How many times have you passed up an opportunity because you weren’t sure you were good enough?
You didn’t get up to play at a jam session once you heard how “good” the other players were. Or you missed the chance to really put yourself forward for a possible gig and found yourself talking down your abilities instead.
Or maybe you went and did it, but spent the whole time worrying that you weren’t good enough. Constantly wondering what the other musicians and the audience thought of you.
The way forward is slow and difficult
If you’ve found yourself in that sort of situation, it feels as though there’s no way to change it except through a long, hard slog of slowly improving your skills.
You might be tempted to shy away from the challenge before you’ve started – accept “mediocrity” and/or reduce the amount of performing you do.
Or you might grit your teeth and resign yourself to a painful process of improvement which tends to suck the joy out of practicing and playing.
Either way, you’re cutting yourself off from the possibility of enjoying where you are right now.
And there’s a danger that you constantly raise the bar of where you’re looking to get to. Every time you move forward, you redefine “good enough” to be another few steps ahead of where you are.
A faster way – rebalance your belief
What’s probably actually holding you back the most is that your sense of confidence and self-belief is out of balance with the reality of your abilities.
If, like most people, you have a tendency to downplay your abilities relative to others’, then your subconscious is placing an artificial limit on what you can achieve.
Rebalancing your self-belief to a healthier and more realistic level will give you more appreciation and enjoyment for where you are now. It will also increase your ability to reach greater heights in the future.
Why is belief so important?
Belief is the foundation from which you apply all the other mental skills.
When you come from a place of belief, you can just let the performance happen rather than feeling that you need to try to actively control things.
You can have the confidence to put your focus in the single most important area, rather than constantly being distracted by all the different things you think you might need to keep an eye out for.
All of this is necessary to perform at the peak of your ability. But it goes even deeper than that. Your self-belief and your conception of what you’re capable of determines what you’re able to do.
As Maxwell Maltz wrote:
To onlookers, the hypnotist’s “word” has a magical power. Such, however, is not the case. The power, the basic ability, to do these things was inherent in the subjects all the time – even before they met the hypnotist. The subjects, however, were unable to use this power because they themselves did not know it was there. They had bottled it up, and choked it off, because of their own negative beliefs. Without realizing it, they had hypnotized themselves into believing they could not do these things. And it would be truer to say that the hypnotist had “dehypnotized” them than to say he had hypnotized them.
Or, as Henry Ford put it, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right.”
What causes this belief imbalance?
Humans have an inbuilt tendency to focus on the negative rather than the positive. This has served us well over millions of years of evolution, but isn’t always ideal for everything we face today.
In a music context, this means that when things go wrong, or you’re unhappy with something, this tends to stick in your mind easily.
When things go right or you’re happy with them you tend to take this for granted and don’t remember it so easily.
This means that when you look back you tend to remember a disproportionally high amount of negative things about your playing.
The problem is that this feels accurate…
Unfortunately, because this assessment seems reasonable, you don’t tend to catch this discrepancy in the first place. You also resist encouragement to change the assessment for the same reason.
Two things in particular contribute to this.
Firstly, you forget how difficult things you can already do are.
Once you’re able to do them easily, you associate them with “easy” in your mind and don’t give yourself full credit for their difficulty when you get them right. And you don’t realise that others will be giving you large amounts of credit for them.
Secondly, you overestimate how difficult things you can’t do are.
Because you can’t do them [yet!], you label them “hard” and give people who can do them lots of credit. You forget that they will now have classed that as “easy” and won’t give themselves as much credit.
Accentuate the positive
The solution is disturbingly simple. Just make sure you recognise the good things you do more frequently. And recognise the things you’re unhappy about less frequently.
Ok – you’re probably going to need more than just good intentions to make this work.
Use structure to make it happen
Set up a regular time when you’re going to do this. For example, you could resolve to do this after every practice session, or after every performance.
Or you might set up a regular review session where you look back on everything you’ve done in the past week.
Have a specific set of questions to ask yourself that has an overwhelming focus on positive things. E.g. you might ask yourself to notice at least three things that went well and one thing that improved.
And then only look for one thing that you want to improve.
Yes, it is important for your continued growth to keep identifying things which need improvement.
The reason I’m asking you to stack the deck deliberately in the other direction is because of our natural tendency to focus on the negative. I think you’ll find that if you set yourself a target of noticing much more positive aspects than negative you’ll probably end up somewhere around half and half in reality.
This is not about deluding yourself
The aim is to be realistic. You’re not looking to create a fantasy picture of yourself where you think you’re capable of all sorts of amazing things which are actually well beyond your grasp.
Your subconscious needs to be able to accept the picture you create of yourself as true. You should aim to stretch yourself, though.
Be aware that your initial instinct for how to view your abilities is probably going to be unnecessarily pessimistic. See how things would look if you pushed your abilities a fair bit past where you think they are.
