Music students often set themselves up for feelings of failure when they tackle a new task.  They think the task will be easy, and, when they find out that it’s actually quite challenging, they question their own abilities rather than rationally looking at the difficulty of the task itself.

Here’s a perfect example: transcribing.  For anyone unfamiliar with this term, transcribing means listening to music and writing out what you hear in music notation.

Transcribing music is hard.  There’s no better way to say it.  It combines many musical and intellectual skills in a confusing combination.  Transcribing involves critical listening, an advanced understanding of music notation, short-term memory, concentration, and a willingness to be extremely accurate.

One transcription I ask many of my students to do is the first chorus (12 bars) of Miles Davis’ solo from Freddie Freeloader from the album Kind of Blue. 

Here’s the thought process I see my students go through:

It’s only twelve bars long, and there aren’t that many notes.  The performance itself only takes about a minute, so how long could it possibly take to write it out?  Then, once it’s written out, I can read through or play it by ear.  Either way, it will be fun to play the creation of one of the master musicians of the 20th century, and I’ll be expanding my musical vocabulary.

But then, reality sets in…

I’ve actually had students contact me mid-week, between lessons, to say they’ve only gotten the first two bars done and something must be wrong.  Other students show up at their next lesson and say, “Oh, this went really badly.  I thought I could get it done in 30 minutes or an hour.  Instead, it took me an hour a day every day this week.”

I have to reassure them that the process they went through during the week is perfectly normal.  Just about every musician needs that amount of time the first few times they try to transcribe.  New skills take time to master.

So, why do these musicians immediately question their abilities and skills?  They feel bad just because they had to spend so much time working out the details of the transcription, and they don’t think it should be this way.

I’m no psychologist, but it seems like they have feelings of inferiority–as if somehow everyone else knows a secret that they alone do not know.  They seem worried that something is actually wrong with them because they have to work hard for many, many hours to complete their work.

The trouble is, musicians often base their assumptions on a hunch.  They have no idea how the rest of the music world is dealing with a specific problem.  If any of these students asked other musicians what transcribing was like the first time they had to do it, the students would quickly see that the task itself is difficult.

To stay motivated and to be successful, musicians need to be task-oriented and stop questioning their own abilities.  Abilities will improve over time simply by completing the tasks given by music teachers.  That’s the whole point of the tasks!

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