The Hidden Enemy: Your Inner Critic’s Attack on Progress

Last week I started writing a theme and variation piece.  I completed the theme and haven’t hit the variations as of yet.  It has been awhile since I’ve written something that wasn’t some form of arrangement of someone else’s piece and I haven’t decided if I’m going to run with it, although I should, because regardless of how it turns out, it’s a way to prime the creative pump.  My main issue with it at this point is that it sounds like something written a couple of hundred years ago, and while I love music from that time frame and earlier, it’s time has come and gone.  However, it’s really in the draft stages, so what comes next might change things quite a bit, or not.  I have found that when confronting something like this, what I’m really facing is my inner critic, that voice which tends to stop forward momentum by immediately calling to task whatever accomplishment has been made toward producing something.  In the early stages of any creative endeavor, it is a must to shut off our internal critic in order to give ourselves the opportunity to move forward, whether it is writing an essay, story, piece of music, or even starting to learn a new piece of music.

            We all follow a progression from novice to mastery on everything we choose to learn, if we stick with the process and don’t permit ourselves to be derailed while underway.  Often life interjects and interrupts the process, whether it’s simply the task of making a living, fulfilling familial duties, or taking care of the million daily necessities in living our lives.  This is reality, not an excuse, and it’s something we all deal with.  Given that we already have responsibilities that interfere, we really don’t need to give time to our inner critics during the early stages of our process on anything new that we’re attempting.  It’s counterproductive, yet all too often it’s precisely this which stops us dead in our tracks.  For many of us, our inner critic is what we most frequently hear from, and we latch onto it in order to maintain some sort of standards.

            However, the inner critic is not really the enforcer of standards.  For one thing it is biased, and frequently is not biased toward us.  It brings in comparisons to other people we view as our competitors, or folks we look up to as examples of where we might want to be with a piece, or even our entire career, and these comparisons all too frequently occur before we’ve even managed to get the piece off the ground or even out of the conception box.  This is where the damage occurs because we are most susceptible to derailing in the early stages where we lack confidence in the creation of the piece, or in our ability to perform it.  If we give our inner critic free reign, particular in the early stages of a project, we are often dooming the project to extinction before it’s even off the ground because before we know it, we’ve convinced ourselves that we are going to produce an inadequate product.

            Does this mean that we exorcise our inner critic entirely from ourselves?  Like many of our other mental processes the inner critic does have its place, but we must train ourselves to use it wisely and recognize when we’re jumping off the deep end into the dark never-after before we make that leap.  We do need our inner critic, but we need to be careful about when we employ it.  If we’ve got a piece down physically, or think we do, now it’s time to use our inner critic.  Bring it out and let it work with the piece to see how we can make it better.  This is the key, though.  We must train our critical selves to truly seek to improve what we are doing, not tear it apart.  Look at where work still needs to be put in and figure out how to best accomplish that work in a manner that will not tear us apart in the process.  The best teachers bring out the best in their students through being constructively demanding, and building on experiences.  Ultimately we become our own instructors as we move along on a daily basis so we need to decide what type of teacher we work best with, and become that teacher ourselves.  This is what our inner critic should be, our internal version of our best teacher.

Sometimes we will come across a piece that simply isn’t going to work, or we’re not ready to tackle either because we’re not proficient enough to make satisfactory progress on it, or because we’re simply not willing or don’t have the time to invest in pursuing it.  We should be able to recognize this without turning it into an opportunity to dump on ourselves, and if we’re doing so it’s usually due to an inadequately trained inner critic speaking out of turn.  Remember, the whole purpose of good criticism is to provide advise in how to improve something beyond its current state of existence.  So now, let’s train that inner critic to work for us instead of against us.

Dealing with a Bum Thumbnail: There’s an Answer!

Fingernails are always an issue for folks who fingerpick, whether they are classical guitarists or pop/folk/roots types. Classical guitarists tend to be purists, relying on natural nails which they tend with files and varying grades of micro fine sand paper, only turning to artificial replacements when absolutely required. Other folks tend to be more open to experimentation until they find something that they’re happy with, whether it’s fingerpicks, fingernails, fleshy fingertips or artificial nails. While finicky nail care renders far superior tone with nylon strings, steel strings tend to be somewhat more forgiving, which is fortunate because they’re also harder on the nails.

For some time now I’ve been dealing with a split down the center of my right hand’s thumb nail, several years in fact. This creates a weaker playing surface, with too much flex and a much smaller attack area. I’ve tried gluing the split with superglue, which works until I use my thumb for anything other than playing guitar. As soon as I do, the seam splits and I’m back to where I was, except with a nail coated in glue. I’ve also tried going to one of the local salons and having a coating put on to create a solid nail. This works pretty well for a few weeks, however it is physically uncomfortable. When it is applied you can feel a burning sensation down into the nail bed, which passes but not entirely. The entire time I had the coated thumbnail my thumb was uncomfortable, feeling tight around and under the nail.

