Waging War: 5 Battle Strategies to Defeat Impostor Syndrome

Raise of hands, how many of you feel like you’re faking your way through life? Like you don’t actually know how to do your job, or people think you’re a lot smarter than you actually are?

Impostor syndrome (also “imposter”), impostor phenomenon, impostor experience, impostorism, and fraud syndrome are all terms that encompass the idea of feeling like a fraud. It’s been a bit of a buzz topic lately, especially with a few celebrities speaking out about it, like Neil Gaiman:

In addition to Gaiman, the following well-known figures also report having felt the phenomonen: Maya Angelou, Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, Michelle Pfeiffer, Chuck Lorre, John Green, Tommy Cooper, Sheryl Sandberg, Sonia Sotomayor, Mike Cannon-Brookes, Diana Crow1, Seth Godin2, and Amanda Palmer3. I especially love that Palmer dubs it “The Fraud Police.” It’s less impending if you name it, right?

Actually, both Palmer and Gaiman have very vivid fantasies of imaginary people coming to them in the  middle of the night and telling them, “We know you’re a fraud, and now we’re here to take everything away from you and to tell everyone you’re a fool.”3,4

What Impostorism Is

The first study on impostorism, by Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, published in 1978, explains that those “who experience the impostor phenomenon maintain a strong belief that they are not intelligent; in fact they are convinced that they have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.”5  In a later interview, however (in 2015), Clance amended the definition: “if I could do it all over again, I would call it the impostor experience, because it’s not a syndrome of a complex or a mental illness. It’s something almost everyone experiences.”6

It’s a growing body of research, but the more psychologists study the phenomenon, the more they learn how universal the experience is. In fact, that first study by Clance and Imes asserted that it was only the women in academia who felt this way, but men were later included after ‘fessing up to being quiet on the matter.6

Impostorism can be defined with three major characteristics. Those with impostorism:

  1. Believe that others view them more favorably than they deserve.
  2. Have fear of being found out and then viewed as a failure.
  3. Have trouble internalizing their actual, tangible successes.7

How Impostorism Presents Itself

If you’re really down the rabbit hole of not believing your own worth, you may not know you meet any of the above criteria. One of the easiest ways to tell is if you find yourself exhibiting a behavior consistent with this mindset.

There are many behaviors that those with impostorism may exhibit, but there are four pretty standard ones that Clance and Imes outlined, and later works still agree. Someone with impostorism may exhibit one or two of these, but it’s rare for them to show all four.

1. From the belief that hard work will cover up a lack of intelligence or talent. They work hard and make sure to do so behind closed doors. This can look like someone who pretends to be playing games on the computer when a family member walks by, but they’re actually studying. Sense of approval from others reinforces this behavior.

2. From a sense of phoniness. They believe they participate in intellectual flattery by doing types of work that will please others (i.e., choosing a paper topic that they know their professor will like). If they had not flattered their superiors, they would have failed because they’re just not smart or good enough. Actual success feeds this behavior.

3. From a desire to be liked as well as thought of as competent. They use charm and perceptiveness together to win approval, like flirting with intent. And when they do win approval, they don’t believe they earned it. That if they were actually intelligent, they wouldn’t even need outside approval to convince themselves of their value. Again, success itself reinforces behavior like this.

4. Avoidance of success completely, out of fear of failing. As in, they don’t even try to win something they possibly could win because they’re afraid they’ll fail, and everyone will see, so they just avoid the situation altogether. This one can go hand in hand with depression and is fed by opportunities for success.5

As you can see, all of these behaviors feed into themselves. They encourage more of the same behavior, and it may seem like an impossible war to someone who’s been stuck in the cycle for a long time. Unfortunately, it’s not just the internal mindset and behaviors that contribute to the problem. There are also external factors.

What Irritates the Problem

Although impostorism is a fairly universal experience, it tends to be worse in fields like academia or the arts where there is a lot of competition. Instead of waning all on its own, as it does for many people, impostorism is developed by physical events.

