I’m a dedicated musician now but I didn’t start studying music until rather late. I was 48 years old when I first started taking music lessons. The instrument I chose to begin with was the ney, i.e. the Arabic flute. At that time I was musically naive, unable to read music and ignorant of the most basic concepts of music theory. Fortunately I had a teacher who was very patient and clear, and he led me step-by-step through everything, from the very fundamentals on up.

It had taken me until my late 40s to finally muster enough courage to try learning an instrument because of my perennial anxiety about undertaking the learning of any new skill, fearing that I would not be up to the challenge and that I would fail, thereby demonstrating to the world and to myself my essential worthlessness and ineptitude. After all, the musicians that I had known were obviously very talented people but it was clear to me that I was not talented. It was my struggle against this anxiety, this colossal psychological obstacle, that was the overwhelmingly dominant issue in my early musical training and practice. Somehow I persisted in spite of this anxiety, though I felt at all times during my lessons and my practice that I was struggling against some enormous psychological inertia. I felt that I was stuck in a paradoxical situation. I couldn’t quit, and yet at the same time I felt that I couldn’t possibly succeed. Looking back on this experience now I realize how extremely patient my teacher was to put up with all of my anxious whining about the difficulty of the practice.

But I did stick with it, and over time I gradually complained less. Eventually I learned to let go of my relentless self-criticism and just play as best I could. I stopped worrying about whether or not I had talent. Now I am very glad that I stuck with it because playing music has become one of the great passions of my life. Now, after 14 years of playing music on several different instruments, and having played many performances with different ensembles, I’ve come to realize that in my early struggles to learn the basics of musicianship I was mostly fighting an intense battle with myself, i.e., with my anxiety, with my ego, and with all the false ideas that I harbored about myself. I came to see that the idea of “talent” is mostly nonsense. The real bottom line is: you are either playing it or you are not playing it. If you are playing it then you need to focus as best you can on the music you are playing, and give up any ideas that you might have about yourself and how good or bad you think you are, because such ideas are irrelevant. But it is hard for most people to refrain from judging themselves, and this is where the most difficulty arises in learning to play music.

From time to time I meet someone who expresses an interest in playing an instrument but has become discouraged because they felt it was too hard for them. To these people, I would make this suggestion: Commit to practicing on your instrument for a half-hour per day. Every single day. You might want to split your practice time into two 15-minute sessions with a brief rest in between. Start at the very beginning, with some basic exercises such as playing scales. Don’t worry about how much progress you are making. It is more important in the beginning to build up the regular habit of daily practice than it is to make a lot of technical progress. Be patient with yourself. Don’t judge yourself or criticize your playing. Don’t listen to the bullshit voice in your head that tells you that you’re no good. Just do it. It is all about simply doing it, and nothing else. Keep practicing for a half-hour daily for a year, and then when you look back you will see that you have actually come a long way in that time. You’ve made a solid foundation for your developing musicianship, and you are on your way.

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