Starting a new music course can be daunting. At every step of my musical education, I worried if I was going to be good enough and whether I would be able to stay the course. In this short article, I am going to explore some of the fears of starting a music course and offer some solutions which will help.
All the way through taking my very first piano lesson, going to secondary school music lessons, attending my first school choir rehearsal, starting GCSE Music lessons, enrolling on A’ level music, auditioning for the Guildhall School of Music, starting a music degree at University, having my first piano lesson on my degree, starting a PGCE music course and starting a Masters Degree course, I realised that all were cause for major anxiety. I had many sleepless nights before each event and a dull sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach for most of them. Luckily things have changed in the last 5 years and even when enrolling on a Jazz Summer School this year where the tutors were top professional Jazz players from London, I reminded myself of my main purpose, to learn and get better and I felt better.
In my job as Curriculum Coordinator for Music Performance at City of Bath College, we enrol 60 new musicians each year. Many contact the college wishing to have their minds put at ease about approaching their first day.
In my experience musicians tend to worry about:
- Not being liked
- Other people being brilliant or at least better than we are
- Not being good enough
- Looking silly in front of others
- Getting chucked off the course
- Being judged
- Looking uncool
- What teachers might think of us
- Being asked to demonstrate an area of weakness i.e.
- Playing in front of others
- Playing something that is too hard
The list goes on…
Remember that nobody is brilliant at everything. When starting a course, it is very easy to start comparing yourself to others and feeling inferior. Over the years, I started to see that some people show off their skills immediately. What I began to realise was that people show off their best piece and in some cases, it is the only impressive party piece they know! I remember watching a fellow pianist play some Grieg and being totally blown away. Upon telling her how impressed I was, she said that she was really wanting to ask me if I could teach her how to improvise the way I did! You never know what others are really thinking and it made me realise that everyone has something of value to others. There are many more strategies to change the way you feel about your musical ability in The Confident Performer Book.
Paying fees makes you the customer :
It is important to remember that when you are enrolling on a course, you are coming to college/university to learn. Lecturers and teachers are paid in order for you to learn. Their job is to make you succeed. I often refresh this thought when I go on courses that I pay for! In today’s climate, the large sums of money students pay, change the way students think about their courses. Besides, lecturers like good students. Good students are interested and they are reliable.
Be honest and interested and you will be liked by those who are worth knowing. Ask lots of questions about what music other people are playing or singing. Be complimentary about their playing where justified. Never make up false praise, you will only make friends that you will lose quickly. There is a tendency for people to try and make friends with as many people as they can at all cost when they start a course. Giving people false praise in order to appear popular is a bad idea on so many levels. It rarely works out being long-term friendship. Be yourself, be honest and be interested in other people and you will find friends that will last. There are many more tips on making connections and dealing with egos in the Confident Performer book.
It is ok to be a little reserved at first. I was incredibly shy when I started my music degree and I was sometimes in awe and overwhelmed by those who appeared very confident. Sometimes other people’s overactive egos are merely a cover for a feeling of lack of self-confidence. It took me a long time to realise that truly confident people often say little and are not always the life and soul of the party. Take time to find out what people like to play and what their musical tastes might be. I have met people I still jam with today in this way. Introversion is not a handicap, it is a gift which generates different focuses. I found that I was able to focus on arranging vocal music for my vocal group which gave us an outlet to be extroverted in a comfortable way. Other people who are naturally extrovert do not always have the patience or focus to arrange music with attention to detail. What is your introverted skill?
Make mistakes and allow yourself to learn. It is impossible to look confident in front of others, all the time. Know that there will be times when you will be called upon to demonstrate something to the group or play something difficult that you will not be able to play. I have lost count of how many times I had trouble playing a piece of music. Be gracious and calm about not being able to play it yet. Remember that if you could play everything that you were going to be asked to play at the beginning of the course, there would be no point in doing the course!
On another note, always pay attention to what the course will require from you. Finding out what is coming up on the course and what you need to practice is the best way to minimise surprise. If in doubt, phone the uni or college to find out what the course contains before you start. So many students do not find out details and wonder why they struggle with the unexpected. There will be times when you will find yourself outside your comfort zone and just remember to smile if you get it wrong. It is ok!
Allow time to practise. It came as no surprise that the musicians who practised often and worked hard, seemed to do better at college and when I became a keyboard player in a blues band. I realised that making excuses for not practising was really no way to proceed. My Father always says that when you are trying to achieve something, be honest when assessing your efforts. Did you really work hard enough to achieve them? Did you give them enough time? I realise that over the years, I did not give enough time to practising and yet I lied to myself about how hard I thought I had worked. It was obvious that others were working harder than me. Do you work hard enough? More tips about practicing can be found in the book.
Also remember that your course is made up of a number of different elements. Sight reading, improvisation or whatever you fear most is probably going to be only a small part of any course. See the bigger picture. Ask yourself, “How much of this activity will contribute to my grades?” I would often calculate this when I had to perform a difficult piece of music in a concert. The answer 4% takes the edge off the worry!
Appearing professional. One of the single most powerful things you can do in the music profession or indeed any profession, is to learn people’s names. Using names as soon as you know them is the best way to establish acceptance from others. It changes how others treat you. For me, as an intrinsically shy person, it took me years to be able to learn a name and then use it immediately. It is such a powerful tool to use in any profession, especially music. Working with other musicians is a time when you need to quickly relax others and yourself so that you can get on with the task of making music. Learning names develops rapport in a quick way. I have also noticed that managers use this tactic to help take control of a situation and instil trust in others. It may be a good strategy if you are expected to lead a band or conduct a group. What would you do with the new found respect of somebody who learns and uses names quickly?
Jamming can make your future. Remember that the people we meet are the people we can work with in the future. There are always opportunities to make music. Take opportunities to jam with the people on your course. Sometimes I jam and make music with my colleagues in our spare time. This is often a way to change my perspective in a creative way and make you feel better about some of the tough situations you may face. Opportunities from some of these jams can be exciting too. I have played many one off gigs with acoustic duos, accompanying singers which have come about from a fun jams. Many of these jams lead to very profitable careers on occasion. Jaques Loussier started jamming Bach at parties as a bit of a musical joke and then made a career out of it.
So in short:
- Prepare a list of things you are good at and remind yourself
- Remember that you pay fees which makes you the customer
- Show interest in others’ music
- Learn the names of other people on the course
- Go for the long goal of good friends not quick friends
- It is ok to be reserved, there is no need to become extrovert
- Remind yourself it is ok to make mistakes and learn from them
- Allow real time to practise
- Allow yourself to learn and be the beginner again
- Plan to jam often. Good things will come from this
- Find out about the course and what is required from you
- Put a difficult task into perspective in terms of percentage of the course. Your feared task may have very few marks attached to it
- Plan to have fun on the course
- Be you. It is ok to be you.
Find out more at www.confidentperformer.co.uk
Have any questions about starting your new course?