The Psychology of Music and Self-Perception

“Hey, great show! Love seeing your band, and I really enjoy your drumming.”

If you have ever played a show at a club, and then had someone say something like this to you after, then you know the feeling. You have to smile and say “thank you” to this person. Meanwhile, in your head you are re-playing all of the mistakes that you made during the show. Your opinion is that the show sucked.

This situation highlights the difficult psychological issues that come up for musicians. Others might view us as being great, while we have a different perspective of ourselves.

A FEW MORE EXAMPLES
When I told my band that I was taking guitar lessons, one of them had an interesting reply.

“Why would you do that? You’re already a great guitarist.”

My initial reaction to this was that maybe I should no longer trust his judgment, and that he’s lost all credibility with me. This is not because I have a judgment to pass on him, but because of judgments I pass on myself. I do not see myself in this light.

Later, I was on the other end of this transaction with my guitar mentor. I wrote him an email about where I want to go in my studies. I talked about artists whose work I wanted to investigate deeper. He was one of those artists. I said, “I really like your style and approach, which is why I’m here.”

When we had our latest lesson, he said that he’d read my email. He thanked me for the kind words, and then asked that we be “done with” the compliments. He did add that we may disagree about certain things in the future, as well.

I think that he approached it this way in order to intercept a potential issue that he may have had in the past with fans. Maybe he and the student had a disagreement, and some hard feelings resulted.

I have a respect for what he does, and do not approach anyone as if I’m a fan. Still, respect is an attribute that fans have, and expressing this can come off as if I’m a fan. I view fans as being blinded by celebrity, which is something I’ve done away with decades ago. Still, better safe than sorry.

In the end, my respect is understood, and now we’re going to move forward. I do not need to express this again.

UNDERSTANDING BOTH SIDES
If someone says they like what I do, then I take it at face value. They mean it. My perspective of myself or how my show went does not factor into their perspective of me or how their experience went.

I had to see both sides of this before I understood the dynamics of it.

A STRANGE THING THAT HAPPENS OVER TIME
When I was young, I learned, and then I did. Music came easily for me at the time. I felt that I had my genre of interest “mastered” to a degree that was sufficient for my artistic expression.

The older I got, the more  my perspective shifted. I would become unsatisfied with what I could do and what I knew. As a result, I would observe other players and try to teach myself elements of what they could do. I would also take lessons.

This resulted in a paradox, wherein the more I knew, the more I realized I did not know.

It’s like running on a football field, where you are certain that there is 300 yards of field in front of you. You start running toward to goal post on the other side, only to see it getting smaller. You keep running, and it gets bigger for a brief period, but then shrinks once again, rather quickly.

Suddenly, the other goal post appears to be many miles away. When you turn around to see your own progress, you realize that you’re only ten feet away from your original starting point.

WHAT YOU DO NOT KNOW
That feeling is daunting, and can cause someone to give up. As horrible as this feeling may be, let’s make it way worse.

If there is something you do not know, and you don’t know that you do not know it, then how can you know?

When I started with my guitar lessons, I had certain goals. Some of these goals ended up being modified, while others ended up going away completely. The more I learned, the more I realized I did not know.

Learning tends to go down this path. The guitar is an infinite instrument that can never truly be mastered. However, I can get better at what I want to do and what I want to get out of the instrument by practicing accordingly.

MY VIEW ON MY OWN ABILITIES
When I was young, I was a bad ass who could play any rock song I heard, to varying degrees. But as I got older, my musical interests got more complicated. Also, I wanted to be able to play beyond where I had been before.

I have confidence that I am not a beginner. However, the goal posts have moved so far that I cannot see the end. I can gain some ground, or so I think, by learning new things and implementing them into my tool box.

But will I ever be awesome? Will I ever be the best? Will I ever be a guitar god?

No. In fact, I may not ever think that I’m all that great. Not only do I acknowledged all of the musicians in the world who are beyond my ability, but these days I end up listening to music that I know I can never play.