In a study about academic faculty and the ways they cope with impostorism, Holly M. Hutchins and Hilary Rainbolt discovered four types of  “imposter incidents,” which they describe as “disruptive events that created doubt, shame, and questioning of who they [the participants] were.”8

These four types of events perpetuate rather than diminish feelings of fraud:

1. Moments when expertise is questioned. This can be when someone straight up asks you if you’re qualified or when you have to teach in your field, like giving a lecture or presentation. I just dealt with this myself with some suburban moms asking if I was qualified to teach their children beginner piano, and I almost said, “Even with my degree, I’m not qualified at all!”

2. In moments of self-evaluation of one’s work. The faculty members in this study spoke specifically about submitting their work for publication and applying for grants and tenure. Universally, this might look like when you’re trying to prove your worth (like in a job interview) or dealing with negative criticism or comments.

3. Competition or comparison. This one’s pretty obvious. For piano, a great example is when you’re looking up recordings of your repertoire to listen to, and you find a wonderful rendition by a four-year-old prodigy. It makes you re-evaluate why you play at all. But in general, any kind of comparison can do a lot of damage to one’s perspective of self.

4. Moments when one is asked to accept success. Winning awards, getting asked to be a judge in one’s field, and being invited to speak as an expert all aggravate the cycle because impostors really can’t internalize their own success.8

Strategies to Break the Cycle

So it is a war, not just a one-night battle. There are so many forces encouraging feelings of fraud, and this can make you feel trapped. But, all you have to do is interrupt the cycle to find a way out. Just one little bump, and there’s some hope. Each of the studies and articles I looked at have different strategies to cope,  but these five are fairly universal ideas that are easy to do.

 

1. Be open and honest with yourself.

Remember how Amanda Palmer gave her feelings a name?3 Part of the psychology of naming is that you choose to accept that the idea is a real, tangible thing. This isn’t AA, but it’s the same concept. The first step is to accept you have a problem and choose to do something about it.

I think I’m going to call mine Fred the Fraudmonger. That seems like a great villain name. Let me know if you’ve picked out the perfect name for yours. But the idea is to face it like it’s a tangible enemy. Be proactive, and let yourself feel it.

I’m coming for you, Fraudmonger!

2. Know that everyone else feels the same way.

In the same speech in which Amanda Palmer dubbed impostorism “The Fraud Police,” she had everyone in the room raise their hands if they had ever felt like a fraud. All the faculty sitting on the stage behind her raised their hands as well, and she said “If they didn’t, they’re lying.” She’s right. That’s exactly why Pauline Clance said that if she could redo the original study, she’d call it the “impostor experience.” It’s that universal. Some people just have more trouble with it than others. Palmer even says at the end of the video that the feeling never completely goes away; you just learn how to deal with it.

For some, just knowing that it’s part of being human helps them accept it and move forward.

3. Be honest with others and vice versa.

In her book, Presence, social psychologist Amy Cuddy includes a chapter solely about the impostor experience. She sums up her research and interviews with,

As I review the research and talk to people like Pauline [Clance] and Neil [Gaiman] who’ve experienced the same fears, I see the one quality of impostorism that stands out from all the others: it makes us feel alone in the experience, and even when we learn that other people have similar fears, we don’t take heart.6

Sometimes it’s really not enough to hear that all these famous people suffer from the same feelings. Because they’re actually talented, and I’m obviously not.6

The APA lists talking with people as two separate ways to deal with impostorism.9 Find someone you trust and aren’t afraid to just be open with.

In some cases, mentors are excellent to talk with, but don’t be surprised if your mentor actually makes you feel worse. I’m not trying to be mean to all the mentors out there (I mean I guess as a piano teacher, I am also one), but in different study by Hutchins, results showed that in all but 3% of the participants’ experiences, mentors actually made feelings of impostorism worse. The mentors didn’t do anything wrong, but the fact that they were so successful, and the participants in the study felt they weren’t added to the issue.10

The original study by Clance and Imes discusses the high effect of group therapy sessions. “A group setting is also valuable because one woman can see the dynamics in another woman and recognize the lack of reality involved.”5

There’s always someone to talk to. The worst thing you can do is keep it to yourself and suffer alone. You may actually be helping another person by bringing it up.

4. Look at the hard facts.

If you have a degree, you earned it. If you won awards, you earned them. Take another look at the tangible evidence of your skill. You can’t fake all of that. It’s impossible. Try looking at everything objectively, or as if you were in the heads of the people who gave all these certifications to you.

