Written for Allegro magazine, official journal of AFM Local 802 NYC.
Since the pandemic intensified a few months ago, many musicians are experiencing serious problems staying motivated. They are not practicing very much, if at all. Many may feel guilty for letting their otherwise highly refined skills deteriorate. They may feel even worse for not taking advantage of their extra time to maintain or improve their skills.
Guilt is a negative emotional response that happens when a person realizes that they have done something that they consider to be wrong or for failing to do something that they believe to be right. They recognize that they have compromised their standards of behavior or violated their own values, and they feel personally responsible for doing so. This can be followed with a negative evaluation of their conduct leading to feeling shame and remorse.
The physical symptoms that accompany guilt and shame include insomnia, headaches, digestive difficulties, loss of appetite, body aches and pains, muscle tension, drained energy, and fatigue. These tend to amplify the experience of emotional discomfort, irritability, sadness, and general malaise that often accompany guilt.
For musicians, the guilt feelings first hit when you realize that you have compromised your usual high standards by not practicing the way that you are accustomed to. It feels like you have breached the contact that you previously maintained with yourself. Unfortunately, the pervasive guilt that many musicians are experiencing right now involves other negative emotions besides shame and remorse. These include anxiety, frustration, anger, depression, and resentment. These painful feelings don’t go away easily. If you leave these feelings to fester by continued failure to adequately practice, they can turn into serious regret, low self-esteem, and feelings of deep inadequacy. This results in even less motivation to practice. It can put you in a deep hole where you can get stuck wallowing in guilt.
Guilt, frustration, and even shame can be helpful if you use them to get you moving. The first step out of the abyss is forgiving yourself for what you have done or failed to do the past several months. It was a direct and understandable result of the pandemic. Nobody is perfect, including you, and especially in these challenging times. As soon as possible, release your feelings of guilt and all of the other negative emotions associated with it. Repair the damage. If you’ve been punishing yourself unnecessarily lately, stop immediately. That won’t help in any way. Any punishment does not fit the alleged crime that you may have committed. You are not a bad person because you have not felt like practicing lately. Accept your behavior with self-compassion so you can move past the guilt, shame, regret, and resentment.
Guilt can be a healthy emotion when it’s telling you that something needs to be fixed and that you need to make important changes if you want to feel better. Change your perspective and your approach. Move from what is not working for you to building productive habits that serve your best interests and growth as a musician. You can learn from your previous mistakes and actually be grateful for what they have taught you, if only not to repeat them. Resolve to make things better for yourself as a musician starting today. Make up your mind to change your unhelpful recent habits and replace them with a functional plan of action to improve your skills. Start (or continue with) a practice journal. Write down your outcome and practice goals for the next six months. Figure out how you will use the extra time you have to become an even better musician by then. Include a detailed schedule for your daily practice sessions, as well as a commitment to making weekly recorded performances.
Imagine yourself getting into a highly effective practice routine five days a week, with the sixth day for a recorded performance of what you were practicing, and the seventh day every week for rest. In the meantime, stay optimistic and take total responsibility for your practice time and habits. Take decisive action to improve your musical skills. This is how you can become a much better performer in several months, before you return to live concerts, shows, and auditions. It is also how you can get past guilt and get back on track refining your skills.
So, how do you get to Carnegie Hall? Stop feeling guilty and resume practicing often and effectively. Those are the only things that will make you feel better as a musician. The first steps are usually the most challenging but it’s nothing that you can’t do, or haven’t done in your career. Now’s the time for you to do it. On behalf of me personally, and all the other music fans in New York and throughout the world, we are really looking forward to hearing you play again. Please practice, so that when you return, it will sound even better than before. We need your beautiful sounds more than ever. I want to thank you in advance for getting ready for those performances.