The donkey and the carrot: What is valuable, needs to be difficult?

As I was going through my old notes I’ve written while recovering from my embouchure focal dystonia, I found something which I think could be helpful for everyone going through the recovery process.

I had written about a belief, which buried itself deeply in my subconscious and silently controlled the way I practised and lived. This belief states the following: what is valuable, needs to be difficult.

Value and difficulty

I don’t know where and when I picked it up, but I do remember that when my teacher showed my three pieces to choose from, my first question was: which one is the hardest? And I always picked the one she pointed out. Why? I already had this belief, and felt that if something is valuable, it needs to be difficult.

So what’s wrong with this picture? This belief drove me to master pieces and techniques well beyond my age, so it must be a good thing, mustn’t it?

Yes, I got good very quickly, and that’s good, but in the meantime, what was going on in my mind?

A change of perception

If you think about it carefully, the things you have already learned and mastered are not hard for you any more, are they? So with this kind of thinking, everything you know well is automatically worthless. At least that’s what you think.

I have had many students struggling with this problem.When I pointed out how much they had already learned, which pieces or exercises are they were able to play now, they just answered: oh well, but that’s easy! And I usually answered: I don’t remember you saying that when you were first struggling with it!

Making life difficult for myself

But in the meantime I had the same problem when I was practising on my own. I had to push the tempo a little bit, or learn the piece by heart, or take fewer breaths, just to feel that what I was doing was valuable.

But as I was practising like that, I got another feeling constantly: frustration. Everything was just a bit too easy to play perfectly and nicely, so I had to make it hard (without realizing it) in order for it to feel valuable. In other words: value was always out of my reach, because subconsciously I decided to put it there.

Reality check

donkey carrot

Like a donkey with a carrot hanging in front of it, constantly working, never reaching satisfaction. “Playing both Mozart flute concertos by heart without a mistake? So what? If you’re a college student you’re supposed to be able to do that!” But is it really that insignificant? How many hours and years of practice is actually needed to be able to do that?!?

And this same thinking sabotaged me while I was recovering from my FD. I told myself what I was supposed to be able to do that day. And guess what? I couldn’t. My symptoms became worse, and I became depressed and frustrated and sad. The next day I did the same. And it went on and on, until I finally was able to figure the problem out.

Celebrate the small victories

First I was able to hold my lips, forming an embouchure, far away from the flute. And I was glad. And I practised that and nothing more. And I understood that by practising things I felt very easy to do, I could gain confidence, relax, and gradually do more.

I learned to love playing easy things, and I learned to value them. And slowly, step by step, after playing through all the exercise books I was using in my own teaching of students, I was able to play that Mozart again. And this time I don’t think that it’s such an insignificant thing.

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