Another part of this is to say “thank you” and mean it when people congratulate you for success. Instead of shying away and mumbling something to the effect of, “Oh, no it was nothing,” or “It wasn’t my best work,” try standing up tall with a big smile on your face, look them in the eyes, and say, “thank you.” This is one of the best things you can do if you’re a performer too. This is actually one of the major points of last week’s post about Alpin Hong, who says that the “joyful expression of appreciation…cannot be overestimated.”

All in all, just own your successes. And if you have trouble, go back to number three and find someone who can help you find a way to be excited about your triumphs.

5. Pretend you’re someone who can.

In a commencement speech to the University of the Arts Class of 2012, Neil Gaiman spoke a little bit about impostorism. The advice he gave was that if you still don’t think you can do it, pretend that you’re someone who can do it. The full quote is wonderful.

Be wise because the world needs more wisdom. And if you cannot be wise, pretend to be someone who is wise, and then just behave like they would.4

So pretend you’re someone who did earn those degrees, someone who truly deserved those accolades and awards, and just act like that person would. It helps.

There’s a lot of debate in the psychology world about how much acting actually contributes to changing your thought process, but it’s worth a shot, and there are plenty of people out there who defend this idea.

Nudge Forward

The key to any of these strategies working is to expect it to be a slow process. We’re fighting a war, not a battle.

Realize it won’t happen in a day, but little nudges (apparently it’s a real psychology term) will weaken the cycle. Over time, it just might break!

Nudge theory explains why most New Year’s Resolutions don’t stick (these goals are way too big). It is the idea that to change your behavior (and your thoughts), you have to do so in small steps that slowly build up over time.

Governments all over the world actually have their own “nudge units” to encourage people to make better eating choices and to recycle. And all they do is start placing healthy food at eye level, and putting junk food where it’s harder to get to.11

Just thinking deeply about your specific type of impostorism and how it affects your behavior is a great start. Here’s a recap of five strategies to break the fraud cycle:

  1. Be open and honest with yourself.
  2. Know that everyone else feels the same way.
  3. Be honest with others and vice versa.
  4. Look at the hard facts.
  5. Pretend you’re someone who can.

If you found any of these sources interesting or helpful, there is a list of recommended resources as well as the works cited in this article below. Check either or neither of them out. Just remember to pass the ideas on. I don’t lay claim to any of this. I’m not a psychologist; I just enjoy research. Cite studies where applicable, but carry the ideas on forever if they help you.


Recommended Resources

Amy Cuddy, TED Talk  and Presence (Amazon Goodreads). Both are excellent resources. I recommend watching the TED Talk first, and if you want to dig more into the scientific studies and read more interviews regarding how the body shapes the mind and the idea of “fake it ’til you become it,” then the book is for you.

Neil Gaiman’s Commencement Speech to the University of the Arts Class of 2012 (also embedded above).

Amanda Palmer’s Commencement Speech to the New England Institute of Arts Class of 2011 (also embedded above).


Works Cited

1. Wikipedia. “Impostor Syndrome.” (2018, July 30).

2. Richards, Carl. “Learning to Deal With the Impostor Syndrome.” The New York Times. (2015, October 26).

3. Palmer, Amanda. “The Fraud Police.” Commencement Speech to the New England Institute of Arts Class of 2011.

4. Gaiman, Neil. “Make Good Art.” Commencement Speech to the University of the Arts Class of 2012.

5. Clance, Pauline Rose, and Suzanne Ament Imes. “The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention.” Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice 15.3 (1978): 241.

6. Cuddy, Amy Joy Casselberry. Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges. New York: Little, Brown and Company, Hachette Book Company, 2015.

7. Leary, Mark R., et al. “The impostor phenomenon: Self‐perceptions, reflected appraisals, and interpersonal strategies.” Journal of personality 68.4 (2000): 725-756.

8. Hutchins, Holly M., and Hilary Rainbolt. “What triggers imposter phenomenon among academic faculty? A critical incident study exploring antecedents, coping, and development opportunities.” Human Resource Development International 20.3 (2017): 194-214.

9. Weir, Kirsten. “Feel like a fraud?” American Psychological Association. (2018).

10. Hutchins, Holly M. “Outing the imposter: A study exploring imposter phenomenon among higher education faculty.” New Horizons in Adult Education and Human Resource Development 27.2 (2015): 3-12.

