Last night marked my personal 1000th Show of Hamilton. I’m not sure what is more wild to think about: the fact that I’ve played this show 1000 times, or that I’ve only missed 39 shows out of 1039 total performances of the Philip Tour. All this to say, doing 1000 of anything has me in a particularly reflective mood (I’m usually pretty reflective, but this time I feel like sharing for a change).
I think I’ve finally cracked what makes practicing scales hard…and it’s the same source of my frustration now that I’m 1000 shows into Hamilton. The longer I’ve been working on something, the more upset I get with myself when-
A. things don’t go as well as I hope and/or
B. I cannot see the progress from day to day
Confession time: I am terrible at practicing consistently. I always have been. I don’t routinely keep a practice journal to log my progress or make mental notes of where I am now and what the next step to where I’m going is (though I’ve tried many times). I am at my most productive only when motivated by deadlines—most of them not my own. I am not kind to myself when it comes to self-talk (I feel like most people aren’t kind to themselves either). We all have that voice that says “you mean to tell me in 1000 shows you couldn’t figure out a fool-proof way to do xyz” or “if you can’t do it now, what makes you think you could do it later on when you have even less time to prepare and the stakes are higher?” This is exhausting, and it takes the wind out of the sails of progress if left unchecked. It’s very easy to let these voices win and find yourself in a dark place (add single-digit weather, constant moves, living apart from your loved ones, and you have a very short time before the spiral takes you).
Here’s the thing about that voice though…it’s not true. At least, it’s not true yet. But if every mistake upsets you to the point of exhaustion, you will have no energy left over to address the little details before they become big issues. The longer you avoid fixing things, the more you are complicit in their persistence (and the harder it is to talk yourself into doing something about them). This is settling. This is mediocrity. The negative self-talk over time becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy…if you let it win.
So a simple fix would be to not let it win, right? Well, yes…except it’s not so easy to turn it off—it’s a practiced habit. Ask yourself: “In the countless times I’ve done something, have I routinely let that negative voice win?” If, like me, your answer is “yes,” then we have to unlearn that muscle memory, that conscious reflex. How does one erase this habit?
Slowly, deliberately, and patiently.
If you are nervous when you practice, you will be even more nervous when you perform. If you practice with distractions, you will not have the stamina to focus in performance. If you practice impatiently, you will never give yourself time to truly learn what it is you are working on. I say all this because it’s what I need to hear—it’s what I’ve always needed to hear. Gracious, patient discipline: that’s what I need. This is the reflex to develop, the habit to take the place of letting negativity win in difficult moments.
We’re hardly ever taught discipline from this perspective though. It’s often taught from a place of fear: that without discipline you will fall behind your colleagues, that you will be incapable of accomplishing what you set out to do, or that you will miss your window of time to learn something. Do these statements sound familiar? They are cut from the same cloth as that negative self-talk, and, in the same fashion, they are not true today but could become a self-fulfilling prophecy if you dwell on their possibility.
Imagine how different the arts would be if instead of teaching discipline through fear, we taught discipline from a positive perspective…that instead of saying “you (the student) will never get where you want to go without practicing,” we say “you (the student) have the power to change the outcome.” Because at the end of the day, we all do have the power to change the outcome. It takes patience, it takes persistence, and it takes discipline. It won’t be a linear path, and it’s absolutely alright to feel disheartened at times. But instead of letting that negativity influence your next step, take solace in the fact that it’s never too late to change the outcome. There will always be another show, another chance to get it right, another opportunity to do your best.