As a musician, I have never been so good, and have never felt so not good.

DUNNING-KRUGER EFFECT
The Dunning-Kruger Effect is a form of cognitive bias, where a person who has relatively low ability holds the illusion of superiority.

Everyone has witnessed this at one time or another. A good, generic example is the person who parrots all of the talking points of their favorite talk show host. As they speak, you can tell that they believe that they are smarter than you. When you ask them to clarify their position, they tell you to “Google it.”

HOW TO TELL IF YOU SUFFER THE DUNNING-KRUGER EFFECT
A person who believes themselves to be the best, the smartest, the fastest, etc., suffer this effect if their abilities do not match their claims.

What most of the great musicians I know have in common is that they do not assert themselves to be in some kind of category. They are constantly learning.

I may enjoy some of my own music, but I don’t see any of it as some kind of stellar accomplishment, or something that will change the world. Regardless of where one puts my current skill level, I am open to learning more, I am actively learning, and I am actively practicing what I am learning.

Will I reach a level of greatness one day? Probably not. I’m enjoying learning, and I am also enjoying the results of my hard work.

I will not be writing the next great symphony, but I will be having fun with what I do.

CLIMBING A SUMMIT AND WHAT IS AT THE TOP
Every musician has had thoughts like this at one point in their lives, most probably when they were young.

“If only I can learn how to do [insert instrument trick here], I will have finally made it.”

On the surface, this sounds silly. To a degree, it is silly. But it’s also positive.

I had this belief long ago, that if I can learn how to play something, or build up speed, then I will have “arrived.” But then something strange happens when I actually work and acquire the ability to play this desired “thing.” That is, it’s no longer special. It no longer has meaning. It becomes something that “anybody can do.”

I’ve just learned something, and I don’t feel any better about it. I don’t feel that I’ve arrived.

As I stand on the summit of that “thing,” I look around and see one million other summits that need to be climbed. I see other people standing on those summits, and I know that it took them 50 years to get there.

I’m now at the base of a new summit, ready to take the first step toward getting to the top, with the realization that I won’t feel any differently when I get there. Taking those steps suddenly gets more difficult.

IMPOSTOR SYNDROME
People who suffer Impostor Syndrome have horrible thoughts about how they’re really no good at all. They’re a fraud, and everyone is going to find out.

This is the polar opposite of Dunning-Kruger. To summarize:

  1. Dunning-Kruger: Believing you’re the best, when you’re the worst.
  2. Impostor Syndrome: Believing you’re the worst, when you have ability.

I’ve had these feelings on many occasions, especially when I’m in the presence of someone who has incredible talent. If you work with someone who is way better than you, then you’ve felt this before.

Writing down your accomplishments and then working to internalize them can help with this issue.

SPLITTING THE DIFFERENCE WITH HONESTY
I have never walked off a stage and thought to myself that I’d had a perfect performance. It just does not happen. However, I have left the stage after a show and declared, “That felt great!”

Indeed, the show did feel that way. The audience was fantastic. Sure, everyone in the band screwed up here and there, but nobody seemed to notice or care. Everyone had fun, and that is the ultimate point of it all.

DO NOT TRUST YOUR SELF-PERCEPTION
Your self-perception is about as reliable and possible as your ability for your eyeball to see itself without a mirror.

If you think you can, then you are correct. If you think you cannot, then you are correct.

While you may know yourself better than anyone else, you’re also an expert on how to fool yourself.

THE DANGERS OF YOUR SELF-PERCEPTION
If you believe that you are really good, then you have no motivation to learn more or to practice. This path leads to a place where you are no longer trying. Dunning-Kruger has just been invited to your house.

But if you believe that you are really bad, then you run the risk of giving up.

Either way, your opinion of yourself is not reliable.

HABITS OF THE BEST
One’s perception of others has a better likelihood of being honest.

