesn’t help that the things I want most feel so far away. Mastering anything takes decades of sustained effort. Getting over the initial “I suck” hump alone can take years. I’ve taken classical guitar lessons for a year, and while I’ve improved a lot, I still struggle with chord changes and knowing what notes are where on the fretboard. And writing? Oh jeez, I’ve been writing all my life, sold my first short story in 2006, and I still consider myself a newbie–I have so much to learn.

Sitting down to practice writing or guitar is difficult even though I love both. Perhaps that love is what makes it tough. I’m feel like I’m climbing a mountain and have made it only 3 feet up, or like I’ve hit a plateau thinking I’ve made good progress and see that the mountain is even taller than expected. Some people find big goals motivating, but I find them demoralizing.

No wonder I’d rather read or surf the web or snuggle the cat or take a nap than practice. Practice takes effort. It might be why there are people who spend more time shopping for guitars than playing them. (This is so common it has its own acronym: GAS, for Guitar Acquisition Syndrome.)

But yeah, I’m dealing with an old-fashioned discipline problem, and I suspect it’s because I’m thinking too long-term about where I want to be. I need to force myself to put my head back down and focus on daily processes and systems for my practicing instead of distant end results. My brain can wrap itself around a single day. Any longer than that, not so much. I have to trust that if I stick to a solid daily system, good results will happen as a byproduct.

And I have to remember that checking the internet yet again is simply what I want now, NOT what I want most.