I’ll never forget something that the great Anthony Wellington once told me:
“If you’re practicing, and you think you sound terrible, then you know you’re doing it right.”
I’m paraphrasing, of course, and perhaps very crudely resembling his point as well, but the essence of its truth is still in there. Think about it – if you’re “practicing” then you shouldn’t sound good. Sounding good is called rehearsing, and that’s different from practice. Practice is like hitting the gym; you’re going to break a sweat. It’s not supposed to be a breeze and it ain’t gonna be a walk in the park, either. You should feel winded afterward, perhaps even drained and oddly energized at the same time. It’s meant to stretch you and push you to your limits, and through that struggle (sometimes an agonizing one) you will find growth. You will see results.
I mention this idea in a chapter my book, Advice for the Modern Worship Musician, and though it of course applies to church musicians, it also OBVIOUSLY applies to anyone else. You should sit down to you bass every day and learn something new, and by “learn something new” I mean “sound like $@#!.” Don’t be afraid to suck. That’s how you know you’re getting better! I mentioned earlier that if it does sound good, you’re not practicing. You’re rehearsing. And most of us do this far too often.
Yes, it makes sense that when I sit down to play music I want to sound good; I want to feel good, I want to enjoy it, I don’t want to feel bad because it sounds bad, I want to feel accomplished and comfortable, I want others to hear me and enjoy my sound…
All of these things are true, and none of them are bad. It only becomes bad when this is THE ONLY THING YOU EVER DO when you “practice.” If you never push yourself you will never grow as a player. Plain and simple. So this week I dare you to sound bad. Go ahead and suck at playing bass today. And smile while you do it!
Because if you struggle then you know you’re going into new territory, and that’s where you’re going to learn the most. Besides, if all you’re ever doing is “rehearsing,” then what you’re really doing is getting better at the things you’re already really good at. Which is cool too, I guess…?
Now don’t misquote me here – REHEARSAL IS IMPORTANT, especially if you’re trying to hold down a job. Do what you need to do in order to keep your chops up, to have those sets of tunes on the forefront of your mind, or whatever it is, but at the same time make sure that you always reserve some time in your practice routine to ACTUALLY PRACTICE. And remember, those feelings of “O man, that sounded terrible!” and “I should just quit this friggin instrument,” and “Why am I even trying this?” are completely normal. In fact, it’s the only way you know that you’re getting better. Instead of looking at these signs negatively you should say, “YES! That sounded awful!” and be delighted by the fact that you just got better at them. And if you’re an over-achiever you’ll say, “I can’t wait to try it again tomorrow!”
I dare you – step out this week EVERY DAY and do something that you KNOW you just CAN’T DO. Something that you think is impossible, that you believe is leagues above your pay-grade, so to speak. And keep at it while you relish in the glory of your failed attempts, at how much you suck at it! Because each day will bring you closer and closer to excellence.
And besides, if after a week you decide that you don’t like this feeling of “enjoying how bad you sound,” you can always go back to being mediocre. You’ll likely welcome yourself back with open arms 😉