I love working on artistic projects. I’ve started more of them than I can remember: modeling guides, piano compositions, photo shoots, novels, short stories, self-portraits, and even this blog. The thing is, although I start a lot of projects, I certainly don’t finish all of them. And I think I’ve started to figure out why that is.
As many of you know, I used to be a pianist before I was a model. I taught music lessons, accompanied choirs, and played hymns for a local church.
But now, years later, I’m severely out of practice. And I’ve missed it quite a bit, so I thought it’d be nice to take some time and learn a new song. I picked one (Chopin’s Nocturne in C#m, op. posthumous) that I figured I could learn in about a week. I decided I’d try to practice an hour a day, and I gave myself an entire month to work on it, just in case. I also decided to keep a daily log of my progress, and make a recording at the end of each practice session.
My log showed a pretty typical progression for learning a song like this.
Stage 1: Optimistic Beginnings (Days 1-2)
On my first play through, I can sight-read the song. Granted, it's slow and a little shaky, but it's definitely recognizable. And it just keeps getting better with every play through. I start believing it’s going to take me less time than I expected. I feel like a musical badass.
Stage 2: Doubt (Days 3-4)
I feel like I’m getting worse. I listen to my recordings, and they show some progress. The rate I’m progressing is just slowing to a crawl. Self-doubt starts to creep in. At this rate, will I ever finish it?
Stage 3: The Slump (Days 5-9)
Although this stage is short in retrospect, it feels like it will never end while I'm in it. Doubt has taken over completely, and I’m despondent. I want to quit. I have no idea what to do next to move forward, and no idea if what I’m trying will actually work. It’s hard to motivate myself to practice the full hour. I give up on recordings, because the lack of progress is too depressing.
Stage 4: Refinement: (Day 10-14)
I play through the whole piece one day, and it actually sounds like a song. Actually, it sounds like a pretty good song. Now it just needs some polish on the ornaments, and some honing on the left hand eighth notes. . . I could go on fixing and tweaking indefinitely.
I almost gave up around day six. The Slump is really awful. But getting through The Slump was key to learning the song.
As I looked back at these stages, I realized this progression isn’t just typical for learning music: it’s a microcosm of all of my creative projects. Every project has The Slump, and the projects I give up on are generally given up on there. If I want to get more projects done, the key is to beat The Slump.
I almost always start out a project optimistically. That’ll get me through the Doubt phase, but I can’t expect that momentum to carry me through the entirety of the project. I need to make sure that I have the gumption and intention to carry through the rough patches, and not just work when I’m inspired. Otherwise, I’ll never finish anything.
Second, The Slump always seems impossible and endless, but it happens in every project. That’s huge, so huge that I feel like I need to say it again to remind myself: The Slump happens in every project. The Slump is where I normally quit. Whether it’s editing a novel or the mid career of my modeling, it’s when I’m most tempted to give up. Now I can remember that it’s actually not endless—and it’s relatively short.