Part 2 – The Key Ingredient Missing from Your Practice
You spend a lot of time working on technique. Honing your ability to play fast. To play difficult lines.
You spend a lot of time learning tunes, vocabulary and maybe even theory.
All these things are important.
But they don’t cover everything you need in performance. You're still missing one key part that applies no matter what instrument you play, what style you play in, or what level you play at.
It’s your mind.
The music you make comes from your physical movements. But every physical movement starts in the mind.
Your mental skills ALWAYS affect what you play.
The mental aspect is there whether you like it or not.
It’s not something you can choose to add in later. Everything you play, your mind is there along with you making it easier.
Or making it harder.
Developing your mental skills can bring huge benefits.
Or more accurately, failure to develop them will hold you back massively.
As Olympic diving coach Jeff Huber put it:
“Having mental skills won’t guarantee you an Olympic medal. But the LACK of mental skills will guarantee losing one”
I'll show you specific exercises to train these skills in just a bit.
You don’t have to be sick to get better
Some musicians think that you only need to work on your mental skills if you're experiencing problems.
It's just a way of getting back to “normal” so most of us don’t need to bother with it.
So why do all the top sportsmen and women work so hard on this? They already deliver at the top level, under pressure, every day.
If anyone’s mentally tough, it’s them.
Yet they still choose to work on it every day.
Sport provides a great window into mental skills because you can't hide from the consequences.
There are no marks for artistic interpretation.
The scoring systems measure performances objectively. So any serious pro will do whatever it takes to maximise that performance.
What's the bottom line?
The top pros won't just tell you that the mental game is hugely important - they back this up with action.
They work with sports psychologists and spend time every day training their mental skills.
Does this training make a difference?
Before the 1988 Olympic games, Steven Ungerleider and Jacqueline Golding surveyed 1200 athletes who qualified for the US Olympic trials.
They compared those who eventually qualified for the Olympics with those who narrowly missed out.
The two groups looked similar. They were all training hard, getting plenty of sleep and eating well.
They were pretty hot on mental training too – a massive 83% of them were doing this.
The only significant difference was that the successful athletes were doing MORE mental training than the ones who didn’t make the cut.
Even for purely physical events - more mental training equals better performance.
How does this work for musicians?
Haven't musicians realised this already? Surely, if it's so important, everyone would do this.
And, of course, pretty much all the great musicians have.
They mastered their trade on the bandstand as much as in the practice room.
As young musicians were “paying their dues” they had the older guys acting as mentors. Passing on their experiences and wisdom - guiding them along the way just like a coach would.
As Hal Galper recalled from playing with Cannonball Adderly:
“For the first year, I felt like a feather in a hurricane. It was the strongest band I had ever played with. Those guys kicked my ass around the bandstand every night until I was black and blue. Finally, at the beginning of the second year, I had my strength up and I was doing some major kicking back myself. Let me make this very clear; to learn what I had to learn to play the gig, it took constant playing with these particular guys, three sets a night, for 50 weeks straight. This was the real school of the bandstand.”
The mentor system has disappeared for most musicians
That option is simply not open to most of us these days. The modern world doesn’t work like that anymore. As Hal put it just before the quote above: “it was the end of an era that will never be repeated”.
But if you want to fulfil your potential you need to find a way to get that sort of training. If you can’t get out on the road all the time, then you’ll have to do something else instead.
You can’t just sit there and wait for someone else to supply it. Take responsibility yourself and make it happen.
It’s not all bad news, though
While the mentor system is no longer around, we’ve got advantages that the great musicians of the past didn't have.
Sports psychology and other areas provide techniques that can reliably boost your mental skills.
We talked earlier about how pros focus relentlessly on limiting factors.
The bottlenecks that hold the rest of your performance down at that lowest common denominator.
If you don’t address these then you’ll never make the rapid progress that you’re capable of. They’ll keep acting as a drag on everything else you do to improve.
Whatever you’ve developed least will be your bottleneck
This probably means your mental skills.
That might sound bad, but it’s actually good news!
It means that you could see massive growth if you choose to work on them. When you start from a low base in a skill then you improve rapidly.
Even musicians who have developed good mental skills naturally, without realising it, will see a huge improvement if they deliberately dedicate time to them.
No idea how to actually work on your mental skills?
Fear not – I'll show you that now.