Overcoming Mental Limitations in Music

I can’t. We’ve all said these fateful words at one point or another. Fill in the blank for your own situation. “I can’t (____)”…draw, run long distances, wake up early, stop eating cheesecake. Every day there are literally dozens of things that we convince ourselves that we simply cannot do, and playing music and improvising are no exception. From the tasks in the practice room that feel like too much work, to the skills that we have no experience with, to those dreaded moments that strike fear into our hearts, it’s all too easy to say I can’t and give up.

It seems natural, easy, and even trivial to say these words, but have you ever stopped to ask yourself: Is this really true?

At the moment these statements just might be true — you gave it a try, you failed, and it just didn’t work out. However, the consequences of hanging onto this limiting mindset can run deeper than you might expect, especially as a musician, and I’ll show you why.

Over the years, I’ve taught at various jazz camps and workshops and instructed hundreds of students in private lessons. A curious thing that I’ve noticed about new students is that many come in with a preset belief about themselves or performing music.

Young, old, beginner, comeback player, weekend player – it doesn’t matter. There seems to be this burdening belief that all players carry around with them about some aspect of their playing.

Somewhere along the way these players began to believe that they couldn’t perform some aspect of the music, that some area of themselves was lacking. Not only did they believe it themselves, they felt compelled to tell people they’ve just met this “defining” element of themselves.

At the start of a lesson or rehearsal they would immediately proclaim “I can’t improvise. I don’t get music theory. I’m a bad reader. I can’t hit the high notes. I can’t play fast. I’m not going to solo on this tune.” Honestly, we’ve all done this at one point or another. When some aspect of a skill is difficult we label ourselves in a negative way, at first as an excuse and eventually as a crutch so we can avoid these situations altogether.

More than technical obstacles or music theory troubles, the biggest barrier to reaching your goals as an improviser can be an ingrained mindset. A mindset that is limiting you or stopping you from moving forward. Even as you progress, limiting beliefs can arise when you encounter difficult situations.

The key to improving is knowing what to do when you encounter limiting thoughts popping up in your mind. Once that seed of limitation or doubt is planted and takes root, it’s extremely difficult to take the steps necessary to improve.

The myth of I’m bad at math

A few weeks ago two math professors wrote a piece in the Atlantic entitled The Myth of ‘I’m Bad at Math.’ While the article speaks to the phenomenon of mental limitation in the education of mathematics, the information can just as easily be applied to the process of learning improvisation.

The theme of the article centers around the effects of the widely adopted, but misguided idea that mathematical intelligence is mostly genetic. The popular thinking goes that you’re either naturally a math person or someone that’s bad at math, no in-between.

In any educational setting you have students from various backgrounds coming in and competing in the same classroom. As the authors explain, some students arrive with previous experience in math while others are complete beginners. Those students that had exposure to or practice with mathematics before instruction in school initially excel, while the beginners sometimes encounter difficulties as they are trying for the first time. As a result the “prepared” students build up confidence and a self-affirming belief in ability while the first-timers start to develop limiting beliefs about their abilities.

The article had two important points relating to the mental aspects of learning new skills:

  • The idea that there are two basic types of approaches that occur when learning: Incremental orientation vs. Entity orientation. Learners with Incremental Orientation believe that intelligence is malleable and can be improved while learners with Entity Orientation believe that intelligence is fixed and cannot change. One of the problems with mathematics or music is that many people get stuck in Entity Orientation.
  • Teaching the mindset that you can change your skill level can be very effective in producing positive results in students of all levels. Knowing that you can improve your intelligence or aptitude for a task is pivotal in acquiring new skills.

“…people’s belief that math ability can’t change becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

How many times have you heard people say “I’m not a math person” or “I have no ear for music?” When people try a new skill and see that they are not on par with the group, they immediately think that they have no aptitude for it, that something essential within themselves is lacking.

All of this mental baggage stems from your first experience. You try a new skill in a group setting, either a classroom or a performing ensemble, and you immediately compare yourself to your peers. This experience can define you because as a beginner, you have no frame of reference or past history to put this event into perspective.

As with math ability, the same belief persists today in music around the ability to improvise. Many people believe that the ability to improvise is genetic, that you can either improvise or you can’t, that you have an ear for music or that you’re tone deaf. As a result, musicians that don’t excel right away with improvising often start to take on limiting beliefs.

When you fail at something new, it feels like you’ve failed once and for all. It’s natural to have this reaction, but this doesn’t mean that you have to be stuck with this mental barrier forever.

In learning music or any other skill that you’re working to learn, you need to switch from a “luck of the draw” mentality to one that revolves around your effort invested. Your ability is not dependent on a natural born talent, it depends on how much work you are willing to invest to achieve your goals.

“In the debate between ‘nature vs. nurture,’ a critical third element – personal perseverance and effort – seems to have been sidelined.

