Liminal Luminous

The shining threshold
creativity Disability/Chronic Illness

Creative self sabotage

Are you self sabotaging your creative work by unrealistic, subconscious expectations?

We had the committee meeting for my concert band last night, and the discussion turned to next year’s programme. We all talked through our thoughts about it and I said that I was worried because I have really struggled with this terms’ harder pieces.

Each time I sat down with these pieces to practice them at home, I looked at the score, at the vast amounts of black ink on the page and my heart sank. They became totally unmanageable, so I did the best I could, feeling awful each and every time.

At one point my hands seemed to not have any muscle memory of the pieces, so where I might spend ages one a piece one day when I came back to it the next it was like I was seeing it for the first time. They were also extremely painful and it felt like they were just not responding as I wanted them to.

As you can imagine this is deeply frustrating, but I think this was a physical manifestation of the distress of each practice period.

I even I took the pieces to my flute teacher for his help, but didn’t actually manage to work on them as I pretty much just cried at him for an hour. Wonderful man that he is, he didn’t charge me.

On the way home from the committee meeting yesterday I had a realisation.

Each practice session I was expecting to be able to improve the whole piece. I am grade 5, working towards my grade 6. These pieces are professional level, grade 8 or higher, for example, Holst Jupiter Suite. There is no way I am going to improve the whole piece each time I sit down with it, not least because it is a really long piece, I think the running time is 8 minutes or so.

What I should have done it break it into bits.

There are always key phrases that repeat in pieces, I should have chosen one of them for each session and work on it a tiny bit at a time. Not just the ones at the start, but phrases from across the whole piece. Yes, I need to run it through so that the phrases always stay in context, but I should be looking to improve one or two phrases each time.

This isn’t a radical breakthrough in music practice technique.

I am certain my teacher has told me this numerous times, our musical director has told us to work on tricky phrases too. And yet… there was a part of my brain that expected me to magically improve the whole piece each time, getting it up to performance standard straight away.

This is a classic case of self sabotage, my brain expecting me to suddenly be playing an incredibly difficult piece in a few practice sessions meant that I physically wasn’t able to play very well at all.

I had to delay my grade six exam as I just wasn’t able to play reliably enough to do the exam, or get the practice time in.

This lesson can be applied to so many different art forms and creative practices. Unrealistic expectations can stop our work all together, or at least seriously hamper it.

Perfectionism kills creativity.

In my case this has a physical manifestation (due to my condition), for most people it will impact their work, either stopping it, or seriously slowing it down.

Have you got any unrealistic expectations of your creative work that you may not even be aware of?

Are these stopping you from enjoying it and making progress?

2 Comment

  1. This rings some bells for me. I had a hard time learning how to practice, even learning how to learn because from very early on the expectation seemed to be that I should be able to do anything having been shown it once. Fear of getting it wrong on the first go can make it hard to start. Permission to get it wrong is so important for breaking new ground, and I came to that rather late in life. Best of luck with it all.

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