by Tom Hess
Are you musically frustrated with yourself? Are you not the musician
that you want to be? Or not as good as you could be or should
be? Do you look with envy at other musicians who are doing what
you wish you could be doing? Does reaching your musical goals
seem out of reach?
I think just about everyone has had these thoughts go through
their mind from time to time. Fortunately, you are not alone and
there are things you can do to combat the negativity of frustration.
Many of the great masters of music have been frustrated at times
with their own musical abilities. I've provided four (4) examples
from famous classical composers:
1. Ludwig von Beethoven (1770-1827) worked for long periods of
time on his compositions before completing them. He revised his
pieces over and over again, reworking them, doubting his original
efforts. This was almost unheard of in Beethoven's time. Many
of you may already know that Beethoven gradually became deaf later
in his life. Because of this, Beethoven quit performing as a pianist
in 1814 (13 years before his death). He stopped composing in 1815.
2. Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) was so frustrated with his composing
abilities that he spent twenty-one (21) years composing his first
symphony!!! He felt as if he could never compose a symphony as
well as Beethoven. Brahms kept starting over with his symphony,
revising it, abandoning it, starting over, reworking it, etc.
3. Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) (master of symphonies), revised
his symphonies and other works after having doubts about what
he had composed originally. Mahler kept revising his works until
his death. It must have been frustrating to keep revising pieces
that were already published.
4. Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) actually stopped composing for about
30 years because he felt that he had run out of new musical ideas.
He doubted his abilities to compose anything worthwhile at the
height of his popularity. He worked on new music for those 30
or so years, sketching his ideas during the day and throwing them
away every time. That is some very serious frustration!
Beethoven began composing again in 1817. Many of his most important
compositions are from this last period in his life. Beethoven
broke new ground and had done things never before done in music
once he began working again. Had he continued to let the frustrations
of his deafness paralyze him musically, Beethoven would not be
as highly regarded as he is to this day.
After the twenty-one (21) period of composing his first symphony,
Brahms felt relieved. The shadow of Beethoven was lifted enough
to allow Brahms to move forward. He finally found a way to move
on and deal with his frustrations. He completed his next symphony
in less than one year.
Frustration can be help you or hurt you depending on how you
deal with it. As you can see, Beethoven and Brahms eventually
found positive ways to deal with their frustration and overcame
it. Unfortunately, Sibelius never did. He is perhaps the most
extreme example of a person who let frustration destroy him musically.
Sadly, he died without finishing any substantial music compositions
during the last 30 years of his life!
When I was a teenager, some friends of mine (all guitar players)
and I went to see Yngwie Malmsteen perform in Chicago. After the
concert had finished, some of my friends made comments about how
they felt depressed after hearing Yngwie and that they just wanted
to quit playing guitar completely. We were all young and knew
how much better Yngwie was as a musician than we were. The main
difference between their reaction and mine was they let their
awe for Yngwie frustrate them to the point of feeling hopeless
in their efforts to become better players. Many of my friends
stopped playing their guitars for several days, one of them actually
did quit completely.
My reaction to the event was quite different. I used my awe for
Yngwie as a massive positive inspiring force. I was so inspired
that I went straight home and practiced through the night until
I couldn't keep my eyes open any longer.
The point here is not to seek to avoid frustration, but to use
it to your advantage. I have always turned my own musical frustrations
as the biggest source of motivation. I was always looking for
other players to jam with that were better than I was. Of course
that was easy to do when I was a beginner and became increasingly
more difficult over the years that followed. I got a lot out of
In a past article I wrote on perseverance, I wrote of the importance
of believing in yourself and not giving up. I don't want to be
too redundant here, but those points are worth mentioning briefly
Too often players don't ever reach their own potential because
they feel they couldn't measure up to other players or their own
expectations. Why compare yourself to others. Does it really matter
if you are, or are not, as good as someone else? Of course not.
Music should not be thought of as a competitive sport. It is,
and should be, an art. All that really matters is how well you
are able to express yourself. Therefore the only question should
be this: Do you currently have the skills to express yourself
fully in music?
As much as I have never liked or respected Nirvana'a singer/songwriter/guitarist,
Kurt Cobain, I must admit that he was able to express himself
fairly well. Despite the fact that Kurt's musical skills were
primitive and very limited, one could hear his personality come
through his music. It didn't matter that he was not a good guitarist.
It didn't matter that his knowledge of music theory was probably
close to zero. It also didn't matter that he played out of tune
and had an absolutely sloppy guitar technique. Fortunately for
him, what he wanted to express didn't require any of the skills
that most musicians generally consider to be good and necessary.
Had Kurt wanted to express anything more significant or complex
he would have been extremely frustrated because he didn't have
a lot of musicianship skills beyond what could be heard in his
music. So in the end, it worked out well for him and my guess
is that he probably wasn't very frustrated with himself musically
because he wasn't trying to be a better guitarist, songwriter
or singer than anyone else. He didn't make those types of comparisons
between himself and the rest of the music world. This is, in my
opinion, the only significant thing to that we can all follow.
Of course Kurt Cobain's approach to not caring about those comparisons
is certainly not a new idea, countless others before and after
him have also done so. He is used here as an example because most
everyone during our time knows him.
In my own life, the thought of quitting guitar early on did occur
in my mind (although never very seriously). As a teenager, I too
was frustrated when I thought I may never become a virtuoso guitarist
(like Yngwie or Jason Becker) and may never become a master composer
(like Bach or Chopin). When I stopped trying to compete with everyone
else and made new goals of self-expression, everything changed.
I stopped making comparisons to other guitarists, composers and
songwriters, because with my new goal, those comparisons did little
or nothing to serve my new quest to simply express myself fully
through music. I felt liberated from the burden of having to compete
with the rest of the world. Beginning in the early 1990s, my only
focus was on gaining more of the skills, tools, etc. that I would
need to express what I had inside me.
In my case, what I want to express does require a high level
of guitar and compositional virtuosity, musical complexity and
integrity, etc. Because I need those skills, my journey to reach
a higher level of musicianship has taken a lot more time, effort,
studying, etc. than it did for someone like Kurt Cobain who had
very different needs to express himself than mine.
Most musicians who will read this will have much greater musical
ambitions than Kurt Cobain and so for you, you will feel frustrated
whenever you feel limited by your abilities. The key is to use
that as a positive force in the form of motivation and inspiration.
Masters of all types of art have gone through what you are going
through. Today you are at whatever skill level you are at. Through
your frustration and motivation, you will eventually reach your
current goals. As you reach those goals you will probably still
feel frustrated because your desire to improve even further will
make you establish new goals for yourself. And so the cycle will
go on and on. But you too are progressing and improving on and
© 2003 Tom Hess
All rights reserved. Used by permission.