By: Tom Hess
Are you musically frustrated with yourself? Are you not the musician that you want to be? Or not as good as you could be or should be? Do you look with envy at other musicians who are doing what you wish you could be doing? Does reaching your musical goals seem out of reach?
I think just about everyone has had these thoughts go through their mind from time to time. Fortunately, you are not alone and there are things you can do to combat the negativity of frustration. Many of the great masters of music have been frustrated at times with their own musical abilities. I've provided four (4) examples from famous classical composers:
1. Ludwig von Beethoven (1770-1827) worked for long periods of time on his compositions before completing them. He revised his pieces over and over again, reworking them, doubting his original efforts. This was almost unheard of in Beethoven's time. Many of you may already know that Beethoven gradually became deaf later in his life. Because of this, Beethoven quit performing as a pianist in 1814 (13 years before his death). He stopped composing in 1815.
2. Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) was so frustrated with his composing abilities that he spent twenty-one (21) years composing his first symphony!!! He felt as if he could never compose a symphony as well as Beethoven. Brahms kept starting over with his symphony, revising it, abandoning it, starting over, reworking it, etc.
3. Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) (master of symphonies), revised his symphonies and other works after having doubts about what he had composed originally. Mahler kept revising his works until his death. It must have been frustrating to keep revising pieces that were already published.
4. Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) actually stopped composing for about 30 years because he felt that he had run out of new musical ideas. He doubted his abilities to compose anything worthwhile at the height of his popularity. He worked on new music for those 30 or so years, sketching his ideas during the day and throwing them away every time. That is some very serious frustration!
Beethoven began composing again in 1817. Many of his most important compositions are from this last period in his life. Beethoven broke new ground and had done things never before done in music once he began working again. Had he continued to let the frustrations of his deafness paralyze him musically, Beethoven would not be as highly regarded as he is to this day.
After the twenty-one (21) period of composing his first symphony, Brahms felt relieved. The shadow of Beethoven was lifted enough to allow Brahms to move forward. He finally found a way to move on and deal with his frustrations. He completed his next symphony in less than one year.
Frustration can be help you or hurt you depending on how you deal with it. As you can see, Beethoven and Brahms eventually found positive ways to deal with their frustration and overcame it. Unfortunately, Sibelius never did. He is perhaps the most extreme example of a person who let frustration destroy him musically. Sadly, he died without finishing any substantial music compositions during the last 30 years of his life!
When I was a teenager, some friends of mine (all guitar players) and I went to see Yngwie Malmsteen perform in Chicago. After the concert had finished, some of my friends made comments about how they felt depressed after hearing Yngwie and that they just wanted to quit playing guitar completely. We were all young and knew how much better Yngwie was as a musician than we were. The main difference between their reaction and mine was they let their awe for Yngwie frustrate them to the point of feeling hopeless in their efforts to become better players. Many of my friends stopped playing their guitars for several days, one of them actually did quit completely.
My reaction to the event was quite different. I used my awe for Yngwie as a massive positive inspiring force. I was so inspired that I went straight home and practiced through the night until I couldn't keep my eyes open any longer.
The point here is not to seek to avoid frustration, but to use it to your advantage. I have always turned my own musical frustrations as the biggest source of motivation. I was always looking for other players to jam with that were better than I was. Of course that was easy to do when I was a beginner and became increasingly more difficult over the years that followed. I got a lot out of those experiences.
In a past article I wrote on perseverance, I wrote of the importance of believing in yourself and not giving up. I don't want to be too redundant here, but those points are worth mentioning briefly again.
Too often players don't ever reach their own potential because they feel they couldn't measure up to other players or their own expectations. Why compare yourself to others. Does it really matter if you are, or are not, as good as someone else? Of course not. Music should not be thought of as a competitive sport. It is, and should be, an art. All that really matters is how well you are able to express yourself. Therefore the only question should be this: Do you currently have the skills to express yourself fully in music?
As much as I have never liked or respected Nirvana'a singer/songwriter/guitarist, Kurt Cobain, I must admit that he was able to express himself fairly well. Despite the fact that Kurt's musical skills were primitive and very limited, one could hear his personality come through his music. It didn't matter that he was not a good guitarist. It didn't matter that his knowledge of music theory was probably close to zero. It also didn't matter that he played out of tune and had an absolutely sloppy guitar technique. Fortunately for him, what he wanted to express didn't require any of the skills that most musicians generally consider to be good and necessary. Had Kurt wanted to express anything more significant or complex he would have been extremely frustrated because he didn't have a lot of musicianship skills beyond what could be heard in his music. So in the end, it worked out well for him and my guess is that he probably wasn't very frustrated with himself musically because he wasn't trying to be a better guitarist, songwriter or singer than anyone else. He didn't make those types of comparisons between himself and the rest of the music world. This is, in my opinion, the only significant thing to that we can all follow. Of course Kurt Cobain's approach to not caring about those comparisons is certainly not a new idea, countless others before and after him have also done so. He is used here as an example because most everyone during our time knows him.
In my own life, the thought of quitting guitar early on did occur in my mind (although never very seriously). As a teenager, I too was frustrated when I thought I may never become a virtuoso guitarist (like Yngwie or Jason Becker) and may never become a master composer (like Bach or Chopin). When I stopped trying to compete with everyone else and made new goals of self-expression, everything changed. I stopped making comparisons to other guitarists, composers and songwriters, because with my new goal, those comparisons did little or nothing to serve my new quest to simply express myself fully through music. I felt liberated from the burden of having to compete with the rest of the world. Beginning in the early 1990s, my only focus was on gaining more of the skills, tools, etc. that I would need to express what I had inside me.
In my case, what I want to express does require a high level of guitar and compositional virtuosity, musical complexity and integrity, etc. Because I need those skills, my journey to reach a higher level of musicianship has taken a lot more time, effort, studying, etc. than it did for someone like Kurt Cobain who had very different needs to express himself than mine.
Most musicians who will read this will have much greater musical ambitions than Kurt Cobain and so for you, you will feel frustrated whenever you feel limited by your abilities. The key is to use that as a positive force in the form of motivation and inspiration. Masters of all types of art have gone through what you are going through. Today you are at whatever skill level you are at. Through your frustration and motivation, you will eventually reach your current goals. As you reach those goals you will probably still feel frustrated because your desire to improve even further will make you establish new goals for yourself. And so the cycle will go on and on. But you too are progressing and improving on and on....