Then see if you could recognise that new picture as accurate.
There are, of course, lots of detailed and involved ways to work on strengthening your self-belief. And these are really worth looking into.
But the best place to start is with the simple approach outlined in this article. Set some time aside to look back on your practice and performance and specifically note good things about it.
The more you use a set structure to notice the good things in your playing, the more you’ll get used to doing this. Over time, you’ll find yourself doing this naturally, becoming less unhelpfully self-critical, and finding more enjoyment in your playing and progress.
Do you tend to notice your mistakes more than the things you play well? Do you tend to take the fundamentals you’ve developed over the years for granted? Let me know in the comments section below.
Oh and before I go
If you enjoyed this article: Please share it using the social media buttons below. Or click here to tell your friends.
Great article. Clear explanation of the thinking errors (such as habitual focus on what went wrong rather than right, or constantly raising the bar so that “success” is always just beyond reach) and self-limiting beliefs that hold so many musicians back.
I remember the first time I realized what I was doing to myself by constantly comparing myself unfavorably to other musicians whenever I perceived that they could do something I couldn’t do (rather than realizing the reverse might also be the case). It was the beginning of a liberating process for me.
Great to hear your experiences of this, Jonathan. Sounds like you’ve probably had a similar journey to me. I think my big moment of realisation came when I was wondering whether to go up and talk to another musician at a jam session who I thought was clearly much better than me. Before I could make up my mind, he’d come up to me and started telling me how much he liked my playing. It slowly dawned on me that – while I thought that HE was the better player – he thought that I was. And then I started to see the funny side of how we must both be putting ourselves down…
Great exercise to ask yourself after practice time “Have a specific set of questions to ask yourself that has an overwhelming focus on positive things. E.g. you might ask yourself to notice at least three things that went well and one thing that improved.” And then afterwards choose only 1 area you wish to improve upon next time. Usually we are conditioned by our former teachers or our own perfectionist brains to only look for what went wrong… On the other hand in order for myself to perform well I need to be completely without self judgement (negative or positive) and think about how much I enjoy the tune I’m playing, the opportunity to play in a nice invironment, and/or the fun I’m having with creating with talented musicians!
You’re quite right that we perform better without self-judgement, Debbie. One thing that I find helps me to do this is to record the performance. That way I can reduce any worries that, if I avoid judging in the moment, I’m missing out on the chance to take the positives (or find areas to improve) later on. I can listen back to the recording and do that afterwards.
Of course, that’s the theory… Resisting the urge to judge your playing is not always an easy thing to carry out in practice.
Game changer for me. It will be re-read.
So glad you found it useful, Mike. And thanks for taking the time to comment.
I find all I read and learn from you so fascinating.
Thanks for the comment, Shawn. And really glad you enjoyed the article.
Hi Mark, I’m preparing for a big music exam and I knew my nerves were going to let me down. And I’ve turned down some big opportunities to gig because of lack of belief. I’m reading your blog every day and I’m so relieved I’ve found it. I have hope for more success now. Thank you so much Mark
Hi Sherelyn. So glad that you’ve found the blog helpful.
One thing I’d encourage you to do is see if you can reframe the way you think about your nerves. When you say “I knew my nerves were going to let me down” that sort of belief can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Maybe try and aim for something along the lines of “Whatever feelings of nerves I get on the day are normal and fine – they don’t define how my performance will go.”
And if you haven’t checked it out already, you might like my video on how to stop worrying about performance anxiety: https://youtu.be/yEcg-B1q21w
Thanks mark l’ve just happened along your blog as well.most times I feel like Sherelyn with nerves.
In the symphony as well as a first violinist. I feel not good enough even though I have my grade 10 and have played for 30 years. I am going to try to work towards positive. I play very well in practice and then doubt myself in performance. Thanks again Mark.
Thanks for the comment, Ron.
It definitely sounds like you’d benefit from doing some work on understanding why you don’t feel good enough. Imagine how different performance would feel if you felt you were inherently good enough (i.e. not attached to whether you happen to play well that particular time or not).
Hi Mark, yes, I do notice the mistakes more than the things I play well and take the fundamentals for granted but all this is going to change now with your advice. Thanks again, all this makes so much sense.Issy
Well, this all sounds incredibly familiar. Who reassuring to know that so many of us think in this way. I constantly focus on what I can’t do and ask myself why after all these years of practise and performance I am not better. Then someone recently told me they watched the videos of a recent gig and wanted ot know how the hell played what I played. I guess it’s all subjective in the end, but a little bit of belief coming along at the right time has helped and in fact made me look into your blog and advise for further help. Start of a late journey perhaps?!
