Someone has to say it.
I see it way too much – up close and at a distance – the incompatible combination of wanting to do something… AND NOT ACTUALLY PURSUING IT.
Forgive me for ranting. This isn’t usually my style, and before I wander into too much lecturing, I’ll gladly concede that everyone is different. We don’t all have the same goals, energy levels, patience, and so on…
But with that said, if you really want to improve as a musician, if you want to play gigs, if you just want to have faster single strokes – you have to work for it.
Now, there’s no benchmark for “success” that applies to everyone. Maybe you can’t (or don’t want to) dedicate massive amounts of time to the practice room or hustle for gigs every day – but if you want even a fraction of whatever success means to you, it absolutely requires effort.
There is no getting around it.
If you don’t care, or are perfectly content with your playing, your musical career (whatever that may be), etc., this isn’t for you.
If, however, you want to see how deep the rabbit hole goes (like I do), you have to break out your metaphorical shovel and get to digging.
First, let me be clear: I’m not trying to be a jerk – I’m trying to light a fire.
Nobody’s perfect, and trust me, there are plenty of things in my own life that I could be more diligent about, that I talk about but don’t commit the necessary effort to. This is a message to myself as much as anyone else…
But if I’m gonna be a dick about it, this is particularly for the people that are all talk and no walk. There’s a big gap between ideas and ambition, and action is the bridge across the chasm.
Just Start, and Keep Going
Every single thing people get good at starts somewhere. You can’t learn an instrument if you don’t slog through the early stages of being a beginner… And you can’t get significantly better if you don’t actually take the time to pratice – which is quite different than buying books, watching videos, and talking about practicing.
People complain about not getting gigs or not having people to play with… But those are solveable problems. Start asking everyone about booking, send emails by the boatload, go to places where there’s live music and drop off CDs. Similarly, go to jams and open mics – even if they are in other cities…
Stephen Taylor‘s got some great things to say on this very topic (and no, I did’t rip off the title on purpose):
If groups aren’t working out or the music isn’t quite happening, KEEP TRYING.
All of this comes back to action. You don’t have to be perfect, but you do have to be working. No one’s going to hand it to you – that’s just not how life works, especially in the world of music.
…And you can extrapolate this idea out to anything you want, from running the business side of a band to navigating social media, from learning to balance your schedule to finding the right job that allows you to pursue music and still make ends meet. We have choices, even when the options are slim.
There’s no excuse here. If you want to make it happen… YOU HAVE TO MAKE IT HAPPEN.
It all seems daunting until you’re doing it. Your first gig is terrifying… Your 500th? Less so. The same goes for phone calls, booking emails, “networking,” and on and on. Give it a shot and learn while doing.
Baby steps are still steps.
Okay, I’ll stop yelling at you for a minute. How can people harness this sense of action?
For me, it started with studying some “experts.” In On Writing, Stephen King talks about his routine writing habit – day in, day out – that has kept his momentum going for decades. Tim Ferriss also talks about this consistency: the muse shows up when you do.
Further, you can look to motivational speakers, psychologists, pro athletes, entrepreneurs, and on and on and on… They all say the same thing: you gotta work for it, you gotta put in the time and energy to yield results. I highly recommend Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art for more on taking action and overcoming resistance.
Maybe you’ve heard the anecdote about the mighty Steve Smith, barely a day back from a massive world tour, one of the greatest players of all time… Someone called his house to see how the tour had gone, but he couldn’t take the call because he was in the basement practicing… If that doesn’t say something about the work ethic of high achievers, I don’t know what does!
You can also look within yourself… The big WHY question that takes constant asking and reevaluating. Why do you want play? Why do you want to gig? Why do you want to get better? Why do you want to be healthier? Why do you want to learn another instrument? Why do you want to cultivate deeper relationships?
It can be any ol’ question, but with the right “why,” the “how” gets a whole lot easier to see – or rather, the “why” reminds you to pay the price of “how” (does that make sense?).
Mel Robbins will tell you that “motivation is garbage.” Others will speak on the importance of inspiration, balance, and goal setting. I agree with all of them.
One of the greatest “motivators” for me is momentum, which is in itself a concept that requires action to build. Once you start seeing the fruits of your labor, the labor doesn’t seem so bad… But that’s a bit cart-before-the-horse.
It’s about decisions, really, and the way those decisions stack upon one another. Would your rather practice for 20 minutes or spend that time scrolling through Instagram? Which sets up your future self for being closer to your goals (however loosely you may define them)? With tomorrow’s hindsight, which option will you wish you had done? What about next year?
If you want, you can treat every moment in this way. You don’t always have to pursue productivity, or break your back working around the clock, or completely abandon leisure the sake of your craft or career… But at the very least, ask the question.
It’s up to you – the point is to see the direct, inseparable relationship between desire and action.
I’m not going to make you any promises.
Hell, there are TONS of things I struggle with all the time. I’m not anywhere close to where I want to be as a player, with the kinds of gigs I play, with my practice habits…
But I’m trying, and I’m getting closer one millimeter at a time.
Some days I fail. Some days I make decisions that actively work against the things I tell myself I want to (and should) be doing. You’ll do the same, but that’s part of the work. It’s not just the skills we develop, it’s the skill of skill-building (how meta).
And even if you work like crazy, pour your blood and sweat and time into your craft, chase down every opportunity and employ every tactic from every guru…
There’s still no guaranteed “success” – or even a singular definition of what that means… Nor should there be. It’s cliché, sure, but it’s about “the journey” and what you discover along the way.
You might not get exactly where you intended, but you’ll surely get somewhere – and to me, that’s a lot better than sitting on your ass going nowhere at all.