When Will I Get Good?

When Will I Get Good?

“When will I get good?”

This is the question I dislike the most as a teacher, and yet all of us have asked it at one point or another. I’ve even had several students tell me that if they couldn’t “get good” soon, they would quit. And I get it: I often catch myself pulling away from things when I’m not good at them or getting frustrated when they don’t come naturally to me. But—this is what I tell myself and what I hope you’ll tell yourself too—getting good is not the real goal here.

Don’t misunderstand me: I believe you can be a great musician. I’m not expressing any doubt in your ability when I tell you that “succeeding” or “winning” are not the goals. But when I read about and talk to conventionally successful musicians, their goals are never some arbitrary measure of what they believe is “good.” Their goals are specific, measurable, and achievable. Here are some questions you can ask yourself to create goals like theirs (adapted from this article). Grab a pen and paper, write these down, and refer to them often.

What do I want out of my musical life? Some answers might include: joy, connection, new challenges, performance opportunities, to be creative, to play with my kids, to learn songs I love, to learn something new every day, steady improvement…

Have I succeeded? What would success look like? Hint: this answer will probably look really similar to your first answer. If what comes to mind is instead something like “winning a fiddle contest,” consider what feeling you think you’ll get from that. Pride in yourself? Support from your loved ones? Connection? Joy? That feeling is probably what you’re actually looking for—not the trophy.

What’s currently missing from that picture of success? Do you need more musical connections? Do you feel frustrated instead of joyful when you play? Are you unsure how to progress? Get to the root of what you feel is lacking in your musical life.

What are some possible paths to create that missing piece of the puzzle? Hint: if your answer is something hard on yourself, like “practice more,” dig a little deeper. If you feel like you need more practice time, you probably need to develop a better practice routine. And to do that, you might want to use tools like keeping a practice journal, scheduling time for your daily practice, and creating an inviting practice space. These goals are specific, measurable, and achievable. They help you make changes instead of being hard on yourself about your current routine.

What would be the first logical step along that path? You don’t need to know every step. Just the first one is enough. If you don’t know what the first step is, ask a teacher, a friend, or Google.

Which of those steps along the path interest me? Which scare me? Which steps are most important, and which can wait until later? Knowing the answers to these questions can help you give each step the attention it needs, even when it’s less interesting or more challenging for you.

What am I good at, and what will I need help with? Celebrate your strengths when you encounter them and seek support when you need it. Both are crucial.

How will I know when I’ve reached my goal? This question is important because it lets you know if you’re actually setting goals you can achieve or if you’re always moving the goalpost. You should be able to clearly define when you achieve a goal.

How do I want to feel AFTER I achieve this goal? Many people don’t allow themselves to celebrate when they reach a goal, but it’s one of the best parts of this process. Dance! Hoot and holler! Tell a friend! Tell us!

When will I be prepared to approach the next goal? As much as we’re trained to strive constantly, it’s okay to take a little time between goals to maintain your skills and give yourself a break.

These are a few questions to help you find what you actually value in your musical life (and I bet it’s not “getting good.”) The next time you’re feeling frustrated, reread your answers and get a fresh start instead.


American Fiddling’s Celtic Roots

American Fiddling’s Celtic Roots

In honor of St Paddy’s Day, we want to give a nod to the Irish origins of the music we love so much. Texas-style fiddle has origins around the world and owes its heritage to immigrants and enslaved people who each contributed their own rich history to the nascent American musical tradition. According to ethnomusicologist Simon J. Bronner, “Old-time music combined Anglo-Celtic fiddle tunes, square dance numbers, play-party tunes, Victorian parlor songs, native American and British ballads, sacred songs, and minstrel songs.” 

Many of today’s favorite fiddle tunes originally came from the other side of the Atlantic, namely Britain, Ireland, and Scotland. The tunes traveled to America with immigrants that came from Europe to Appalachia during the early- to mid-18th century. Bronner describes the characteristic tunes that traveled over from England, Scotland, and Ireland as “generally short, [with] clear melody and… well known by many people.” Today, when we listen to reels, hornpipes, schottisches, and other tunes of Celtic descent, these traits still shine through.

During the era of western expansion, fiddle was the primary instrument. Brought over from Europe but also similar to some African instruments, it was cheap, portable, and familiar to people from many different cultures. Thanks to the popularity of the fiddle on the frontier, the tunes that traveled over from Europe spread quickly across the land and became an integral part of budding American culture. As the settlers moved across the west and encountered other immigrant cultures, their tunes and techniques began to combine as well. Tunes morphed and adopted new lyrics, titles, and stylistic features. Regional styles developed and often spoke to the heritage of the people who played them. 