11. Wikipedia. “Nudge theory.” (2018, June 11).

Sometimes Living is Necessary Too

Recently, one of my professors shared this article by Tanya Kalmanovitch, a Juilliard graduate. The title, “How Quitting Music Made Me an Artist” sounds like clickbait with the promise of some revolutionary way of looking at a tradition that’s ages old.

Yet, I keep coming back to it, and I find something new to take away from it every time.

I’ve got my own story of quitting (and coming back), full of doubt and disillusionment with the music world. But we’re here for Kalmanovitch’s story.

I’m not going to sum it up here, so go read it; I’ll wait.

Now then, onto the takeaways.

Quitting is not talked about enough in the music world. Most musicians I’ve met who went to school specifically for music have played almost their entire lives. By the time they’re either about to go to college through when they’re coming out of it, they might want to see what else life has to offer.

Putting that to the side for a time to experience new things is not a bad thing. But “quitting is bad” and can feel awful, even if you’re doing it for the right reason.

Some of the masters (well a lot of them actually, but we’ll only mention a few by name here) are quoted as saying that experiencing life is the most important, and art comes after.

Music is your own experience, your own thoughts, your wisdom. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn. They teach you there’s a boundary line to music. But, man, there’s no boundary line to art.

Charlie Parker, as quoted in The Legend Of Charlie Parker by Robert George Reisner, 1977.

There’s a couple ideas to pull from this: experience and “no boundary line to art.” Here he implies that music is a living entity that is birthed of our experience, and there isn’t some invisible line dividing it from “real life.”

Musicians aren’t some mystical gurus who stand apart from the world. Sure, we spend a lot of time playing, but at the end of the day, we’re people who struggle with school, money, relationships, and purpose. And we shouldn’t pretend that we’re not.

Music is the language of the soul.

Although this particular quotation is attributed to multiple people across the internet, I found a couple publications (including a lengthy footnote by Liszt) that trace it back to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, a German philosopher.

In any case, it’s short and memorable, which is why it’s plastered across the internet.

Define soul how you will in your mind. For the purposes of this post, “soul” refers to the core being of a person. Relating back to Parker, the experience that makes you who you are can only truly be expressed in the soul’s own language, music.

But what does it mean for your soul, your being, to truly live?

The living soul demands life, the living soul will not submit to mechanism, the living soul must be regarded with suspicion, the living soul is reactionary!

Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment, Norton Critical Edition, 3rd ed., 217.

Reactionary. Living can be viewed as a reaction to the experiences we face. If we hide ourselves away in the practice room, there are less ideas, events, obstacles, to react to. But to have a true experience, we must react to something or someone.

That’s why it’s important to go meet new people, expose yourself to new ideas, see new lands, immerse yourself in other cultures. You’ll have more things to react to.

Make no mistake, practicing is critical to being a high-caliber musician, but the performance will probably fall flat if there’s nothing behind it to hold it up.

Aesthetes may favor Wilde’s idea that “All art is quite useless,” but there are enough voices on the other side, that I fall on the side of living.

And for this, I have a book recommendation.

Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process is a collection of essays culminated and edited by Joe Fassler that provides a way into the lives of authors who’ve already “made it.” It may be specific to writers, but the ideas are universal. I recommend it to any creator or anyone who needs a dose of inspiration.

Neil Gaiman has the last spot in the book. His closing remark can serve as a mantra when doubt comes creeping around again.

"Just live. Sometimes that's necessary too."

Even though it’s easy to get caught up in perfection and the self hatred that comes with “quitting,” but remember that we’re here to live. And we can’t create something beautiful if we’re not alive.

Focus on living, and if music is for you, it will be even better because of your experiences.

Kalmanovitch’s article made me feel less alone, as if quitting is almost a rite of passage through the music world. No matter what it means, it made me feel better. How do you feel after reading it?

Also an announcement! I really enjoy making quote pictures. They make me happy and help inspire me, so I’ve dedicated a page of this blog to quotes. Let me know in the comments or via the contact form if you have any quotes that should get the photo treatment. I look forward to hearing from you!

