The Musical U team discusses the practice of exploring and pushing the boundaries of your musicality without self-judgement – and the wonderful breakthroughs it can lead to.
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Christopher S.: Hello, and welcome to the Musicality Podcast. My name is Christopher Sutton. I’m the founder and director of Musical U. And it’s my pleasure to be joined today by Adam Liette, Sara Campbell, and Stewart Hilton for one in a series of episodes we’re doing, following up on our 100th Episode celebration, which was actually a two-parter, featuring 26 people, experts on music education and musicality, talking about their one tip to help you unlock your inner musicality.
And we’re picking up on a few common themes that came through in their answers. Today we’re gonna be talking about exploring without self-judgment. And this came up with five or six of our guests, that I noticed.
David Wallimann talked about how you can get away from worrying about instrument technique by learning to sing before you pick up your instrument- or, rather, to put down your instrument before you try and create something in music.
Bill Hilton also talked about exploratory type of playing. Forrest Kinney said that worry about being advanced or impressive is gonna paralyze you for cultivating the sensitivity, which is really what music is all about. So he really saw it as a crippling thing, if you were getting that self-judgment going in your head, while you tried to play.
Leila Viss talked about how you shouldn’t be sheepish about borrowing from other musicians or other creators and producing something that’s not yet perfect. She talked about focusing on giving things your own unique spin and exploring from there.
Natalie Weber talked about giving yourself space to experiment and create, and recommended finding people and resources that support you in doing that.
And Sara Campbell, who is with us on the episode today, was talking about how children approach music and improvisation in a very different way- in part, because they don’t have so much of that self-judgment.
So maybe we’ll kick off this one with Sara, if you don’t mind. Before we do, though, we’ll just do a quick intro for anyone who hasn’t met Adam or Stewart before. Adam, could you just introduce yourself and what you do at Musical U and outside?
Adam Liette: Hi, my name’s Adam Liette. I’m the Communications Manager at Musical U. I play the trumpet and guitar, and a very proud father of four.
Christopher S.: Terrific. And Stewart?
Stewart Hilton: Hi, I’m Stewart Hilton. I am the Community Conductor on the Musical U member site. You’ve probably seen me all over the place- emails and on the site. And outside Musical U, I play with a tribute artist, another band on the side, and at church. And there you go. I have two dogs. We have two dogs.
Christopher S.: Very good. And Sara, I believe you’re more of a cat person, but tell us a bit about yourself.
Sara Campbell: Yes, in fact, my cat is over there sleeping, where we’re recording this podcast. (Laughing)
And so I am a piano and voice teacher. And I’m also a music business coach. So I spend a lot of time talking with other teachers about all kinds of teaching things, business things. And improvisation is always a pretty hot topic.
Because, you know, there are so many wonderful resources out there now. And so we spend a lot of time chatting about it.
Christopher S.: So I mentioned that your contribution for our roundup episode, where you were talking about children and adults and their difference in mindset – could you just, kind of, recap what you were sharing their and share any other thoughts you have on this idea of exploring without self-judgment?
Sara Campbell: Sure. So in a nutshell, it’s the concept that little kids really don’t have this big, scary inner critic that we develop as we get older. And so improvisation, for children, can be a very, very natural activity.
For instance, think of two- and three-year-olds. When music is being played, they automatically start dancing. I mean, it’s not even a question. They are gonna move their bodies. They are gonna sing along.
I was watching a little cell phone snippet of my niece. And here she is, doing these little dances and singing just the first and, like, last syllable of the phrases – and kind of putting her own spin on it. So that’s what it is. It’s all about that little kids – they naturally tend towards improvisation without fear.
Christopher S.: Awesome. And I think we can all relate to that inner critic. You know, you may not have thought about it by that term before, but we all have that voice in our head who, as soon as we play a wrong note, is like, “I’m such an idiot. Or “I really should have practiced more.”
And particularly, as you say – it’s not just in improv. But improv is maybe the purest form, where we’re really expecting ourselves to create on the spot. And that puts us on the spot to be good. And our inner critic is just waiting for us to do something that is not perfect.
So Sara, you teach adults and children. What strategies or advice or approaches have you found to help people with this, if they’re struggling with that inner critic?
Sara Campbell: Well, you just actually kind of hit on one of the biggest things that I discuss with my students, of all ages. It’s the concept that if we allow that inner critic to take over- and let’s say you definitely hit a note that kind of sounded like a clunker. Or you sang something that didn’t sound like you wanted it to.
As adults, we are brought out of the moment, and all of a sudden, we are more concerned with the fact that, “Oh my gosh, I just sounded horrible”- which, in reality, you probably didn’t It just didn’t sound the way you wanted it to.
