GRIT: The Musician’s Most Important Trait

A while back, I listened an audiobook called Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverence by Angela Duckworth, a psychologist, researcher, CEO, philanthropist… The list goes on.

Not only is she shining example of “grit” herself, she’s also been studying the subject for a significant chunk of her professional career.

The topic itself is fascinating, but the whole time I was listening, as she made mention of students, military folks, classical musicians… I couldn’t stop thinking about what an integral part of ANY kind of creative pursuit this murky subject is.

Especially musicmaking…

“Grit is the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals. Self-control is the voluntary regulation of behavioral, emotional, and attentional impulses in the presence of momentarily gratifying temptations or diversions.”

Now, some of Duckworth’s work has been criticized (whose hasn’t?), but I’m not in the business of critiquing psychological research.

Instead, the concept is what’s important to me. How do we musicmakers stay the course in the face of setbacks? How can we dedicate ourselves to the long game without getting burned out? How can we cultivate grit?

The Long Game

I love the expression “overnight success takes a decade.”

The creatives we admire most, many of whom appear to explode onto the scene, have almost always been at it a long time. Outside of our line of sight, those success stories have been grinding it out to get where they are. Lizzo is a perfect example of this – just check out her Wiki.

But this applies to way more than breakout stars. All of the best musicians you know have been putting in work. Whether it’s in the practice room, networking, taking on gigs that were outside of their comfort zone, learning about the industry, experimenting… Time spent in service of the craft is essential, especially when it’s tough.

Every gig is important, every rehearsal is important, every bit of time we spend developing skill and studying adds up – and thinking about it in that way keeps me gritty.

…And if things aren’t going particularly well, the only way to get to greener pastures is to keep on going. This art thing is a long game, with plenty of ups and downs along the way. It’s not just about creating when you’re inspired, it’s also about perservering when you aren’t.

Practice Works

This is a point I belabor – and with good reason.

If you work at something, you get better at it. If you work at things you’re not good at, fighting through frustration and doubt and disappointment, you also build resilience. Growth comes with discomfort, and building your resilience allows you to keep on growing.

Practice is also about consistency, which means sacrificing the other ways you could spend your time in service of your craft. This too is a gritty proposition. It’s not easy to tell your friends you’re staying in, to build an agreement with your significant other about locking yourself in the garage for an hour a day… It’s not easy to break out the metronome and do the monotonous work that moves you, inch by inch, toward your true potential…

But again, it WORKS.

I have seen firsthand the fruits of my labor, and I’m not even that disciplined about it. By simply reminding myself, day in and day out, that dedicating time and energy to drummy things will inch me toward my goals, I find the strength to get some practice in – even when my “present” mind doesn’t really want to.

…And by doing so, I’ve come a long way in a few years. Everyone else can do the same, but it’s going to take some grit.

As I’ve discovered, though, those bits of success are invigorating. It’s tough to find the grit at the beginning, but once you get moving, it develops right alongside whatever you’re working on. Watching yourself grow functions as motivation to keep going.

They Can’t All Be Bangers

Sometimes shows suck. Sometimes your computer crashes and you lose recordings. Gear can fail, you can have off nights, you can play to dead rooms or unresponsive crowds. You can have vehicle trouble and bad weather and shady promoters and illnesses and all of that stuff…

There are factors that can take this thing we love to do and, well, make it shitty.

Don’t let it stop you (the gritty sure don’t). We have a saying in our crew: “they can’t all be bangers.

Right now, more than half a year into pandemic-driven, gigless uncertainty, this couldn’t be more true. This whole YEAR has been a blow to forward momentum, particularly as it relates to performance, for musicians of every kind. This is an exceptional test of grit – not just a rough day or a bad gig, but a mountain obstacles to climb.

It’s not going to be easy, and it hasn’t been for a while now… But when you think about the long game, the crawling, step by step by step journey from a bird’s eye view, the only option is to lean into your grit and try to make the most of it.

No performances means more time for songwriting. Furloughed, laid off, or working remotely means sneaking in a few more minutes of practice each day. The trend toward livestreaming is a reason to get your technology and related skills in order.

Existential dread in the face of global crisis? That one’s a little tougher to crack, but I promise that investing in your personal development will make you feel a little better about it.

 

These are gritty times, friends, and just like everything else, grit develops with use. Let me know what I can do to help you keep pushing forward.

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