Remember everything that we learn from music to drawing to mathematics is a skill the learned ability to carry out a task with predetermined results often within a given amount of time, energy, or both.

If you can’t do something, it simply means that you haven’t learned it yet, not that you will never be able to do it.

Your beliefs about yourself can be very powerful. The way you think oftentimes becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you believe you can’t improvise or have terrible ears, you plot a course of action that will make these things true.

‘The myth of I’m bad at math’ could’ve been easily titled ‘The myth of I’m bad at improvising.’ Whether you’re struggling with algebra or a solo over rhythm changes, your mindset can make all the difference.

4 Steps to changing a limiting belief

Practicing improvisation and performing in front of an audience are challenging enough without having to fight a mental battle each time you pick up your instrument. Here are four steps to take in overcoming limiting beliefs in your mind as you work to achieve your goals as an improviser:

I. Identify the limiting belief

The first step to overcoming a limiting belief is acknowledging that you have one in the first place. We all have them, the key is being conscious of them when they occur.

Think about your own mindset as you head into the practice room or perform any other activity that you’re striving each day to improve. Do you start with a limiting thought before you even begin?

Are you saying “I can’t, I’m not good at, or It’s not really my thing” before you’ve even tried?

It’s surprising how often we unconsciously fall into this mental trap, especially in situations that are new or difficult. These are limiting beliefs, and if left unchanged, they can hinder your progress and development, especially as an improviser.

Look closely at your own approach to music in the practice room. As you pick up your instrument or sit down to begin transcribing a solo, do you find yourself having thoughts like these?:

I’m not good at improvising. I have terrible ears. There is no way I can get through this solo. I suck at rhythm changes. I’m not as good as the other players out there. I can’t hit the high notes…

Limiting thoughts can affect every aspect of being a musician, and not just in the practice room. For example:

At a jam session:

  • I can’t play over that tune perfectly so I’m not going to sit in
  • I’m not as good as the other players up there
  • I shouldn’t be up there playing
  • I might get lost in the form or make a fool of myself
  • I’ll just sit this one out and let others play
  • I’m going to wait until a tune I know perfectly is called

Before performing in front of an audience:

  • If I make a mistake it will be disastrous
  • Everything is riding on this one performance, don’t take any chances
  • I’m not fully prepared 
  • I’m going to fall apart at some point

Before asking for a lesson with a great teacher:

  • I’m not good enough to study with this teacher
  • I need to get better before I ask for a lesson
  • Why would they teach me?
  • They probably won’t teach me anyways, I’ll just wait

Before getting a group together:

  • I’m not good enough to perform in front of people
  • I need to know more tunes before I perform
  • I’m just going to wait until I get better
  • No one will come to hear me play

I’ve had all these thoughts before in situations just like these. Times where I avoided jam sessions, where I mentally set myself up for failure before performing, where I didn’t seek out great teachers, and held off on performing in front of audiences. These thoughts put you in the completely wrong mindset. You get stuck, you avoid high pressure or difficult situations, you don’t take any chances, and you hide your creativity and unique personality.

Rather than getting up there and taking a chance, you let these thoughts get the best of you, and do you know what happens? Nothing. You freeze and stay at your current level.

Sometimes failure can be a positive thing and at times failure is even a necessary motivational tool. If you flop at a jam session or don’t know many tunes, you’ll work even harder in the practice room so it won’t happen again. Learn to view failure as a valuable learning tool.

Take note when limiting thoughts like these pop up in your mind. These mindsets can prevent you from gaining valuable experience and can stop you from moving in the right direction as an improviser.

“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right.”~Henry Ford

At first some of these limiting beliefs or fears may be based in reality. You may have never improvised a solo before, your ears might not be up to speed, and your improvising may not be as good as your peers. However, all of these things can be changed. They are not set in stone and they don’t have to define you. It might be difficult and take some time to reach your goal, but put yourself out there and then rise to the occasion.

The more that you latch onto this negative thought pattern, the more you’ll begin believe it. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, you’ll shut out the possibility of anything else in your mind and eventually it will become true. Realize that you can stop this pattern right now. The first step in overcoming these mental barriers is identifying these limiting statements within your mind. Remember, you can’t change a bad habit until you realize that you have a bad habit in the first place.

II. Accept your current level

You are where you are today because of the musical experiences that you had in your past. Now accept it – it is what it is.

You can’t change the past, but you can learn from it, and you can definitely shape the direction you’re going to take in the future.

As you meet and play with other musicians, you’ll quickly realize that there is always going to be someone better than you. The key is to get inspired by these players rather than feeling behind or inadequate with your own ability. As with the example of the math students, don’t let the fact that you didn’t succeed on your first try stop you from doing it again in the future.

Everyone has different learning experiences and opportunities when it comes to developing as a musician. Some players had early opportunities to learn and practice improvisation, while others had to start later completely from scratch. In the long run your current level doesn’t matter as much as how hard you are willing to work at improving from this moment on.