Pick the best players you can think of, on any instrument, in any genre. What they all have in common is that they do not rest on their laurels [accomplishments] while declaring themselves to be the best.

They’re still running toward that goal post, working to improve, trying new things, implementing new abilities, and so on.

HOW TO COPE WITH IT ALL
As you read through this, you might be thinking that all of this sounds horrible. Why try to be a musician in the first place, when you cannot be the best? Many other questions like this one will rise up.

I do have some ways to cope with these perils, which I will share.

Abolish your opinion of yourself: Don’t think of yourself as good or bad.

Take the opinions of others with a grain of salt: They might have bias. Grandma said you have a beautiful singing voice. This may not be true. They could also be jealous. You will never know the truth, so keep some perspective on it.

Know when to add weight to opinions: A drunk in the bar who says you suck is meaningless. A judge in a competition who says you need work in areas has something valuable to say. A teacher who has a critique should be taken more seriously, and their claim must be investigated.

Set SMALL goals and keep notes: Playing a riff or rudiment at 50bpm might be your baseline. Once you have that clean, then set your metronome closer to a goal. Maybe you’re trying to slow down, or speed up. Whatever your goal may be, document your work toward that goal.

Celebrate your wins: Once you hit a goal, acknowledge it. Document it. Be proud of it. Generate a feeling about it. Understand that this feeling will go away quickly and become meaningless.

Forget about reaching a destination: Remember the goal post I mentioned earlier? The one that keeps moving? The point of it all has nothing to do with a destination.

THEN WHAT IS THE POINT?
When you dance, the point is not to start on one side of the room, and end up in a specific place in the room by the end.

The point is the dance.

The point of learning music is to learn. The point of making music is to make it.

I practice every day. Then, I play music every day. Sometimes I write and record music. Other times I make music with others. Some days I make music for a future record with my band. Other days, I make music that I suspect nobody will ever hear, and nobody will like.

If you want to learn music, then learn it.

If you want to make music, then make it.

If you want to do something else, then go do it.

Should you be looking forward to your destination, then understand that you will be met with disappointment. Instead, look at the grass under your feet. Smell the fresh air. Look at the animals moving about. Take in the sunset. It’s all you’ve got.

brucelee.jpg“Just be ordinary and nothing special. Eat your food, move your bowels, pass water, and when you’re tired, go and lie down. The ignorant will laugh at me, but the wise will understand” –Bruce Lee

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Music and Fear

As I’m gathering my thoughts for today’s blog, I cannot help but think of an episode of The Jackie Thomas Show from the early 90s, where Jackie [Tom Arnold] decides that he is going to pursue his life-long dream of being a rodeo clown.

He goes through rodeo clown school, and even ends up in the ring during a bull fight.

This is when he has the horrible realization that he is afraid of bulls.

Over the decades, I have set foot on some intimidating stages. I have also been in some intense recording situations with people who have more knowledge and experience than me. This is how one learns, but you have to get over the fear first and jump in.

I have never been afraid of these types of situations, for a variety of reasons, which I will get into later. But I have met some people who suffer a great deal of fear when it comes to being a musician. This fear would manifest itself in a few different ways. Sometimes it can be almost impossible to detect, or it can be confused for something else.

This fear can paralyze them, which has a rippling effect on the band.

THE PRE-SHOW PANIC
This is probably the worst type of panic for a band, because you’ve made a commitment to a venue and a promoter. People are in the audience and paid to get in. The club owners have expectations. Your band’s reputation is on the line.

And then, someone in the band freaks out. “I can’t go on the stage! I just can’t!”

This happened more than a few times. On one occasion, it was the drummer who panicked. My work-around for this was to present ourselves as being “unplugged.” It did not fit what we had prepared, it did not fit the evening, and it was a semi-disaster.

