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Stuck in the Middle with You…

Hello Troubadourians! Do you ever feel stuck in the same place with your playing? Have you ever been to a performance by a famous – or even not so famous – musician and leave the concert thinking, “I’ll never be that good. I should just quit playing.”? I know you have because all of us have been there at one time or another. The most common thing for any musician is to get tired of, bored with, sick of, their playing. This is something we all share, even with those amazing players that make us feel like giving up. Familiarity breeds contempt and nobody has the capacity to harbor more contempt toward something than a musician can toward their own playing. This can either be a toxic situation that leads to myriad bad decisions or it can be a challenge to improve and grow. Let’s take a look at both.

The most common cause of feeling bored with our playing is not pushing the boundaries of our abilities and knowledge. Pretty much everyone who has attained a comfortable facility with an instrument can play pretty much everything within the constraints of what we like. And we like it because we can play it. This is circular logic at its finest. From this vantage point in the very middle of our circle, we can see the gamut of emotions and prejudices we have towards all things musical. We hear the virtuoso and feel depressed because we’ll never be that good. We feel cheated because we weren’t born with that talent. We feel embarrassed because after all these years of playing we should be that good. We feel undeserving of our instruments because it’s obvious that we aren’t worthy. The list of negative emotions and the justifications for our feelings is practically endless. And these are only the things that we use to flagellate ourselves. We save the really strong emotions and condemnations for our bandmates, fellow musicians, and, of course, those virtuosos who cause us such emotional turmoil.

We often have some amount of a Love/Hate relationship with our favorite artists. Even those whose music we play regularly and have some facility with, there will always be some aspect of their playing or their music that eludes us. Rather than cause us frustration, we should embrace and celebrate that subtle nuance that we find so elusive as the part of their playing that is uniquely theirs, and seek the similar counterpart in our own playing that defines us. It’s there, believe me, but we’re not trained to hear that in our playing. We’re only trained to be critical. Think about that for a while. If you take nothing else from this essay, take this; you are most often trained to find what is wrong with something rather than what is right – or unique. While this type of analysis is required when striving for excellence, we also need to know when to turn it off and just let it be what it is. M. Scott Peck called it, “disciplining the discipline.”

So we’ve made some emotional strides and we’re somewhat OK with our own “stuff.” What about how we deal with our bandmates? Who among you has said, “If I were playing with better players I’d play better too.”? Guilty. True, we often rise – or fall – to the situation; playing “over our head” when with good players and wallowing in mediocrity when playing with not so good players, but the fault is generally not theirs alone. One really good player who is confident and strong in their musicianship can make the entire ensemble sound better. Why not be that player? If you can consistently raise the level of the music through your playing and inspire others to raise it too, then the word will get out and other good players will gravitate to you and you to them.

Raise your hand is you’ve ever said this, “They’re not that good, it’s all hype.” When we are surrounded and confronted by over-hyped artists on a daily basis it becomes almost necessary to be suspicious and dismissive. After all, nobody can be that good. Maybe, but where there is smoke, there is usually fire, even when the fire is obscured by mirrors. Not every Pop Star is a product of their own choosing. Were you to have the opportunity to get to know that famous “personality” that both amazes and reviles you I’ll bet that at their very core is the same love of music that you possess. They’re just driven harder to express it. The modern media machine can easily sell hype over talent. When talent is overshadowed by an artificial persona, no one suffers more than the artist themselves. And the deeper the talent that an artist possesses, the harder it is for them to live up to that hype. Often with tragic results; R.I.P. Amy Winehouse.

Finally, let’s take another look at the carousel of logic that we all ride on at one time or another. Some of us spend our entire lives going around and around, justifying every rotation with the next one – or the previous one. Everyone has said, “I don’t play that music because I don’t like it / I don’t like it because it’s too hard / it’s too hard because I don’t understand it / I don’t understand it because I never studied it / I never studied it because it’s too hard / It’s too hard so I don’t like it / I don’t like it so I don’t play it.” While that argument made sense at the time, when you see it written down in black and white, it makes it harder to justify. At least it does for me. My intent is to encourage every musician that reads this column to step away from their comfort zone, away from their prejudice and jaded viewpoint, away from the circular logic that has surrounded their thoughts and emotions, and take the risk of looking deeply into their music and find there what is truly, uniquely theirs and build upon that foundation. Be fearless in pursuing the best of everything you hear and play, and spend more time studying, working, and practicing. Put in your best efforts and be realistic in evaluating your progress and growth. Use your favorites as examples of what you can be not what you can never achieve and enjoy your own music as much as you enjoy theirs. I know that that is what they would want you to do.

Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (

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