During this time I wasn’t encountering classical guitarists locally and I was uncertain what my options were. I tried using a thumb pick for awhile. As someone who was a classical guitar major in college it was awkward, to say the least.   Over the many years that have passed since school I’ve learned to adapt and not be quite so rigid in my approaches to making music, for better or worse, so I tried. I found the hand position that the thumb pick forced my right hand to adopt to be uncomfortable and I was afraid to use any percussive elements due to fear of damaging the instrument top. I also found the clamping sensation on my thumb to be a major distraction in itself. I did like being able to switch to being able to pick single lines and then switch back to fingerstyle at will, but the trade off wasn’t satisfying for me.

So, it was back to the split nail. It worked well if it was kept on the short side which limited the flex and provided a stiffer striking surface but still wasn’t as responsive to being able to really dig into the bass strings like you can with an intact nail. A couple months ago as I was exploring the Guitar Foundation of America website I came across the url for Player’s Nails. I’d heard of these but never tried them. Having reached wit’s end I went ahead and ordered the nail care set, which arrived within the week. When it came, I opened the kit, examined the contents and read the instructions. Since it involved using superglue and I was coming up on a series of concerts with the guitar ensemble I play with, I decided to wait to experiment until the concerts were past, just in case I didn’t like the results.

A few days ago I pulled out the kit and set to work constructing a new nail for my thumb. I followed the instructions and now have what I’m calling my prosthetic thumbnail. It is my first attempt and I now know some things that I will try on the next iteration. For one thing I should have cut the nail further back than I did, because I initially ended up with a double strike surface. After some tricky filing under the veneer surface to deal with the natural nail, I eliminated the double strike. Despite it not being perfect I can say with confidence that the artificial nail surface is more satisfying to play with than my nail in its natural damaged state. It does look somewhat odd since it is essentially a clear piece of material attached to the nail and extends over the fleshy tip of the thumb. It doesn’t look like a thumbnail and you can see the nail underneath quite clearly. I’m hoping that the veneer will provide the support that my natural nail needs to finally grow out the split and eliminate the need for the veneer, but only time will tell on that front.

While it looks odd, the surface does respond very well to filing and sanding to provide a very nice smooth and solid surface. The tone is much better and I can once again dig into the bass strings in a way I haven’t had access to in years, which is giving me great pleasure. I’m very glad that I took the plunge and tried another alternative. We’ll see how long the nail lasts and what happens underneath the veneer as time goes by. All I can say at this point is I’m relieved that I’ve found a better way around the issue.

Here’s to This Summer in Music!

It’s been awhile since my last post, for which I apologize. The semester came to a close, which brought pounds of papers to mark and simultaneously a flurry of performances to give. If you’re wondering, the performance of “Quiccan” with the guitar quartet went reasonably well, with room for improvement, which we’ll continue to work on. Now, aside from two weeks of teaching at a camp for gifted students, my summer is absolutely clear to pursue my continued musical journey. So what do I have in the works?

First I need to set some goals with target dates set in place to make sure that I do what I plan to do. Last week, I took some time and sat down to do so, which was actually short-term goal one. I have two primary summer goals. The first is to launch my solo performance project and the second is to get into the studio to produce a CD’s worth of material. I set a target date for entering the studio the week of August 10th, with an earlier date to book studio time. Ironically enough, the first solo gig I have booked, through a good friend, is the same week, opening for a blues rock band at an outdoor venue on August 13th. So now I have made commitments, including signing a contract for the gig.

This means that I have set a pressure point to push myself to learn and create new material, at the very least enough to fill a forty five minute set, which in itself should be no problem. The reality of it is that when looking from May to August, any goal I set to be accomplished by mid-August is actually a short term commitment, but I’m choosing to look at it as my current long term target given a matter of months.   My mid-range goals at this point are to produce about a three hour range of material so I am self sufficient for local gigging purposes. My longer term goals run toward touring, yes at fifty something, with a two to three hour program and expanding from there.

My ultimate goal is to make a living as a musician. I realize that most people would look at this as a pipe dream, particularly since I’m in my middle years and almost old enough for an AARP card (already had an application come in). I’ve been a musician since I first started learning to play back in 1971. It has been a long journey filled with stops, starts, distractions, successes and failures, but the trek is far from over. I can’t honestly conceive of not continuing at this point, so it’s “once more into the breach” to quote the Bard.

So, this summer I will be updating you all on my progress, what hurdles I encounter, and how I’ve resolved the issues at hand. I’ll review the process behind my decisions and what I’ve done to move things along, whether it worked well or not, and why. I will also do my best to maintain at least a weekly posting rate, sharing what I’m learning as I go along and whatever else I can think of to help you in your journeys as well. Here’s to a productive and fun summer season!