On another occasion, I had to flat-out tell the promoter that we could not go on because we had a band member just not show up. I covered for him, and for us, by saying that he was “on his way to the hospital” after a car accident on the way. After that, I dismantled the band.

There was also a time when a band member tried to hide it by getting wasted before the show. He had tried to drink enough that his fear would go away. Unfortunately, he also drank enough to fall face-first onto the stage half-way through the second song in our set.

All of these people were really good on their instruments and had other things going for them. This makes it all the more tragic. New bands typically start out on small stages, so I’m not certain how to avoid this potential disaster.

My stories above may provide some work-arounds. Sometimes you have to take the hit. Depending on the situation, taking this hit can mean losing your big chance.

AVOIDING REHEARSAL
Other instances of fear had less of an impact, although they did hinder progress.

On about half a dozen occasions, I had met musicians who had gone through a lot to get where they were. They’d gotten their instruments, maybe took lessons, and became good at what they did. They eve relocated to Los Angeles in order to take their shot.

In a few of these instances, I was the person renting the lock-out facility, where the band would rehearse. Everyone would leave their gear in there, for convenience.

Then, things would get strange. They would suddenly have excuses for why they could not rehearse. The most bizarre one was a guy who said to my face, “Every second that we do not rehearse is a second that all the other bands get an edge over us.” I told him that was good to hear, and that we should go rehearse now.

“Nah. The game’s on. We’ll do it later.”

THIS IS WHERE IT GETS CONFUSING
Was he lazy? That was my first thought. He was talking a big game, but then wasn’t backing up his own words. The conflict in what he said and did was obvious.

I made plans with him to meet at the lockout the next day in the afternoon. He agreed, and I left him to his game while I went to the room and rehearsed on my own.

THEN THINGS GET WEIRD
The next day, I show up an hour early to warm up and get ready. I’m so into my own playing that I suddenly realize that our meeting time had passed, and he had not shown up.

I go to a payphone and call the house. No answer. I work for a few more hours, then call again. Someone answered, and they told me that he had decided to “go back home.” He did not explain why.

I asked what should be done with his guitar, amp, and pedals. They did not know, as he did not mention it. I kept his gear in the lockout for six months, waiting for him to get back to me, before I came to the conclusion that he had abandoned his gear. I sold it.

Music and Fear.jpg

HOW I KNEW IT WAS FEAR
He did not seem like a lazy person, as he had put a lot of time into his instrument, as well as lots of effort to relocate to Los Angeles.

HOW TO SPOT THIS FEAR
Over time, I took on a few different techniques for band member auditions that help weed out some potential issues.

Musician History: Has this person performed on a stage before? They can potentially lie about this, but it is worth asking [bonus for photos]. Also, do they have any recordings under their belt? Finally, do they have any references? References can be tricky, because nobody will give you a reference who will say bad things about you. Information can be helpful.

Two-Phase Audition: Break your auditions into two sections. For the first phase, it’s a night spent at a bar having drinks. What do they drink? How much? This helps you to learn more about them on a personal level, before they set foot in the audition room.

During the second phase, which is where they play music with the band, have a dozen or so friends show up. Make sure they understand that this is not a fun social gathering. No drinking or partying. You want them to give the audition a serious listen and be writing down notes. Let the person auditioning know that there will be notes and critiques.

This will put some real-life stage pressure on them. How they handle this, and if they can handle it, can determine whether or not a future fear-driven issue will arise.

HOW TO COPE WITH THIS FEAR
Maybe you are the person who wants to be a musician, but also has issues with fear. Adequately addressing this fear before things get serious is a good idea. It keeps you from wasting your own time, as well as the band’s time. It also makes sure that fear does not get in the way of what you would like to achieve.

Being Well-Rehearsed: This can help, although it did not help my old guitar player who ran away so fast that he abandoned his own gear. I think his case was rather extreme. This definitely helps me.