Even as tunes mixed and morphed, Celtic music remained a cornerstone of American fiddling. One of its notable contributions to American styles is the presence of the drone, a continuous note that is often played on fiddle or bagpipes in Celtic music. The reels and hornpipes characteristic to Celtic fiddling were also perfect for square dances, a favorite pastime that brought people together for sometimes days at a time to make merry. These tunes and techniques have so much staying power that they’re still at the center of fiddling today.

Today, in honor of Saint Patrick’s Day and Texas fiddling’s Irish influences, enjoy reading about the Celtic origins of a few of our favorite Fiddle School tunes.

The Girl I Left Behind Me

From the Traditional Tune Archive: “There are conflicting assertions about both the provenance and antiquity of ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me,’ a popular traditional melody claimed vociferously by both the English and Irish. It does appear to date to the 18th century, but that general date is almost all that can be said for certainty at this time. Irish claims revolve around the melody’s appearance under the title ‘The S(p)ailpin Fanach’ (or ‘The Rambling Laborer’), words and music printed in Dublin in 1791, although Bunting (1840) asserts it was known much earlier. Bunting himself collected the tune from an elderly Irish harper, Arthur O’Neill, in the year 1800.”

Bonaparte’s Retreat

From the blog The Dixie Flatline: “The origins of the tune known as Bonaparte’s Retreat are somewhat hazy, which is often the way with traditional folk, country and blues songs. One theory is that it originates from an old Irish tune named The Eagle’s Whistle. Another places it with a Scottish piper who served at Waterloo, presumably celebrating the eponymous defeat, while yet another places it, played at a slower tempo, with Irish musicians bemoaning the same event. (It’s not that they would be particularly pro-Napoleon so much as anti-English.) There’s a tune named The Dunmore Lasses and another entitled The Bonny Bunch Of Roses, both of which may stem from various evolutions of the song; or which may be merely similar—nobody really knows, although the origin is almost definitely Celtic. By the time of the American civil war, however, forty-five years after Waterloo, the tune—or at least a tune—going by the title Bonaparte’s Retreat is noted as having been played on both sides of the Atlantic.”

The Wind that Shakes the Barley

From the Traditional Tune Archive: “The Irish musicologist Father Henebry considered this tune originally Scottish (as did Breathnach), but Bayard (1981) finds almost no Scottish traditional forms; he found numerous versions in Irish and Irish American currency. Emmerson (1971), however, states the tune is ‘substantially a set of the ‘Fairy Dance,’’ which is definitely Scottish and whose full title is ‘Largo’s Fairy Dance,’ composed by Nathaniel Gow.

‘The Wind that Shakes the Barley’ was cited as having commonly been played for… country dances in the 1930’s (Lettie Osborn, New York Folklore Quarterly). ‘The (Provance) version…contains a feature common enough in old country reels, but seldom encountered in American variants: namely, the ‘circular’ construction, which provides for the tune’s going on indefinitely without coming to a complete cadence. F.P. Provance stated that he learned this set ‘among the Dutch’ in eastern Fayette and western Somerset Counties an interesting evidence of how the German settlers have adopted the tradition of the Irish whom they encountered on their arrival in Pennyslvania’ (Bayard, 1944). It was recorded on 78 RPM disc by Beaver Island, Michigan, fiddler Patrick Bonner, who had several Irish-style tunes in his repertoire. Beaver Island was settled by a number of immigrants from Arranmore island, off the coast of Donegal, and the Donegal fiddling tradition can be heard in Bonner’s playing (he was the youngest son of immigrants from Arranmore).”

This barely scratches the surface of Irish and Scottish influence on American fiddling today. As a fiddler, you’re now a part of this centuries-long history. We encourage you to keep reading and learning about your favorite tunes and their origins.

Returning to Your Instrument as an Adult: Facing the Fears

Returning to Your Instrument as an Adult: Facing the Fears

“What if I’m worse than when I was a kid?”
“People will judge me!”
“What’s the point of starting again if I can’t get good?”

If you played an instrument in school as a child and then life got in the way of things, you may be coming back to music after years away. If you put your instrument in the closet while you raised your kids and you’re just returning to it now, it’s normal to feel fear and uncertainty about it. Your brain’s trying to protect you from embarrassment and failure, and blasting you with anxious thoughts is the best way it knows how.

