Everything I learned from non-musicians about being a better musician

After trying very hard to focus on the positives of getting through week 3 of Fresh Meat on Tuesday, I had a bit of a rough time at band on Wednesday. I’ve moved from playing the second part to sitting on the front desk, just for the next concert, and I’m finding playing solos stressful since I’m out of practice at playing on my own. We also had a guest conductor, who was excellent, but that’s always a little nerve-wracking. I started hyperventilating during a solo line in West Side Story which took me way out of tune and made me think about all the different kinds of things that go together to make it possible to stick at playing when you’re a slow-learner and an amateur.

It’s tempting to think it just comes together by accident, but I found myself remembering all of the supportive people I’ve learned from over the years., I realised that non-musicians may have taught me more about playing well than I realised. It’s not all about lessons, practice, and rehearsals.

1. Mistakes are not the end of the world

This one is obvious, right? I’ve made at least one mistake every time I’ve picked up my instrument, but I am almost always freaked out by them – especially when anyone else can hear, and even more if they comment.

1391784_10100279052395590_642070549_n
Shiny trophy: Area Table Topics Contest, 2014

When I started public speaking with Aylesbury Speakers (part of Toastmasters International), I was worried about evaluation. Every speaker is evaluated and given feedback based on specific targets for the role or project and suggestions for improvement.

Hearing feedback from both established and new speakers has undoubtedly improved my presence, posture, and presentation when I speak in meetings, at church, and at work. It’s given me confidence that I can be in front of a room without freaking out, and more than anything it’s taught me that everyone has room for improvement and if I am not the most naturally gifted in the room I can still learn and work and get better. Listening to the feedback from others even won me an award, once.

2. Your true limits are way beyond where you think they are

When I was 11 I had an excellent PE teacher. Mrs. Jarrett was a big believer in knowing your body and its capabilities. I have always suffered from crippling period pain, but there was no pain she couldn’t teach me to stretch our or run off, and to this day I know that if I can bear it, 2 naproxen and an aerobic warmup will do more good than any amount of chocolate when Aunt Flo has her cramping face on. (She also gave me my one and only D on a report card, for dance, but it came with a 1 for effort, so that’s nice!)

Since Mrs. Jarrett’s dance lessons I’ve not been afraid to tell people I have period pain or anxiety and can’t do my best work. I’ve learned to take recovery breaks if I need them, and perhaps most importantly I’ve learned that the limit is always a bit further away than you think it is. When I think my facial muscles are done, and I’m too tired to try again, there’s always a bit more to give.

3. Your strengths matter more than your weaknesses

I used to think that you couldn’t be thought of as good at something unless you were an all-rounder, and that unless you found each skill equally easy you may as well not bother. It was my maths teacher that taught me otherwise. At school level, I generally did pretty well, but I found maths deeply frustrating. Sometimes I mastered a concept instantly (this seemed particularly true with more abstract maths) and sometimes I could practice endlessly but would never be able to memorise or reproduce the mechanic without the text book in front of me.

I was trying to explain this to my teacher one day, when she said, “You’ve got a flair for mathematics, but it would be easier if you didn’t need to be perfect”. After all, you can get an A in an exam without answering every question correctly.

4967098

I am better at rhythm than technique. I take notes well, and remember them, but can’t always apply them without significant personal practice. I’ll never be a virtuoso, but I can always work on improving tone and technique if I at least know I’m in the right place at the right time!

4. It’s not all about you

I am not my whole section, I am not the whole band. In a largeish section like the flute section of a concert band, you can afford to share the load out without feeling like you’re rubbish or lazy.

1928832_505750816180_8129_n
Cinderella (Feb 2007)

When I was 20, I wrote and produced pantomime (a queer version of Cinderella) which was an exercise in pressure and absurdity with a mix of complete and utter amateurs from the LGBT Society (including me), and some tremendous amateurs from the Drama Society and Stage Crew. Cinderella was my baby, I put my degree  and several friendships at risk to get it done, and worked on every detail I could manage. It was the get-in at the Bloomsbury Theatre before my friend Jen kindly-but-firmly took me aside and suggested that, just maybe, focusing the lamps was not my job right now and if I didn’t want each and every member of Stage Crew to tear me limb from limb I might like to stay out of the way until the technical rehearsal.