Run The Show: Having the songs down is one thing. Rehearsing the show will give you more confidence. This means EVERYTHING, including when songs will be back-to-back, when there will be breaks between songs, and even when the singer will address the crowd. Yes, he should even rehearse what he is going to say.

Running the show is a something that I took away from my experiences in marching band. When the show is second-nature, you don’t even have to think about it. That is a relief!

Get Professional Help: Do not believe that you will grow out of it, or that it will magically go away once you get to the big-time. If big enough, this issue will actually get in your way, which would be tragic. Truly crippling fear never helped anyone.

Do Away With Negative Thoughts: Thinking about all of the possible things that could go wrong will only spin you down into that dark spiral faster. Accepting the fact that both good AND bad things will happen, and that these things do not matter, can go a long way toward dealing with this.

Let Go of Perfection: Not only are you going to make mistakes, but most likely nobody will notice or remember.

Do Not Take It Too Seriously, and Be Entertaining: Being a musician on a stage should be more than just playing the music. Performance and presentation are everything. Be goofy sometimes. Practice having fun.

Invent a Persona or Character: This helps to remove the ego, which can be fragile and can drive that fear. What if people don’t like me? What if this or that? These are the thoughts that push you down into that hole.

The truth is that, no matter how good you are, there will be people who do not like you, or who do not like what you do. It’s a fact of life. When you have a persona in the mix, you can separate it from yourself.

So if some people do not like it, then they’re having an issue with your persona, and not you as a human being. Of course, the truth is that they do not really know you as a human being. This fact means nothing to a person who is entrenched in fear. Logic is not soothing.

IN THE END
Being a prepared musician, running the show, building a persona, ending negative thoughts, and having fun with it all will go a long way. You’re a musician on a stage, not a heart surgeon in a hospital struggling to save someone’s life.

When you have fun with it, the audience will join along.

OH, AND ABOUT THAT PESKY RECORD BUTTON
Recording can be scary. Just remember that you will get a chance for second takes, third takes, and beyond. Even if you give a solid performance, a second take might be required as a “safety.”

YOU get to decide when it’s ready to ship.

Sometimes mistakes get to stay because they bring a human element to the fold, or maybe because the listener may never notice.

There is a mistake in this recording. There are also a good number of mistakes on this iconic album. Try to find it. Trust yourself. Don’t worry about it.

Style, Feel, Perspective, and Music as a Language

There was a time when I had an interest in managing bands. My first attempt at this was with an all-girl punk band. They had some really powerful songs. Overall, I truly appreciated what they had to offer. Unfortunately, when I expressed this to them, things fell apart.

“You have some fantastic songs here. Your stage presence is on-point and accessible, and your style and feel is very unique.”

If I said this about your band, you might take it as a compliment. That’s because it is a compliment. However, the lead guitarist of the band did not see things that way, so she repeated back her perception of what I said in order to gain some clarity.

“So, what you’re saying is that we’re all fluff, but that we’re not good musicians?”

This was painful, so I had to respond to it.

“Hey, I’m not gonna say you’re virtuoso performers, and in all fairness, I only know a few true virtuoso players. I’m not one of them.”

I left the post-show meeting, knowing that I would not be representing them. It was the last time I ever saw them again, as a band. What happened?

Finding Your Voice

STYLE AND FEEL
Before I get into what happened, I should be clear that my compliments to them were not hollow. As musicians, we are all given a set number of notes and pitches. With these limited number of options, we have to come up with our own combination, so that we can deliver something original.

In this band, the drummer delivered some bombastic beats. Parts might sound familiar, but she had her own STYLE added to it. The lead guitarist played some melodies, with dead notes here and there, that got into the realm of 8th notes, at best. The rhythm guitarist painfully pushed out barre chords with down-strokes only. The bassist was always riding 8th notes on the root note of the chord being played.

Overall, it does not seem all that original, when you put it on paper. In fact, it sounds rather boring to me.

But they had a style, both in their presence and playing. They had a feel about their performance. They were bringing originality to their music, which was sorely in dire need of that. Their originality was what made it all work.