So our biggest enemy is actually ourself. Because if we allow that inner critic to push us out of the moment, then we are no longer focused on what’s going to happen next. And so we have to be really good about releasing that self-judgment and just going, “Okay. Well, it wasn’t what I wanted. Keep going. I’m gonna find what I want next time.”
Christopher S.: Nice. I love it. And I was reminded, when I started thinking about this topic, that actually this came up a little in your interview on the podcast before. I think you were talking about singing- specifically, when you were younger. And how you’d wait until everyone was out of the house to practice singing.
And I think that’s like what you were just saying. You need to give yourself an environment, whether it’s physically or mentally, where you can really feel like it’s okay to make a mistake. And you can stop that instinctive, reactive, “oh no, you’re terrible” voice in your head.
Sara Campbell: Exactly. And I think, as musicians, we need to be able to find that safe space to practice. And hopefully, if you’re studying with a teacher, your lesson space should be that safe space.
And that’s what I tell all my vocalists and my pianists. “We can make as many ugly sounds in this room as we want. And let’s explore all of those. And you know what? Eventually, we’re gonna find some sounds that we really like. So release the self-judgment. Leave it at the door. And let’s get to work.”
Christopher S.: Awesome. So Adam, how about you? Where has this come up in your musical life?
Adam Liette: Oh, I remember- so I do play guitar. But I was always a heavy metal guitar play- as heavy as I could get. And suddenly I found myself as the front man and musical leader of a country band. Long story, but it happened. And I’m like –
Christopher S.: How has it taken us two years to discover this about you? Where are the photos?
Adam Liette: Oh, I’ll find them. Yeah. I’ve got them.
And so yeah. It’s like, hey. You’re gonna play country now. Were you aware?
And I didn’t even have any country in my iTunes, none of it. So I quickly downloaded some Greatest Hits albums and got some guidance on where to start. And I was absolutely terrible.
I didn’t have the style in my ears. I was trying to learn it, and play it, sing it. So I had to sing, too. ‘Cause, you know, that makes it easier, right?
And it was just an incredibly difficult learning curve, to try to learn this entirely new genre. And, by the way, no one else in the band had ever played country, either. So I was having to direct them.
And I remember just, for weeks, thinking, “This isn’t gonna work. I’m gonna get fired. It’s not gonna happen.” And then I happened to go home. I’d been away from home for a bit.
And I got home. And my wife was terribly excited, because she’s a big country music fan. And she’s like, “You’re finally playing music I like. Here’s your guitar. Play some.” And was like, “Okay. You’re not gonna like it. It sounds terrible.”
And I started playing. And my kids were really little at the time. And they come out, and they just start dancing. And it’s like- okay. And my wife, little known to me, was recording me playing. And she’s like, “That sounded really good.”
And I’m like, “It did not. It sounded terrible.” And she played back the recording. And it actually did sound pretty decent. And I did some reflection.
And where self-judgment came in for me was- I was trying to sound like Garth Brooks. I was trying to sound like Brad Paisley. I can’t be Garth Brooks. I’m always gonna sound like Adam Liette.
So as long as I accept that, and say, “Well, it’s always gonna have my unique spin on it. Because that’s me coming through my music” … and suddenly, everything was easier. The performances came easier, the practice came easier. I pulled back from learning from very, very early, beginner songs to learning some pretty complex songs and playing three-hour shows – in country, in this new genre that I’d learned a month ago.
But it wasn’t until I realized that I can’t try to sound like everyone else.
Christopher S.: Yeah. Super interesting. I love that recording was a factor in that realization for you. ‘Cause that was definitely something that I had on my mind, thinking about this top. And you know, Gerald Klickstein talked about that in his contribution for our hundredth episodes, and it’s come up several times on the podcast.
Because we always recommend, at Musical U- that can be a great way to become more self-aware, to become more self-accepting, to work on your mistakes, to improve. You know there are so many ways it helps you to record your practice and listen back.
But it can go either way. You know, if you’ve never heard yourself before, you can come away thinking, “Oh my gosh, I sounded terrible.” And it can exacerbate that problem. And I think there’s always that hurdle to get past, of being comfortable with how you sound- particularly for singers, but I think in any case.
And then you can start to hear a bit more objectively. As you experienced, it can be a really fantastic way to step back and be like, “Oh. Okay. If I’m not hearing that inner critic for every single note and being judgmental about every single imperfection, actually, that sounded pretty good.”
And I forget who it was I was listening to recently that was talking about how music is fundamentally different from other art forms. Oh, it might have been Gerald Klickstein, in fact. Because it is temporal.