Point taken. I can only work to my own skills. Between us, as a section, we can decide to put some parts down to one player only, or dovetail long runs, and stagger breaths on long notes. There is nothing to be gained by wearing myself out trying to play for everyone and making it sound lousy in the process. (Incidentally, letting people get on with their own jobs is a lifesaving skill in ministry, too!)

5. More than anything else, it’s about banishing The Fear.

This was Wednesday’s insight. The idea that exercise

blerch_shirt_thumbnail_grande
I do not believe in The Wall

requires mind-over-matter  is not new to me(especially in my case, getting out for a run at all is the last thing I usually want to do). I learned early on when I was training for the Royal Parks Half Marathon that walking in a long run was my worst enemy, not because of the effect on my body (which could be restorative), but because getting back up to a run was hard to do without feeling the need to drop down again every time it got hard.

When I started going for runs for fun, Emily bought a ‘Blerch’ t-shirt from The Oatmeal that says, “I do not believe in The Wall, I believe in The Blerch” (full comic). I wear the t-shirt and matching socks when I’m especially unkeen to go out or take on something new.

The new insight for me, when I was trying to convince myself to get through the solo line in One Hand, One Heart, was that I found myself thinking, “I got back on skates, I can do anything.” From there, it’s only a short leap to remembering the mantra that Derby is as much about mental toughness as physical fitness, and then it all clicked. If I can’t skate when my emotions are out of whack, why do I keep trying to play when I feel lousy without taking the time I need to calm down? After all, depression and anxiety take a huge physical toll.

So, next week when we get to the concert and I’m feeling anxious, I’m going to try and remember that my mistakes are unimportant, I can push on past my limits, I have strengths as well as weaknesses, it’s not about me, and I can do it if I can just keep calm and carry on.

Fresh Meat

kate-derby
Week 2 – intentional knee fall

So I’ve finally bitten the bullet and taken a tentative step towards learning to play Roller Derby. I went to a taster day at Oxford Wheels of Gory a couple of months back, and have just got home from Week 3 of an 8-week ‘Fresh Meat’ course. There is no doubt I look less like Bambi today than I did back in September, but I’ve already had a good taste of the difference between a Good Week and a Bad Week.

This week was a Bad Week, because last week I fell about 10 mins before the end of the session (not unusual) but for the first time ever I fell backwards. I hit my head pretty hard, and because the symptoms of concussion and of insomnia are pretty similar (and I’ve had insomnia since May) I did have to get checked out at Minor Injuries and took a day off work.

When I got home tonight, I wrote this on Facebook,

Training made me all philosophical today. I didn’t plan on being scared of hitting my head again but kept coming up against The Fear.
The thing is, though, that I have an anxiety disorder so I get The Fear when someone rings the doorbell, or I forget to answer an email, or for no bloody reason at all! I was scared of riding without stabilisers until I was 8, I was scared of rounders balls until I finally hit one when I was 10, I was scared of walking in Himalaya and I’m still scared of making mistakes, and of falling.
But if I’d never fallen and broken my leg I might not have met Emily. If I hadn’t ever risked rejection I’d never have worked, studied at UCL or Oxford, or been part of the early years of LGSW. I’d have a totally different group of friends, or hardly any at all.
I think I can do this. And you can do that thing you’re worried about. And if I can’t? I think I’d make a perfectly respectable NSO*, after all.

Next Tuesday is a whole other opportunity to learn new things, and this week was definitely not a total washout (I have finally managed to stand still on skates, without even trying!). I hope I still feel this positive next week but the lovely, lovely thing about Derby in general, and OWG in particular, is that everyone is determined to be kind and positive and let everyone take their own journey at their own pace. That culture is exactly what I was drawn to and it’s been lovely to realise that it’s not just a front(!)

*Non-Skating Official – scorers, penalty officials, etc.