Rather than compare yourself to these players and get down on yourself, use them as inspiration. Get motivated to get on the same level as your peers. Raise the bar in terms of what you think of as “good improvising” and strive to get better. Remember, you’ll grow much more in a situation where you’re not the best player.

As you head into the practice room don’t worry about your past or current level of musicianship and don’t let the fact that you are not one of the better players in the room stop you from trying. Instead look ahead and focus on where you’re going musically from here on out.

III. Visualize success

As a musician, visualization can be one of the most useful tools you have for overcoming technical, musical, or mental barriers. (We’ve even put out a free jazz visualization ebook.)

Once you’ve identified this limiting belief in your mind, stop yourself and begin by replacing it with something positive.

Saying something as simple as “I am an improviser.” “I can sound good over this tune.” “I can perform well in front of this audience” “I deserve to take a solo at this jam session.” can make a huge difference.

Now you’re starting with a positive mindset and taking a step to confront those areas of your playing that need work. You’re allowing change to happen instead of avoiding the situation altogether.

The next part of this process is actually visualizing yourself succeeding at this difficult task.

Pick an area of your playing that is giving you trouble. It could be performing in front of an audience or fast technical passage or even the chord tones of a Major 7th chord. Now relax, close your eyes, and clear your mind. Imagine yourself performing with ease and confidence.

Imagine yourself not only performing this task, but succeeding at it. Getting on stage and playing well in front of an audience. See yourself confident and calm as you play a solo with effortless technique and facility on your instrument. This is an image that you are eventually going to make into a reality and the first step there is believing it in your mind.

Remember your current abilities don’t define you, it’s your attitude about where you want to go. Take note of your strengths and weaknesses as they stand today, then get into the practice room and work on those areas of your playing. When you can envision the player you want to become you will be much more successful at achieving your goals.

IV. Learn through experience

The best way to learn a skill is by doing it, period.

Hours of practice are essential and learning the theory behind something is important, but eventually you’re going to have to get out there and put your skills to the test. The next time you catch yourself saying “I can’t play over this tune! or My ears suck!”  stop and ask yourself, “How much time have I spent actually practicing and performing these difficult areas?”

If you’re having trouble, I bet the answer is going to be not much.

The process is actually very simple: if an activity is difficult at first, keep doing it until you get better. If you find yourself getting nervous performing in front of an audience, try to take every opportunity you get to play in front a crowd. The more that you are in the spotlight, the easier it’s going to get.

If you feel limited by your ear or think that you have “bad” ears, incorporate some ear training into your daily practice routine. Go to a jam session and sit in on a tune or play some tunes with a few friends. Those times when you’re not really sure of a tune or a chord progression are when your ears are tested the most.

If you’re unsure of your ability to improvise or don’t have much experience taking solos, work on some exercises that will allow you to improvise (check out this article to start with) then take as many solos as you can.

The process is the same for any mental block you have about yourself or your musical skills. Identify the weak parts of your playing and focus on those areas in your practice, then test these skills out in the field.

With practice and experience, that fear and limiting belief will eventually disappear. It will be replaced by a new mindset and the new skills that you’ve acquired.

Creating your own path

At one time I thought the most important thing was talent. I think now that — the young man or the young woman must possess or teach himself, train himself, in infinite patience, which is to try and to try and to try until it comes right. He must train himself in ruthless intolerance. That is, to throw away anything that is false no matter how much he might love that page or that paragraph. The most important thing is insight, that is … curiosity to wonder, to mull, and to muse why it is that man does what he does. And if you have that, then I don’t think the talent makes much difference, whether you’ve got that or not.” ~ William Faulkner

A change happens when you realize that you can alter your mindset and your identity. It’s a subtle change that can produce big results. When you think of yourself as a great improviser you open up a world of opportunity. You may not improve right away, but you’re opening up the door to improvement.

All too often we talk about talent and what school you attended or what teacher you studied with. but we leave out that crucial third factor: how hard you are working in the practice room. As an improviser you may have started early and had musical parents or you might have discovered jazz later on your own. You may naturally hear chords and pitches or you may have to work diligently on ear training exercises, but none of this really matters as much as how hard you’re willing to work in the practice room.

Whatever your natural abilities or past experience, these factors don’t really matter as much as how hard you work and persevere to achieve your goals. Musical ability is not predetermined or set in stone, it’s malleable and can be shaped by you.

You have a choice, you can be a part of the group that believes that your musical ability is predetermined and set in stone or you can believe that your work in the practice room makes a difference, that in the near future you can be a different player than you are today.

The next time you step into the practice room or walk out on stage, remember to get rid of those limiting beliefs and grow from the musical experiences you’re having everyday.

So You Want to Keep Improving?

If your goal as a jazz musician is to get better fast and have fun doing it, then make sure to join over 100K Jazzadvice Subscribers by signing up to our FREE newsletter. Each week, we'll send you powerful resources to keep you moving forward in your jazz journey.