You know, you can’t step back and look at your painting, or you can’t look at it the way you do with a painting. You can only record yourself and listen back. In the moment, you have no chance of hearing it objectively.
And I think that’s what makes it so important. And it gives you the ability to separate, I think, the exploration from the self-judgment. So it doesn’t destroy your inner critic. But it lets you, at least, separate the two, so that you’re not trying to explore while judging yourself. I think that can be really useful.
Adam Liette: But I do often wonder- if I had known she was recording it, would it have been that good? Maybe we should put, like –
Christopher S.: That’s a great point.
Adam Liette: Recording tip. Like – have someone record you without you knowing it.
Sara Campbell: I do that with some of my young kids. Like, if we’re performing a duet together, I’ll be super sneaky and set up my cell phone on a shelf, while they’re playing it, behind them. So they’re not the best shots, because it’s normally from behind so that they can’t see me. But you know what? They always perform better if they don’t know that they’re being recorded.
Christopher S.: That’s awesome. And I think that’s a really great gift to give them. Because it does- yeah. Yeah. It’s beautiful because they wouldn’t have said yes. If you’d asked to record them, they would have said, “No, I don’t want you to record it. I’m not perfect.” And that inner critic would have held them back.
But you give them that opportunity. And I think that’s really neat.
Adam Liette: That happened to me in the recording studio, once. I couldn’t nail this fill. And the engineer was like, “Just practice it. I won’t hit record.” And I finally got it. I’m like, “Okay, let’s record it.” And he’s like, “I just did.”
Christopher S.: (Laughing)
Adam Liette: Nevermind.
Stewart Hilton: Well, I gotta say, along with Adam, I was a – through the 80s and 90s, I was a metal-head also. And, as a metal-head, you do not explore other styles of music. No. You will be excommunicated from the metal scene. Okay, maybe it’s not that bad. But anyway, at some point, I got into explore other things.
Because the church we were going to loved to throw in country songs. They threw in a disco song at one time. And somehow, they became challenges to me. And then they even had a musical – they did two years of musicals. And one was “Footloose.” And I immediately signed up for the guitar part. I was like, “Yeah, let me try that.”
But it has taken me into areas- not only country, which- the one band I have does, like, country Southern rock. But with this tribute artist, it took me into a whole new space- which was when he told me “By the way, we’ll be doing disco. We have a disco act and an 80s act, which – also, by the way, you have to wear a costume.”
So to do this and not being judgemental on myself – that became really tough. Because I don’t look like I did when I was in my 20s. I’m 50 now.
But it’s kind of helped me just be open. And I kind of enjoy playing the disco stuff. Because there’s, underneath the disco-ness, there’s funk and R&B. And for a guitar player, that can be really fun.
But you just have to kind of get past the platform shoes, the leisure suits, and some of the other interesting disco things. But yeah. It’s kind of cool to do that, especially when you quit judging yourself and going on that.
But I find it interesting- ’cause I’ve tried to find other guitar players to do this. And there’s a lot of people who won’t cut out of the style they’re used to because they’re like, “I won’t do that.” And I’m like, “Well, you know. You could have a really nice gig here, if you want to explore this.”
But they won’t do it. They just want to stay in their zone. And I’m like- you know, technically, they have the ability to do anything they want. But they won’t go out of it. So it’s kind of neat to break that wall down, so you can kind of explore and enjoy it.
Christopher S.: Yeah. For sure. I just finished recording an interview with a guy called Josh Plotner. And one of the big themes was putting your ego aside. Like, he is someone who has constantly put himself into awkward musical situations that he’s not quite ready for, and really benefited from it. Because it kind of forces you to level up.
And it’s not easy to do. That inner critic is your ego. It’s the part of you that says, “I don’t want to mess up ’cause people will judge me for it.” And it’s such a powerful thing, if you can gradually learn to put that aside.
And I love that, in your case, it literally involved a costume. Because I think, figuratively, that could be a really nice way to do it. If you sit down to practice improvisation, and- instead of feeling like, I am practicing improvisation- you say, “You know, what would this feel like if I were just a five-year-old practicing improvisation?”- like Sarah was talking about.
That mental shift of, “I’ll pretend to be someone who does this” can actually be a really nice way to short-circuit that inner critic and separate out the ego and self-judgment.
Stewart Hilton: It has done. Because I am – anyone who’s known me for a long time knows I will – I am one of the best beating-up-of-myself people there is. My wife gets on me all the time. She’s like, “You weren’t that bad.” And I’m like, “I’ve done better.”