Their originality was what made them marketable. It was why I wanted to represent them.

WHERE DID IT GO WRONG?
Was it wrong of me to compliment the band? Maybe, because it did open the door for the lead guitarist’s insecurities to ooze out and take the wheel. I did not know them well enough to know that this was an issue.

She was not a great lead guitarist, in that she couldn’t sit in with another band, or take on a jam session. However, she was good within the context of this particular band.

I do understand this kind of insecurity. After all, I encounter musicians who are better than me on a daily basis. Whether they really are better than me is for someone else to judge. In my mind, they’re better.

just-kill-yourself-youll-never-be-as-good-as-me
The call is coming from inside the house!

That’s where the problems live: In your mind.

 

A SHIFT IN PERSPECTIVE
A person’s own perspective can be a tricky beast to tame.

From her perspective, there were other musicians out there who were better than her. While this is true for almost everyone, in my defense, I never made a comparison between her and anyone else. That would not be productive, at all.

And if I didn’t think she was doing something good, then why would I want to represent the band?

I could imagine her releasing music online, and then some 12-year-old girl who looks up to her listens to the songs over and over again, hoping that one day she can play the guitar that well. I sincerely believe that could have been the case for this particular band. My vision for this band extended beyond the band itself, into the realm of possibility.

MUSIC AS A LANGUAGE
Were my compliments to her about spoken language, I would have complimented her cadence and ability to engage an audience. I might have even said that I like her accent.

And were her reaction to me be about spoken language, she would have gotten upset about how I was hinting at the idea that the words she used were not elegant or big enough.

When you put it into this context, the reaction seems rather ridiculous. That’s because it is ridiculous. And in all fairness, I’ve had that reaction at times, when I was a younger and less experienced player.

Your vocabulary might seem impressive to some, and might seem limited to others. Again, it’s perspective. Most people do not use most words. With very few odd exceptions, the list of words that people use is way smaller than the list of words that are available to be used.

In fact, if you speak English, then I have 20 words here, and I am certain that most of you have never, ever used them.

  • genipap
  • futhorc
  • witenagemot
  • gossypol
  • chaulmoogra
  • brummagem
  • alsike
  • chersonese
  • cacomistle
  • yogh
  • smaragd
  • duvetyn
  • pyknic
  • fylfot
  • yataghan
  • dasyure
  • simoom
  • stibnite
  • kalian
  • didapper

Now, for some serious follow-up questions.

Are you a poor speaker because you do not use these words? Of course not.

Are you stupid because you did not know these words? Absolutely not.

Are you a less talented person? Do you have less to offer? Are you a failure?

The list goes on, and the answer is always “no.”

When you treat music like a language, you can relax as you keep speaking, keep listening, and keep learning.

A person who judges you, or who makes fun of you, would do this anyway for something else. They’re not worthy of your presence, and you should get away from them as quickly as possible. I used to tolerate people talking smack about me, how I play, or the music I like, but not anymore. Improved self-respect took care of that problem.

Music is not a competition, although it can clearly be a mind game. Bringing an end to comparisons is important. So long as you are playing, practicing, learning, and growing as a musician, you can have confidence that you do not deserve harsh judgment.

Judgment should be reserved for the audition room, and that’s the only time where judgment is necessary. Even if you’re a good-enough musician, you might not be a fit for other reasons. Getting the right people in the band takes judgment.

Outside of that scenario, you are a musician. You’re valid. If you make the audition, then you’re in the band. If you don’t, then you’re still the same musician you were when you walked into the room. No big deal.

IN THE END
When you treat music as a language, you will have the freedom to speak, to listen, to learn, and improve. You can use the new words that you learn in your own sentences, with your own context, your own inflection, and your own personal accent.

This is how you find your voice.

Do not let your own personal insecurities shut down your voice. Speak up, and be heard!