First, I want to acknowledge those feelings and tell you that they’re completely valid. It’s natural for us to feel resistance to doing things that seem hard or that pose the potential for failure. But if you’re picking up your instrument again after a long break, I also want you to know that as soon as you pick up that instrument, there is absolutely no potential for failure.

Whatever you do will be wonderful, whether you learn a few songs to play for your kids or you practice for hours a day and really advance your skills. There’s no winning in music, except for the victory of telling your fears to bug off and taking the step to do this thing that you want to do. The only potential failure is the failure to start.

Coming back to the instrument after a long break can often be even more intimidating than picking one up for the first time because you may want to compare your progress now to your progress when you first played. This, as I’m sure you know, does not feel good and is not helpful. But how can you avoid that comparison game, along with all the other mental traps that may try to discourage you from just doing your thing?

After many years of meeting folks like you who’ve left their musical path and come back later in life, we’ve noticed some common hurdles and how these incredible folks overcame them. Here are five of the most common mental blocks and how you can respond to them as a returning player.

1. What if I’ve lost everything I learned as a kid?

I’ll be honest: it’s possible and probable that you’ve lost quite a bit of ground since you last played your instrument. It would be weird if you hadn’t—it’s totally normal. But is this a good reason not to pick up playing again? No!

In fact, even though you’ve probably lost some of your ease with the instrument, I also guarantee that you’ve got muscle memory that’s stuck with you throughout the years. The hours of practice you put in as a kid haven’t totally abandoned you, and you’ll be surprised how much you remember when you pick up playing again. No, you probably won’t be able to bust out a flawless concerto on your first try, but that’s not the expectation or the goal. Cut yourself some slack.

2. I wasn’t good as a kid; why should I try as an adult?

You’ll notice as you read on that many of these mental blocks are concerned with “being good.” But why is that the goal here? Instead of focusing solely on technical capability, you should also consider all the other possible benefits that could come from playing music. You can maintain your brain plasticity, express your creativity, learn something new every day, meet new people, discover more about yourself, do something that scares you… The list goes on. Being “good,” whatever that means, is by far the most important part of playing an instrument. Think bigger.

3. I don’t learn as quickly as when I was a kid.

Learning things is a different experience in childhood versus adulthood. Things take longer, we understand things by different means, and sometimes things that seem like they should be easy just feel harder. But that doesn’t mean that we should stop trying to learn. If it takes something longer to sink in, so be it. You’ll still learn that thing faster than if you didn’t learn it at all. And as cliché as it sounds, it’s about the process, not the outcome. The learning is one of the best parts.

4. I won’t have as much time to focus on this as when I was younger.

That’s okay! You set your goals and boundaries with your instrument. Create a routine that fits with the lifestyle you have and stop comparing yourself now to yourself in sixth grade. A lot has changed (and that’s good).

5. Everyone else will be ahead of me because I took a break.

Not true! You’re in good company as an adult returning to playing an instrument. And for the folks in the back, I’ll say it one more time: this is not a competition. It’s not your job to worry about who’s “ahead” of you. There are tons of folks just like you who are coming back to playing music after many years away. You’ll be happy to discover you have many peers and communities of adult learners waiting to welcome you in.

Whether you want to pick up playing again because you miss the creative outlet, you want to try something new, or for any other reason, remember that motivation when the voices of fear and doubt try to talk you down. Play for yourself, not to prove anything or compete with anyone. Play because you love it and that’s enough. Enjoy!

Practice Thoughts vs. Performance Thoughts: How to Think Your Way to Success

Practice Thoughts vs. Performance Thoughts: How to Think Your Way to Success

Do you think differently during practice and performance? You should! To explain why, here’s a conversation I had with a student recently. Preparing for an upcoming performance, she told me, “It’s so hard to keep everything I’m working on in my head while I play! I don’t know how I’ll do it when I perform.”

Here’s the secret: you shouldn’t think about what you’re working to improve when you perform, only when you practice.

When we practice, our thoughts are circular. They look like this:

In practice, we find a technique or a tripping point we want to master, then make any corrections we need, then move on to another technique, and so on. We check in with all these points continually throughout our practice, circulating between them so that we can change our habits and improve in the long term. Practice thoughts are about giving repeated attention to fine details. The practice mindset works on the premise that you can play something a thousand times, each time a little better than the last.

Here are some examples of good practice thoughts:

  • “Is my pinky on its tip?”
  • “Is my left wrist straight?”
  • “Am I bowing with flat hair?”
  • “Did I play the correct notes?”

When you perform, your goal is not to create new habits or improve your playing through many repetitions, as it is in practice. After all, you can’t play a tune a thousand times in a performance—usually, you’ll play the tune just once. 