7 Ways to Identify Music Majors in the Wild

Although music majors aren’t an entirely rare breed, they can easily be mixed up with others within their own species, the sleep-deprived college student. Noted by their sluggish behavior and small will to carry on, it’s a wonder the species thrives enough to have so many classes within it. Today, we focus on seven key ways to identify the class of music majors in their natural habitat.

Music majors…

1. Always have rehearsal or a practice session to be at.

They avoid social interaction, always with this excuse. “Sorry I have rehearsal…”  Sometimes, it’s like they don’t exist outside of class. Are they speaking the truth?

2. Post pictures of their instrument or music on social media.

That’s how you know they’re telling the truth about all that practice time. Aesthetic photos of “bae” and the most difficult sheet music in their folder grace their instagram, colored by fun filters. #practicing #truelove #100daysofpractice

Except, are they actually practicing? At the very least, you know they’re in the practice room.

3. Can speak in about 10 different languages, but can’t always understand them.

Vocal majors especially have to be able to passably pronounce a ton of foreign languages. Can they say important things like, “Where is the bathroom?”

Absolutely not.

But they can say cryptic things to you with no context whatsoever. And they probably will.

Die Luft ging durch die Felder,
Die Ähren wogten sacht,
Es rauschten leis die Wälder,
So sternklar war die Nacht.

The breeze passed through the fields,
The corn swayed gently to and fro,
The forests murmured softly,
The night was so clear with stars.

Robert Schumann. From Mondnacht, Op. 39, No. 5.

4. Live off of snacks instead of actual food.

All those rehearsals and practice sessions leave very little time to sit down and eat. So, when music majors actually do eat, it’s usually random snacks from their backpack. Nuts, chips, granola bars, cookies, you know, all the stuff you should live off of instead of veggies and meat…

5. Have a mostly black wardrobe.

It’s easier this way. Trust me. With as many performances in a week as music majors have, it’s a good idea to have many concert black outfits to choose from. If they barely have time to eat, what makes you think they’ve got time to wash one outfit multiple times a week?

Plus, if you wear black everyday, you don’t have to worry about forgetting about a performance. You’re all ready to go!

6. Are always singing or humming.

And are always harmonizing. In the car, the grocery store, the bathroom…

7. Always have a pencil on their person.

You are shameful and must commit seppuku if you do not have a pencil in rehearsal. As a result, music majors always have pencils hidden in multiple places on their body and in their bags. It’s better this way.

There ya have it! Seven ways to spot a music major in the wild. There are many more tell tale signs, but that should give you a good head start as you begin your wildlife observations.

Remember to record other behavioral findings in your journal and share with your fellow scientists below. Happy trails!

7 Ways to Avoid Frustration While Practicing an Instrument

Music might be this magical language of the soul, but it can still be infuriating to practice, especially if you’re fairly new to the craft.

I recall countless high school hours spent banging out Hanon exercises or Bach (I vividly remember anger associated with my left hand when I was learning his Two-Part Invention No. 1, BWV 772). The longer I practiced, the louder it got because I was angry. Luckily for my family, all we had was a keyboard, and I always used headphones.

Looking back, I’m amazed I didn’t do more psychological damage from self-directed hatred (or, you know, physical harm to my hands). Somehow, after all that angry practice, I got into a decent music program and continued my piano studies.

Many teachers will tell you they don’t teach students how to play; they teach students how to practice. Jeremy Denk writes that his teacher, “Sebők said many times that you don’t teach piano playing at lessons; you teach how to practice—the daily rite of discovery that is how learning really happens.” But the student still has to focus on adventure in the practice room and trying to find the best way to practice.

No one can tell you.

That’s frustrating; it really really is. But there are a few tips I can pass along that will hopefully help at least a little bit.

1. Practice Every Day.

This is a duh, but some of us still don’t do it. You can’t “catch up” by practicing longer one day if you didn’t practice the day before. That’s not how learning works. It’s better to do 15 minutes each day than four hours one day. We’ve all been guilty of this thinking at some point, so we’ll just get it out in the open.

2. Set small goals.

Until you have an idea of how quickly you are able to learn a piece, I don’t suggest sitting down and saying, “I will learn this whole page today.” You’ll only feel you let yourself down when you don’t achieve that.