But I think I’ve come to an area- and I think Sara said something that may have joggled this- being honest with myself, but not beating myself up. And just finding, like, an honest area that I can say, “Okay, this part I did was really good. However, this- I probably need to go over it again. And just iron some things out.”
And that’s kind of a nice area to find.
Christopher S.: Yeah. And I think that’s the big secret that comes up when talking about self-recording- is that, if you listen and try to judge it as a whole, it’s really hard not to be really critical. But if you listen, and you’re like, “Well, how were dynamics on that? How was my phrasing? How did I play this bar?” Suddenly, you realize, actually, there were a lot of things you were doing right. And it helps you to be objective and to escape from that quagmire of self-judgment.
And I think that honesty and objectivity often comes through just being very specific about what you’re trying to pay attention to and improve on.
Fantastic. Well, I was really keen to look at this one. Because I think it’s something we all continually work on. I’m sure you guys would agree, this isn’t something that you master at the age of twelve and never worry about again. In fact that, age of twelve is fully the worst phase for it.
But I think we can all do with a reminder that we’re all in the same boat. We all have that inner critic, and we’re all constantly trying to quiet it down so that we can get on with the business of making music.
So thank you, Adam, Sara, and Stewart for joining me for this episode. And yeah, stay tuned for the next ones in this series.
I believe on the next one, we may be talking about the importance of joy and pleasure in your musical journey- which seems like something you shouldn’t have to say is important. But I think we’ll be digging into why that may be the case.
Thank you, everyone, for listening. And we’ll see you on the next one!
Christopher S.: Hey – in fact, not quite done! Anastasia from our team sadly couldn’t join us for the group session but she did want to share something on this topic. So here is Anastasia.
Anastasia: Hi, I’m Anastasia Voitinskaia. I am the assistant content editor at “Musical You,” and in my own musical life I play piano, guitar, bass, synthesizer, and I occasionally sing. I play bass and synth in a band, and I also have a solo electronic project that I’ll be working on in the next little while.
So when it comes to exploring without self-judgment, especially as someone who writes original music and then performs it, I’m the kind of person who is quite easily dissatisfied with whatever I’m making. I tend to kind of like romanticize these genius flashes of inspiration, kind of these lightning bolts coming out of the sky and into my brain that help me write amazing music. But obviously, that’s not always the case. A lot of the time a song evolves out of jamming or improvisation or just kind of casually noodling around on your instrument until you go, “Oh, hang on. That sounds good.”
So sometimes I end up making something that, to me, sounds derivative or boring or whatever, and I’ve been at it for years. I’ve been songwriting for probably five years now, and I actually get more and more self-critical by the day. So something that’s kind of helped me work around that block in my brain, that inner critic, is really to understand that a lot of good music is derivative. As so many podcast guests previously have pointed out, I think most notably Lelia Viss when she talked about the concept of stealing with an artist. Nobody starts from a completely blank page when they’re writing music, right? So in a way you should get comfortable with kind of ripping your favorite musicians off because you do have to start somewhere. Even if you think that you have this flash of inspiration, chances are it’s kind of already in your brain. Your subconscious is kind of like feeding you this idea, right?
It’s not necessarily a bad thing if your music sounds like someone else’s. You should, in fact, try and take ideas or musical motifs that you like and use them as a starting point for a song. Just remember to kind of like tweak it; make it your own; make it different. There’s a lot of different ways you can do that. You can alter the rhythm. You can alter the phrasing, the articulation, the instrumentation, a lot of different things. So bottom line, derivative is not necessarily bad. You should take songs that you know and love as a starting point and then explore how to make them your own, how to make them different, without that inner voice overpowering you saying, “Oh, that’s too similar. That’s not original. You can’t pass that off as your own music.” Because it’s just a starting point, right? It’s not the final product.
Another thing that has really helped me with the idea of exploring without self-judgment is just remembering that the more things that you try out musically, the more your musical information bank increases. You get more ideas to work with. You have more tools in your toolkit. I find that for every kind of five bad ideas that I churn and out and I say, “Okay, I’m probably not going to use this one ever,” there’s going to be at least one good one that I say, “Okay, I’ll put this on the back burner or in the back of my brain maybe for use later.”
The great thing about musical exploration, just where songs can evolve out of jamming or improvisation or that kind of noodling that I mentioned, is exploration can’t really be wrong, right? You’re just kind of finding different things and seeing what works for you. The worst case scenario, it goes into a direction that you’re not too fond of, in which case fine, scrap it and start over. So exploring without self-judgment is a really, really great way to learn what you like sonically, and this is really valuable obviously because it’ll make you a better improviser. It’ll make you a better songwriter, and it will ultimately make you more satisfied with the music that you do make.
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