For some folks, these seem like high stakes, but I think these parameters can actually be very freeing. Hear me out: since you can only play the tune once, your goal in a performance is not to improve your playing or to play it perfectly. Your goal is to do your best with the skills you have in that moment. In a performance, you are enough exactly as you are, whereas in practice, you’re always striving for a goal a little beyond your reach.

With this in mind, it’s probably evident that juggling six thoughts about challenging techniques is not going to help you give your best performance. What will help you is being mindful and present in the tune as you perform. That means that in a performance, our thoughts should be linear, not circular. They should look like this:

When you perform, it’s not your job to revisit notes you’ve already played. It’s not your job to hold all your technique goals in mind. It’s your job to be calm and collected. Your body will remember what you’ve taught it in the hours and hours of practice you’ve logged, if only you let your mind get out of the way. 

Think about it: why is it that, during performances, many people struggle with mistakes they would never make otherwise? It’s because their thoughts look something like this:

When you get out of the way and focus only on what’s before you, you’ll be amazed how your performance improves.

Here are some examples of good performance thoughts:

  • “I’m ready to start my song—it sounds like *this* and begins on the A string.”
  • “I’m in the second A part.”
  • “Here comes that variation in the B part.”
  • “This is fun!”

See the difference?

And for those of you freaking out right now, don’t worry—you’ll still have a chance to check on your technique before you start playing. When you’re getting ready to start, make sure you have a solid bow hold, you’re in tune, and you feel relaxed. After your initial set-up, though, give yourself permission to let go of technical thoughts. 

At that point, calmly talk yourself through the song part by part, section by section. Think of where you are and what comes next. That’s it. No need to think about what you’ve already played, and no need to think more than a part ahead of where you are.

You’ve got this. Play because you love it and play because your audience loves it. When you perform, those are the most important things you can remember.

Why I Don’t Make New Year’s Resolutions

Why I Don’t Make New Year’s Resolutions

I think new year’s resolutions are kind of crap. I’m all for self-improvement and goal-setting, but tons of research has shown us that setting resolutions is a terrible way to do both of those things. 80% of people give up on their New Year’s resolutions by the second week in February, according to U.S. News, and that’s just sad. 

We’re not the reason that new year’s resolutions don’t work. We’re totally capable of achieving our goals. It’s just that we have to set the goals better, and we have to set better goals.

When you make a new year’s resolution, it might seem like you’re doing yourself a favor. You’re holding yourself accountable, right? You’re finally changing that thing you wanna change, getting some momentum going and making this year the start of something great. Except, that mindset doesn’t work. Why not? Because you’re trying to get your brain to function in a way that human brains just don’t function.

We’re creatures of habit. We like to think we’re more than that, but really, anything we do is a habit, or we won’t do it more than every now and then. That means that if you want something to stick, it takes more than a desire or a decision. That thing has to be a habit, and habits take a long time to build. We often hear it takes 21 days, but frankly, building a long-lasting habit takes a lot longer. Just for example, when I googled how long it takes to make a habit, the top result said “18-254 days.” That is a lot of variation, and 

most of those answers are bigger than 21 days. 21 days also has an endpoint, and that’s misleading too, because real habits don’t have endpoints. So let’s throw out that 21-day number, because it’s not helpful.

The other thing about habits is that they’re built gradually. You don’t just flip a switch and see your discipline and skills go from zero to sixty like that. The first few days, you do a little bit, and then you do a little bit more, and eventually, you can achieve a lot like that. But if you try to start at what you hope will be your endpoint (practicing three hours a day, for example), it’ll feel overwhelming and unsustainable. You won’t be able to talk yourself into doing it for very long because it’s too much and it’s unrewarding.

These two facts about habits (that they take a long time to stick and they are built gradually) means they don’t feel super flashy in the beginning. They feel like baby steps. We don’t like taking baby steps when we believe that we can achieve the same result when we just jump in headfirst and “go for it!” That’s a lot sexier. But that’s also a lie; instead, it leaves us burned out really quickly—say, maybe, the second week of February. That’s why the baby steps method works so much better, even though it goes against our natural desire for quick gratification.

Set your goals, but also set yourself up for success. Here’s a good test of whether the goals and methods you lay out are sustainable in the long run: ask yourself if this plan would work if you started it in the middle of September. If it doesn’t sound so appealing without the new year date plastered over it, you should probably ditch it for something that caters a little more to reality. Remember, you can do these things you’re setting out to do. But first, do yourself the favor of giving yourself all the tools you need.

