Practicing music is not always that fun. The silent room, the empty page, suddenly all the notes fall flat, the staccato feels staggered. When I was in High school, or even in University, I played for several hours a day, every single day. Now that time is an expensive commodity, and I’m still trying to dedicate a couple of hours a week to play music, I grow a lot more methodical about my playing, and quickly recognize when it feels mentally taxing.
Just like any other creative pursuit, inspiration is a myth: it can’t sustain itself. To overcome the musician’s block (similar to writer’s block, since I believe musician is a type of writer), here are a few things you can apply:
- Create first, edit later
When I write/play, I focus on the creating process, and shy away from self-editing. With computer-based music making, we are more prone to endless self-criticizing. When I encourage reiteration, I’m clear that I’m not spending time scrutinizing my work before I have something to scrutinize.
- Document your progress
Most often we underestimate how far we’ve come, until we look back at the journey. Keep a log book of your progress, record your songs. In the down time, you can re-use those materials for learning purpose. Yes, you’re eventually sick of listening to your own music, but when you don’t have mental space to create something new, listening to your previous pieces help you recognize your playing pattern, so you can correct the mistakes.
Read more on Deliberate practice.
- Reimagine the same song
Can you twist a song to reflect your current mood? Can you transform a funky song to a lullaby, or a cathedral choir? Transpose it, add some chords here and there, use the circle of fifth to expand its chords. Add more/less pause, play some inversions, speed it up, slow it down, try other new techniques. Listen carefully (Link to How to practice active listening).
Practicing doesn’t have to be a lonely process. Call up your bandmates, or join some virtual jamming sessions. Collect new ideas, learn from a different voice. The energy of a group jamming together is contagious. Group members can also challenge your creativity.
Don’t leave your TV on, don’t chitchat with your friends on Messenger during the practice. If you feel a bit unsettled, shorten your practice, but stay fully engaged. The Parkinson’s law has it that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. Don’t just mindlessly sit down for 2hrs, uninspired and not accomplish much.
- Live life (outside of music)
Travel somewhere you haven’t been. Take a walk to a local store you’ve been mindlessly passing by. Take a detour when you come back from work (but please be safe!). Join a class. Learn a language. Go surfing, etc. In many cases, I found that new experience is a way to dial back to your emotions, which help music flows. The experience doesn’t have to be tremendous, it just needs to be different enough from your usual daily setting.
- Take a break
Take your mind off the piece you’re working on. Take a shower. Take a nap. Cook dinner. Exercise. Pick up a book. Accept that musician’s block is a passing phase. And it’s totally okay to make peace with it. You just need to be productive enough on an average week, not to dwell on a bad music day. With Evernote and audio recording on your phone, it’s easy to capture a sudden inspiration when it strikes you in the middle of something totally non-music related.
There are various ways you can interact with music (with or without having a goal in mind) that musician’s block isn’t that difficult to get over. However, I’m not a full time musician, so if you are one and have other opinion, I’d love to hear from you. How long did your musician’s block last? How did you fight it?
Photo by Dayne Topkin on Unsplash