Instead have smaller goals, like “I will practice for 20 minutes without stopping today.” Until you have a lot of experience, you can’t know how quickly your fingers will take up a certain piece. Once you get to know your learning tendencies, you can then make more challenging goals.

3. Keep a practice journal.

This helps direct your practice. Sometimes it’s hard to get your mind into the practice space, especially if you don’t have as much time as usual. School, work, difficult people in your life, and your bed calling out to you will all inevitably creep into your mind and cause you to mess up if you don’t do anything to focus.

Write down your goals at the beginning of the practice session and then reflect on how well you achieved them at the end. Connect this to your future practice session by setting your goals during your reflection time. Review these at the beginning of your next session, and bam, you’ve got a focused mind that is less likely to get distracted.

4. Celebrate the little things.

Because we are taught to be critical of our sound, we tend to forget to get excited when we play correct fingerings at tempo for a tricky cadenza that was killing us. Celebrating is so important, and it will help you stay in a positive-growth mindset. And that’s where we all need to be.

Shoot for at least three things you can be excited about, and write them down in your practice journal. Then, when you’re feeling down or angry during a session, you can skim back through that list of accomplishments.

5. Take a Break.

If you find yourself getting frustrated, and you’re beginning to pound out notes, it’s time to move on. You can get a sip of water, just breathe, even take out your phone (but really, don’t let yourself look at it for more than a minute. If you can’t control yourself, leave it outside the practice room).

The human brain can really only focus on one thing for about 20 minutes at a time, so don’t get upset with yourself if you can’t stay diligent for longer. The professionals take water breaks too. Plus, hydration helps your brain work better too.

6. Move on.

The kitchen timer practice method actually helped me more with frustration than anything else. In it, you practice a phrase (around 4–6 measures) for a specified amount of time (I’ve pretty much settled on two minutes), and when the timer goes on, you move onto the next phrase.

This method forces you to plan out your practice session because you need to come back to each phrase at least two more times in the session. It’s the returning to it that helps you learn. More than anything, though, it helps me avoid getting fixated on something I can’t seem to get. And most often, I get it solidly by the next go ’round. I do technique practice this way too.

7. Smile.

The classical music community on Tumblr jokes a lot about practicing including lots of tears, banging your head on the wall, or just lying on the practice room floor in the dark. Practice is hard. Accept that. But find a way to make yourself smile too.

You’re doing amazing things that so many others can’t even understand. Find something that can make you smile.

I have a few inspiring quotes above my piano that remind me why I’m torturing myself with practice. My favorite right now I mentioned previously, and I’ll put the picture here too because it just makes me happy.

All in all, take a step back when you need to. Breathe. Remember why you’re trying to make music in the first place. You’ll get there, and maybe you’ll even love practicing!

What are your favorite tricks to keep yourself going during a difficult session? Do you have any favorite quotes? Share them below! And if you like this post, don’t forget to hit that like button and share, so I can keep making awesome content!

How to Practice Like a Prodigy

Were you a child prodigy? Did you have to suffer through the same courses of practice and lessons as people obviously not as gifted as you? Then this post is for you!

Presenting How to Practice Like a Prodigy: A guide for those incredible geniuses who only ever excelled at their craft.

  • Play through your pieces from beginning to end. That’s it. Just do that. Us amateurs never do that. Ever.
  • Never, I repeat, never listen to a professional play your piece. Don’t listen to multiple recordings. You’re better than them, and your rendition will shed new light on classical composers’ true intentions.
  • Who needs scales and arpeggios? You mastered those in your sleep. And don’t get me started on Hanon
  • Forget about warm ups altogether. You need to be able to play your pieces cold, 100% of the time. You never know when a piano is just going to show up needing to be played.
  • Leave your phone on the music stand. That way, you’ll be prepared for emergency phone calls…or you know seeing when your crush likes your status about practicing…
  • Take lots of aesthetic photos for your blog. You’ve got to build your personal brand; the road to success is full of marketing! Bonus points for extra-complicated looking music.

#allthefilters #Ravel #howdopeopleevendothis
#pleasedonttakemeseriously

  • Finally, don’t listen to any criticism from your teachers, other musicians, or any of your favorite blogs regarding your practice methods. Only you know what’s best for you.