Want specific tips on how to set goals in a way that helps you succeed? Check out our Habit Hack series here.

Musician’s Self-Care: Five Things to Do When the Burnout Hits

Musician’s Self-Care: Five Things to Do When the Burnout Hits

Even in a normal year, the final months can bring some burnout in all areas of life, and that includes music. If you’re feeling that burnout, it can be tempting to wonder if it might be best to take a break from your instrument. To keep enjoying playing, many people try putting their instrument down for a few days. But so often, I’ve seen those few days turn into a few weeks, a few months, and often even longer. 

Why don’t breaks work like we intend them to? It’s twofold. First, it just takes more energy to begin something again than it does to continue it. If you take a break and come back later, you run the risk of “Day 1 difficulties,” the feelings that make it hard to begin something even when you want to. Secondly, even when you get over that Day 1 hump and begin playing again, you may find yourself frustrated because of all the progress you’ve lost in your time off. 

What you really need when you feel like taking time off isn’t to put your instrument away, only to come back with more challenges facing you. Instead of taking a break from your instrument, have you thought about changing your approach to it for a while?

Think back for a minute to why you began playing music: I’m guessing it was because it brought you joy. Burnout can make that joy harder to find, but it’s not solved by putting your instrument down. Burnout and exhaustion usually come from other mental baggage we bring to our music, and at the end of the year, especially this year, there’s plenty of baggage that may have hitched a ride. Instead of walking away from music to try to remedy that exhaustion, shifting the way you approach music can be a much more effective way to rediscover the joy in playing. Think of it as musician’s self-care.

Here are some ways that I practice self-care in my musical life. I hope they help you too.

1. Be gentle with yourself. When we play music, we naturally need to self-evaluate to improve. But evaluation easily turns into criticism, and criticism can easily turn into negativity and even meanness in your self-talk. Here are some keys to identify negative thoughts:

  • Look for absolutes. “I’m always ___” or “I never ___” probably aren’t true, and they don’t help you.
  • Look for judgments directed at yourself personally. “I learn too slowly” or “I just can’t get that right” are not about your playing, and they don’t help you.
  • Look for comparisons. Measuring yourself against your friends or trying to “beat” some arbitrary standard does not help you.

Instead, replace negative thoughts with gentler, positive thoughts. These thoughts evaluate without criticizing and are curious, kind, and patient:

  • “I often make this mistake here. I wonder why and how I can improve it.”
  • “I am allowed to learn at whatever pace I need.”
  • “I will improve one thing today, and that is enough.”
  • “I enjoy playing this tune.”

2. Measure what you put in, not what you get out. You can hold yourself accountable for effort, but not for outcome. If you set the goal to play one part of Soldier’s Joy perfectly by the end of the week, you are aiming for something that is out of your control and may very well discourage you from practicing for fear of failure. But if you set the goal to put in thirty minutes of attention to that part every day, odds are that you will make much more progress and feel much better while you do it.

3. Play things you enjoy. This seems simple, but it’s often overlooked. If you focus all your playing time solely on improving, you may miss out on the sheer enjoyment of playing for the sake of playing. Make time every time you pick up your fiddle, even if it’s the only thing you do, to play something that makes you feel good. Don’t try to “fix” anything—just play. It’s called “playing” for a reason, after all. Let your hair down a little bit.

4. Listen to music you love. One way I love to get reinspired is to listen to music I really adore. Usually, it’s music that makes me want to dance or sing or laugh or cry, something that really speaks to me. It helps me remember why I play music.

5. Remember the ebb and flow. Sometimes you’ll feel gung-ho and want to practice for hours every day. Sometimes you don’t have the energy or the time for that. That’s okay. Music is something that can fit into your life as your life changes. It’s not limited to people who have hours to practice uninterrupted every day. It’s something you can do with kids, with jobs, with limited time and energy. It’s something you can mold to your needs. If your normal practice routine doesn’t fit into your life right now, change it! It’s okay. Better to do it messy than not to do it at all.

I hope these tips help you rediscover the joy of playing this winter and going forward. Any time you feel like taking a break, ask yourself why. Usually, it’s because one of these self-care pieces is missing. Are you exhausting yourself with negative self-talk every time you play? No wonder you want to walk away. Are you putting too much pressure on yourself? Music shouldn’t be a source of pressure. Instead of putting down your instrument when you feel these things, return to it in a different way. Be curious, be kind, be gentle. Return to the joyful bits and leave the rest. You’ll thank yourself (and so will your fiddle).


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