“I’ll see how much I get into it this week.” “If I really get into it, I’ll do good.” “He just wasn't into it. The exercises aren’t fun for him.” These are sentiments I hear frequently from people trying to learn to play music, or trying to learn anything at all. I find the notion that you need to wait until you are “into it” to begin something very damaging to personal progress.
Waiting until you are “into it” to do something is a bit like sitting by a body of water, and saying you will go swimming once you get into it, but not moving at all. You may have every desire in the world to become a great swimmer, but it will not happen until you get into the water. There is a certain glamour surrounding the world of music, or any sort of greatness at all. Many perceive a sort of magic, and resign themselves to the idea that greatness cannot occur without a burning desire every second, or constant inspiration and strokes of genius. The nitty gritty of becoming great has become hidden and ignored.
The truth is that you just have to start whether you feel like it or not. This is not to say that passion and desire do not need to be part of the equation. You have to want it. You have to want to become better, and you have to love what you do, but that does not mean that you have to actively love every bit of what it takes to get there.
Every worthwhile pursuit in life bears some tedium. You may love to read, but did you love every second of reciting your alphabet or reading Fun with Dick and Jane? You may love to play sports, but did you love every second of running or suicide drills that you endured? You may love being strong, but did you love every hour spent lifting weights when your body wasn’t yet conditioned?
Last night I spent two hours playing different scales at 60 BPM because I have trouble keeping time at slower speeds. The night before that I played a song for hours that I’ve been working on for a wedding. Was I “into it?” Not really. It was necessary, however, to help me reach certain goals. I may not have been deeply passionate about what I was doing at the moment, but I was deeply passionate about the bigger goal. I was passionate about getting better, and playing well. Therefore, I persisted.
The grit work involved in honing your craft is often boring and uninspiring. I don’t want to insinuate that music isn’t fun. It is! It is exciting, and inspiring, and my greatest joy in life. I push through these more tedious and uninspiring activities so that when inspiration does strike, I have the skills I need to meet that inspiration. Nothing is more frustrating than being inspired, but lacking the skills that you need to do the things that you are inspired to do. That is why we push through the exercises and the uninspiring songs.
As Woody Allen famously said, “80% of success is just showing up.” That means simply starting, whether you feel like it or not. That means playing the exercises, whether you feel like it or not. That means going to the lesson, whether you feel like it or not. That means sitting down at the piano daily for a period of time and just playing, whether you feel like it or not. If you simply start, you might find that you do “get into it!”
When I first started piano, like most children I often had to be made to practice. Years later I am so grateful that I was made to stick with it, even when I didn’t quite feel like it. Every evening, after I have finished my piano related responsibilities, I try to remember to sit down at the piano and just play something for myself, and the world melts away. I am grateful that I took the time and effort required to develop the skills I need to play like that. The time I spent practicing even when I wasn’t “into it” has given me the tools I need to play beautiful things - things I am “into.”
So, the best advice that I can give to a beginning musician is to just start, no matter how you feel. It is not glamorous advice, or inspiring advice. It is not fun advice. It is, however, very practical and honest advice. Inspiration is useless if you do not have the skills you need to utilize that inspiration. Passion is useless if you only answer to it when it is brimming at the surface of your heart. Talent is clumsy if it belongs to hands that lack the skill to answer its demands. We practice not necessarily because it is always fun or exciting, but so that when inspiration strikes or opportunity arises we have the skills we need to rise to the occasion.