Self-Knowledge and Your Musical Career

I’ve always had problems with straight lines; this is one of the areas where my ADD really kicks in. When I was a kid my friends used to call me ricochet because that’s how my thought process worked. It was all over the place, with sudden bursts of hyper-focus followed by multiple blasts of random but somehow connected ideas. This has always been a factor in my approach to my musical career, which on the one hand has been a blessing, but on the other has been a detriment. I’ve always wanted to do everything, frequently at the same time. I hear good jazz and I want to play it. I hear good classical guitar, and I want to do that. I hear a great funky blues bass player and man, am I there. And I’m quite enthusiastic about each shift, until repetition sets in and then I’m pining for a different direction that will take me somewhere else, somewhere exciting, thrilling, but mostly different. This has made me a quick study when it comes to stylistic and genre shifts, in some ways a Swiss Army Knife musically, or a good reliable musical chameleon. It also has made it difficult to become a true master of any one genre, because that takes dedicated long-term focus, which is quite difficult, particularly for those of us whose brains don’t really work that way.

We are taught from early childhood to measure and rate both our successes and failures. We are also taught that in order to measure where we are today versus where we were last week, we need to deal in a quantifiable means to do so. This means that we must set goals, both short term and long term, but it also means that these goals need to be specific enough to be measured in some way in order to determine whether we have fulfilled the requirements to qualify as achieving the goal. It is not enough to state that the goal is to become a better player or musician, we must also define what better consists of and how we are going to measure that. It is also highly valuable to go further by dealing with the question of why we’re doing it to begin with. I forget who said this but I was listening to a radio program dealing with improvisation and the artist being interviewed made the statement that he practiced so he had the physical skills and abilities to express what his brain wanted to communicate in his music. That’s a solid goal and it is definitely measurable, through self-reflection, review and analysis. It’s also a goal that ADDers can relate to.

I’m great with ideas, directions, short-term goals and bursts of focus. It’s how I’m wired, but long term goals and extended plans that range over weeks, months and years are the stuff of nightmares. There are so many opportunities for distraction that I find myself walking through a musical minefield that provides a multitude of triggers for shifts in direction and focus. So how does someone like me achieve a straight-line approach to building a satisfying, life long career in my field? The answer is painfully obvious as long as we look at from outside of the current conventional non-ADD model, and it is critical that we do so. ADDers are great at seeing connections between things that others might not notice. We are happier when we are dealing with variety; ironically enough it can help us focus. For instance, as musicians we are often faced with technical exercises like scales. They are a great way to build fluid and controlled finger skills, but can be amazingly boring simply due to repetition. In his book “Pumping Nylon,” Scott Tenant points out that there are many musical pieces that can provide the same benefit as running scales. By working those sections as an alternative to running conventional scales and you have the dual benefit of banking the advantages of scale practice with learning a new piece of music. This also provides a remarkably broad source of musical technical exercises for those of us who end up running away from our technical practice.

We also need to redefine what success is while embracing the way our brains work. Yes we do need to buckle down and do the work, but we need to find ways that we can do so and be happy both with the process and with the results. For instance, in my case I have a tendency to get down on myself because I have immense difficulties sticking with one genre of music. I truly love many different avenues. The fact is, I function best when I’m not boxing myself in, so when I’m dealing with multiple projects that deal with different types of music, I am a much happier person, which in turn means that I am a much happier, and much more productive musician. So if my definition of success includes being a happy and productive musician, then my chances of achieving this are greatly enhanced by pursuing multiple projects that inherently provide the variety I crave. If my definition is one dimensional, for instance limited to one area, and is guaranteed to make me unhappy then I definitely need to revisit my definition and re-evaluate what I am doing.

I also have a real need to perform, and this is one of my major driving factors, and also one of the ways I define whether I am succeeding as a musician. There is a definite correlation between how much I am performing and how happy and well adjusted I am in my day to day life. I have generally found it to be true that the fewer gigs I have in a month, the less happy I am. For one thing, I view music as my primary career and the most obvious and prominent measure of success is found both in the number of performances I have on my schedule and the amount of money that is coming in from my work. If I don’t have a busy performance schedule, then how else do I measure my success rate, by how much I am practicing? Well, that does play a major part in success, yes, but in reality the major reason why I practice is so I can perform/work. It defines who I am and what my purpose is in many ways. It has also has a major impact on my emotional well-being.

So, if I, like so many other ADDers out there, am going to move forward in my career I need to both embrace my mental process and define what a successful music career is for me, both now and in my future. This requires honesty and self –reflection, which brings about self-knowledge in terms of our identities and what makes us tick, both emotionally and rationally. In my case I need to accept that the straight line is not the best route for me and I’m not at my best when I try to force myself into that model. I need to embrace the fact that I am a multi-faceted musician, with many interests and the ability to pursue them simultaneously due to my wiring, but I also need to be aware of so I don’t permit myself to overcommit. Sometimes more is just more and not better. How about you? Are you comfortable with your current approach or are there ways you could modify it that would be to your benefit? Take the time to reflect because it will save you time and a lot of misdirected effort in the long haul.


4 thoughts on “Self-Knowledge and Your Musical Career

  1. Great post, Chris. I manage the Kalimba Magic page on Facebook for Mark Holdaway, and shared your link on it just now. So many creative people can relate! “Musical minefield”, love it. Your description of ADD is compassionate and empathetic, and I love how you gently point out that the solution is there inside the problem, and that self-knowledge is necessary to find it.


  2. Reading your posts, I’d never suspect you have ADD. They’re pretty focused and they don’t ramble at all. You tend to be factual and illustrative of points through experience. If its any comfort, you’ve definitely found how to make it work in an online format.


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