Fellow musicians, what are your tips for practicing like a prodigy? Please enlighten us by sharing in the comments below. Aesthetic photos of sheet music and/or your instruments are also highly encouraged!

It’s All About Timing

A girl with her instrument spread before her: those eighty-eight keys of dark and light that blend to compose melodies in hues of every color seen and unseen. Each day, they meet in their ritual to slow the busy day at its close and get a jump on the next one.

Sometimes she wonders why she comes back. Her companion, affectionately called “Clive,” learns everything about her: her touch, her frustrations, her freedoms. He anticipates her. Yet, after years, she barely knows him. Hours spent learning just one of the patterns rumored to make him sing leave her in tears.

“Why can’t I get this?”

Her undivided focus hones in on the single passage: four measures as slowly as she can muster. Time passes, and the night grows full. It’s like this every night. Meanwhile, the stack of other music to learn sits beside them and collects only dust, no memories.

“Why didn’t you practice the rest?” her teacher asks.

“Do I even know how to practice?” she counters.

“You do. Just practice it all. Don’t be lazy.”

There she sits with Clive again, hands trembling after hours of trying to make one passage. “Don’t be lazy” reverberates in her mind.

“What am I doing wrong?”

#

Many musicians grow up thinking they’re not practicing hard enough on single passages and stress when they have to hit deadlines on many pieces of music. Until recently, I felt that. Even after getting a degree, I still felt like I was missing something with practice. And at the risk of sounding like an infomercial, I’ll tell you about the product that changed the way I practice.

The kitchen timer!

For less than a dollar, you too can own your very own timer that will revolutionize your practice sessions.

I first learned about it from a Juilliard Viola student, known on Youtube as “That Viola Kid” (a.k.a. “TVK”). This is the video that made me stop to think about the way I was practicing:

For those who don’t want to watch the video in its entirety, he talks about practicing in shorter bursts. He practices no longer than fifty minutes at a time. Within that, he picks one phrase from a song and practices it for seven minutes. Then he moves onto a completely different song and does that for seven minutes. He cycles through three or four songs, so that they each get at fourteen minutes by the end.

I was skeptical, so I let myself grow disgruntled every time the seven minutes ended. After two days of trying, I gave up and dismissed it as stupid.

A month or so later, I began an online course with Juilliard called, “Introduction to Performance Psychology.” Imagine my shock when  the first topic was practicing in short bursts. Turns out, true learning isn’t just about the amount of time you spend on something, it’s the number of times your brain stops thinking about it and then comes back to it.

The professionals leading the course suggest the same thing TVK does by setting a timer. Their rule of thumb is to look at the amount of time you would normally spend working on a section and divide that by nine. Thus, if you would ordinarily spend an hour on a passage, you should now set your timer for about six or seven minutes. They even suggest that as you get used to practicing in short bursts, you set the timer as low as two minutes.

Again, I was skeptical, but I gave it a fair shot and kept at this method for a week straight. What I learned is that for this method to be effective, goal-setting is paramount. You have to decide how much you’re going to learn through the course of the week and then break that up into small sections for each day.

Going week-by-week is perfect for those taking weekly private lessons, and the teacher can help with this kind of goal-setting, but it is up to the student to figure out the day-to-day goals.

Keeping a journal of what I accomplished help me keep track of my progress.

The overall result was that instead of learning part of one song, about a page maximum, per week, I learned a part of four different songs, about a page each. That’s three more pages than I was learning before. The best part is that these sections were pretty much memorized by the end of the week, so there’s definitely something behind this “leaving and coming back” strategy.

It works for learning any other skill, like languages or mathematic formulas. The only downside is that it forces one to be a little more organized, but is that really a bad thing? Musicians could definitely use the help being organized.

You don’t even have to go out and by a kitchen timer; I just found it was less distracting to use that instead of my phone. Seeing a text notification distracts me every time the timer goes off, so I silence my phone during practice and use a piece of really outdated technology.

Any other practice tips? Help us learn by commenting below!

 

Take Care

You feel the exhaustion dripping from your eyes to create the dark circles underneath them. A new ring appears each morning, but you must press on. You have a goal: get your practice time in.

There’s never enough time.