Glad you found it reassuring, Mark. There’s a lot of stuff that’s actually very common but doesn’t get talked about much. And it’s never too late to start…
I am a cellist. On the first face to face meeting with my teacher after three months isolation she corrected my cello hold. All I could think was great, three months of wrong practice. My muscles will never forget. I forgot that when I played my piece for her in our last zoom class she said well done.
very helpful, eye opening and motivating. ……………
my grandma was a great pianist, not public performer, but would play at home every day for her own sheer enjoyment and to entertain friends and family. ……. from the ages of 10 to 22 I would play for hours on the guitar and piano just for fun, constantly learning and teaching myself new things, composing etc
then I got married and music was a big part of the marriage until the marriage ended after 3 years, so there was trauma associated with it and hard to enjoy playing for 17 years since.
I’m grateful for the blogs and it has helped me realize that I will seek therapy and move past this and keep on enjoying the gift of music.
Thank you so much
please keep sharing
its so valuable.
So glad you found this helpful, Neety. And thanks for your comment.
I am finding all this very interesting at the moment. The little bit of UYP course I have completed is all ready making me feel better about my playing
So glad to hear that, John.
I have all my life tried to learn several different types of instruments. I have landed on one instrument that I love and want to be able to play to my best ability. I have in the past and during my practice sessions criticized myself into believing I will be only mediocre at best. I am little more than a beginner with the accordion and at times I find it difficult, well sometimes more than difficult. When I have practiced a piece of music that I performed well my wife complements me. She is such a love and very supportive, and then I go and knock myself down with criticism. This is going to stop now thanks to this instruction. It is my goal to be able to entertain friends and my wife of course and truly enjoy the instrument and the music I perform. Thank you Mark.
So glad this helped, Larry. You can definitely get to your goal. Keep going!
Very good article. I play acoustic guitar. I used to think that if I learned this one song I loved I would be satisfied but once I learned how to play I realized that it wasn’t as hard as I thought. That’s when I realized I could learn to play anything. I’m 68 years old and a few years ago I decided that the guitar was going to be my bucket list. Thanks for the articles. It’s now a mental game.
You’re welcome, John. Great to hear that you’re up for going much further than you originally thought!
Loving these article’s Mark , i am a teacher of piano and violin , i also play cello guitar and recorder . It’s been so very helpful reading and watching your videos. Thank you so much Mark .
You’re welcome, Tracy. Glad you’re finding them helpful.
I must have missed this space on earlier reading of messages, but can see with all learning of piano as a child ,(until 6th Grade, and no touching of piano thereafter) plus flute and recorder through another adult phase of my life, I am beginning to see more clearly how I have self sabotaged my learning, and life in many areas. I hope to resurrect some of that past or relearn with a new attitude. At this stage I aim to develop my ability to play with confidence and enjoyment
That’s great, Carol. It’s definitely possible to reshape your attitude and beliefs.
Article is fantastic. It’s nothing I already don’t know or that I have not reminded myself now and then, however to be put in a well written article with some advice on structure to make it happen is appreciated. Thank you!
You’re welcome, Wayne. So glad it was helpful. (And I totally understand where you’re coming from. Taking the time to structure and write the article was really helpful for me precisely because it got me thinking more deeply about things that can all too easily slip away from my full attention because “I already know that”)
Very interesting l must go back and read all tha emails you have sent and inwardly digest,l woul love to be able to play to my family or anyone who would listen
You can definitely play for your family. I’m sure they’ll listen if you ask. (Asking is often the hardest part!)
Good to know the statement “I’ll be fine”
Much of what you have mentioned I am aware of, bizarrely its when I became a dance master that I used the very technique you described. At first I was petrified but an event (my husbands passing) lit a fire in me. I accepted my role and the more I just did it, the more it came to me. I am applying this more to my playing which I shall be using in Lectures I give. I played my harp for the first time in public on Tuesday thanks to your tuition , its the most nerve racking but also the most where those negatives float round. I focused, blocked them out and began, same goes for my Fiddle. At one time Fiddle and Harp were a double dare to include in my performances now I shall indeed dare further. Cheers for that.
Not giving myself credit for the things I have learned? Guilty as charged. Verbally declaring (out loud) that “I give myself credit for all the work I have put in on the guitar and harmonica,” gives me an immediate sense of relief. I have been mentally discounting all the work I have done through the years to be able to play what I can play now. The slave-driver mentality only leads to burnout. I have learned this, and I can now enjoy the fruits of my labor. I am free to pick something I want to improve upon and get to it, without forgetting the work which has gotten me this far. This mindset helps keep learning fun. Great article, Mark. Thanks. You are so right that it is easier to focus on what we can’t do but a new attitude can change all that. I look forward to reading the rest of your blog.
Declaring things out loud like that is a great way to address this, Dave. Nice work! So glad this was helpful and brought you a bit of relief.