The Importance of Challenging Yourself Musically

As artists, we are continually looking for ways to improve. One of the best ways I have found to constantly push my abilities is to choose material that I know is way over my head. Songs that I know I may never fully perfect or come close to perfection are my starting point. This is when I see the biggest growth in my studies.

Of course this also comes with a heaping plate of humble pie. As you may already know, you will sound pretty awful in the beginning. Maybe indefinitely. You have to ask yourself how willing you are to let go of the material you know well and or know you can play easily. Instead, step into the realms of what the Japanese call “Sho Shin” or beginner mind.

I think this is one of the reasons some adults have such a difficult time sticking with learning an instrument. They either think (A.) it will be simple or (B.) they can't stand to see themselves not excelling at something right away.

Let's face it, most adults have reached some level of success in their personal and professional lives and it's a hard pill to swallow looking and sounding like a rank beginner.

For those of us who have been in music our entire lives, we know full well the unique struggles that come with taking on a new endeavor. We can usually stick with something through those rough patches and put off instant gratification. There is the deep awareness that down the road will come big rewards.

Now that most of us have moved beyond those beginning stages and have reached some level of proficiency at our chosen instrument, we need to be able to take a hard look at where we are and what is next for our continued growth.

This is often when an instructor can come into play. They can assess our current level of skill and help us to develop and push our current playing to the next level.

When I get to these phases in my playing where I know I'm going to have to start sounding pretty rough around the edges, I try to pick material that motivates me. I choose songs that I have always loved and aspired to play, ones I never thought possible. Other times it might be taking songs that are written for other instruments and arranging them for my chosen instrument. This can bring up new and challenging chords, melodic lines and harmonies that maybe you hadn't discovered before.

Another method I use when I think my playing is starting to feel stagnant is to start choosing material for a “set list.” Even if I never intend on performing the songs and or playing them for anyone, I treat them as if I were. Just the act of choosing challenging material and working on 10-12 new songs as if you need to have them ready for a public performance pushes you harder.

Always remember to practice your material using a metronome. This is especially important for those of us who might not ever play our material with other musicians. We can tend to slow down and or speed up in certain sections depending on our level of comfort with the material. With a metronome you are forced to get the entire piece equally consistent.

I hope some of these ideas help you with your own growth as a musician. Always remember there is so much to learn and part of the joy, excitement and frustration is knowing that the road is never ending.

Until Next Time.... Keep Playing Music.

-Lisa Leitl - MU Columnist
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