When It’s Okay To Suck

Well I just flew in from Korea and boy are my arms tired (ba dum bum).  I was there for the last week doing stuff for my day job and now I’m home and all jet-lagged but I wanted to get something posted before I get too far behind.

As with my last post, my topic comes partially from a post on Sax on the Web Forum.  In it, a younger player laments how dejected he is and how embarrassed he has been to play ever since the first time he tried to play the horn. This struck me as odd because it’s very rare for someone to be good at something right from the start. Also, I don’t think anyone has ever sounded great the first time they picked up a saxophone without some other prior knowledge like playing another instrument. Luckily, I had saved a link several months ago with the intention of writing a post about it and now I have the perfect opportunity.

This says it all
This says it all

I love Lifehacker and I get tons of great advice from them and, yes, even some great ideas for blog posts. Back in November they posted an article that was itself sort of a repost from a blog from a blogger and author named David Kadavy. The post was about giving yourself the permission to suck and it struck me as being both a very interesting viewpoint as well as being very appropriate to musicians. In a way, David’s post was very closely related in intent to another famous statement from Ira Glass who was speaking about writing. You can watch that Youtube video but I actually prefer this version:


The point of all of these statements is that everyone has to start somewhere and you will probably not be very good for quite a while. In fact, it’s safe to say that everyone you might idolize whether it is Chris Potter, or Michael Brecker, or Bob Sheppard, or even the person  sitting first chair in your middle school band started right where you were or are and maybe they weren’t even that good. What they have is drive, perseverance, and a desire to improve and that’s something that anyone can have and use. One of the problems we often run into is summed up in another quote:

“The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel”  Steven Furtick

This is a very important distinction because when you are living your day-to-day life it’s often hard to see any real progress because progress is often minimal and incremental. Have you ever tried to lose weight and you keep looking at the scale and thinking you aren’t making any progress only to have someone who hasn’t seen you in a while tell you how thin you look? The reason that they see it and you don’t is because you are mired in it and they can look fresh from a point of reference that is removed from that standpoint. They can compare you to the last time they saw you so what is incremental and minimal for you could be striking depending on how long it’s been since they saw you.  The same is true for music or art or any other creative endeavor you attempt.

The key is that it has to be okay to suck and that your gratification may be delayed but if you care about it and want it then you can find ways to improve without losing heart. The other key is recognizing that we’re human and we will always find some comparison that will make us believe we still suck…and we probably do but it should be a call to action rather than a disincentive. Here are a couple personal examples:

  • My playing has come a long way over the years and it’s good enough to make me a sought after member of my local community but if I listen to Chris Potter or any of my other idols or even some other players in my area I can find ways that I still suck and maybe even suck really bad. That’s cool, I may never be as good as those people but I’m game to try.
  • Last summer I decided to write this blog.  I sucked at it then, I probably still suck at it now but I’m enjoying myself and I like having a place to get these thoughts off my head.  An old Monty Python line comes to mind, “I’ve suffered for my art…now it’s your turn”. 🙂
  • I used to be a fairly good doubler on saxophone and flute but several years of not having a reason to play them have left me woefully lame on them. I’m getting ready to start at least practicing flute again to get back where I was because I think there’s work out there if I do it…long tones here I come. Clarinet? Not so much but I may start messing with bass clarinet real soon. I’ll suck of course but it’s all about the challenge and entering uncharted territory.
  • One of my hobbies is bonsai gardening and I can say without a shadow of a doubt that I truly suck at it but it provides me with another chance for expression and a lot of stress relief.  I’ll keep plodding along and I’ll probably sacrifice a few more trees to the bonsai deities but I have every intention of producing show-able trees before I stop. I may even start a blog about my journey to help push myself.

Anyway, I’m probably a little long for this post but check out the various links in my post because I think you will find they say things different and, yes, in some cases much better. But that’s okay.

By Barry

I've been playing the saxophone professionally for over 30 years mostly in the Baltimore/Washington DC area. I've been through a lot of trials and tribulations trying to learn and play this wonderful instrument and my hope is to pass some knowledge along to others and maybe save them some of the trouble. At the very least I want to give you some things to think about even if you do something different or disregard what I say completely.

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