You always have more pieces to perfect, and your fingers won’t do what they’re told. They’re stiff, and no amount of warming up eases the tension from them.

You are stressed.

What an understatement! Even a child observing your drooping body at the piano can tell that you need a nap. But you know that if you nap, you’ll sleep away too much of your practice time. You hide away the knowledge that you’re actually making it harder to learn the music this way.

The words of your teachers echo in your mind: “There is no substitute for taking care of your body. Get enough sleep, drink lots of water, take care of yourself.”

So sleep.

Take care of your body.

You can still get all your practice done and keep yourself healthy. It takes a little planning, and a lot of heart. You’ve got the passion, so put it to use.

Take care of your body, so you can continue to make music for a long time.

A Little Bit of Math and Magic

Music. It hovers around us every day. Some say that it is a fundamental part of being.

At its base, music is a collection of sounds in the air. (Some old-fashioners would say “organized sounds,” but we have John Cage to thank for a more inclusive definition.) Once the air molecules cease to vibrate, the music ceases. It wisps away as if it never happened, and all we have left is the memory of the sounds that came before.

It is the most present of all the arts.

Perhaps this is why it’s also one of the most stressful creative endeavors. Seriously, little kids have some serious guts to play in front of their peers, and even more to play for their parents. Great job, kids with musical extracurriculars! Expectations of excellence fill those environments, and I’m glad I started piano late enough to avoid much of that.

Even into college years, however, performing live music is terrifying. You’ve got one shot, one four-minute slot in a departmental recital, to prove your worth (while hopefully also creating something worth listening to). How you approach that moment can make or break you. And that’s why so many musicians have anxiety.

It’s the hours that turn to days, to weeks, to months, and to years of preparation that culminate into one moment. If you mess up, you think you didn’t practice enough. You should’ve slept less and practiced that one passage a billion times more. Sometimes that’s exactly what you should’ve done. Other times…not so much.

At some point in their musical careers, the pros learn to just let it happen. Those months and years of preparation are the best they can do. Freaking out in the moment does not help at all. So they let go. (To be clear, pros still have performance anxiety, but they approach it in a much more graceful way than I’ve yet figured out. If you’ve got that part down, then go you! Also, teach me!)

For a musician, the moment they walk onstage is comparable to stepping calmly (or not so calmly) off of a high-flying aircraft, no parachute in tow. They have two options: 1. Flap their arms like a crazy person trying to take flight and die in pile of tired anxiety, or 2. Accept it and make the most of the time between them and the ground.

This is where the magic comes in!

They don’t really have to die from walking onstage.

Musicians are silly. They always forget what happens when they choose option number two: they learn to fly. That ability is somewhere inside them, probably from all the practicing. Musicians are at their most vulnerable when they perform, and watching them find the magic and learn to fly is one of the most humbling and beautiful experiences known to humanity. It’s why we keep coming back.

So, while all the mathematics and theory on the music itself is equally important, most of us stick around to watch ordinary people learn to fly.

When You’re Feeling Down

One of the things that I find most inspiring about professional musicians is their ability to keep practicing every single day. Despite however they’re feeling about the day, they press on and practice.

There are so many days when I’ve just felt awful about myself and my abilities to play. I wonder why I’m even trying; I don’t plan on being a professional musician.

Yet, I practice.

I love the feeling of the music under my fingers; they express all I cannot say. I’ve always said that my fingers have a more direct connection to my soul, and it is through practice that I can share my soul with the world.

But why share that?

Empathy. It’s what makes us feel for each other. It assures us that we are not alone. Isn’t that a message we love to hear, one we desperately need to hear?

Even though I can’t always press on through the hard days, someone does, and that heartens me. It is my goal to get to that level of dedication, one that is less than selfish. By practicing their craft, musicians (professional or not), share their souls, and that may be one of the least selfish acts. They assure their listeners that they, as the performer, have been through the same toils as all who are human, and it is that message that keeps us going.

We could argue about what music is, what makes it magical, or what makes it effective, but at the end of the day, it is the sharing of the soul that I look for in music. It is something uniquely human I strive to hear.

This post is in an attempt to inspire me on a day when I feel like I can’t or shouldn’t practice. It’s a day that makes me feel like I gave up long ago. If I want to make the world a better place, I should buckle down and practice.

We all should.