Music & Mental Health
For most of my life as a musician, I have experienced a profound dissatisfaction with my ability to perform, improvise, and compose. I still distinctly remember a jazz band concert in the first semester of my freshman year of college. I played a solo that I was not happy with, and I spent days tearing it apart and feeling bad about myself because of 45 seconds that did not live up to my performance standard for myself. While recognizing that one’s competence as a musician needs to improve can be a good incentive for practice, I do not think that guilt-driven practice is good for the musician’s mental health or ultimately for the music that is created. Music should be motivated by a love of beauty and creation, not by fear. The following are some thoughts I have been considering on this theme.
Your value and identity are not dependent on your performance
A key factor that was generating my overall dissatisfaction with myself after the jazz concert was that I associated much of my value with my performance as a guitarist and my identity in being a musician. When my performance did not live up to my expectation, a core part of my identity was shattered. This makes for a musical life that is fundamentally unfulfilling because actual performance can never live up to the ideal. Breaking free from this mindset is in my view the key to actually getting closer to the ideal. Once your identity is anchored in your intrinsic value as a human being as an end in itself, the actual music can be the focus.
Keep things in perspective
“Most insecurity comes from having an outsized view of your importance in the universe, so I try and keep things in perspective as much as possible. When you get upset with your playing it’s usually because you think you’re better than you really are, and that’s just a sign you need to work on your ego.” — Andy Brown
This quote from the great Andy Brown does not need much elucidation. When you think you are the most amazing player in the world and you don’t live up to that standard, disappointment must follow. There will always be something to critique, so it is important to try and relate authentically to the music, focus on continuous improvement, and not have an “outsized view of your importance”.
Although this may seem counterintuitive to the main thesis of this article, there is an important aspect of practice in that the objective self-critique of one’s playing is necessary for improvement. Humans are notoriously good at overestimating their own abilities and musicians are just as susceptible to falling prey to self-deceptive cognitive biases such as illusory superiority and the Dunning-Kruger effect. It is impossible to improve as a musician or as a person if one has an artificially high perception of one’s own skills.
Once a musician’s identity and value are separated from their performance and the ego is restrained, it should be easier to be objective and make steps towards real improvement. A beneficial step to take toward real progress is asking a trusted and expert musician to provide an honest assessment of your abilities and help guide you toward the best thing to practice.
Remember the goal of music
“It is your responsibility to work hard until you are confident playing music that touches others' hearts the way it has touched yours.” — Ted Greene.
Music at its core is not about impressing others with your technical skill but rather trying to create something beautiful to connect with others. If this is your goal then a healthy relationship with yourself as a performer and a musician will follow, and your music will improve as a result.