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Growing Pains: Embracing the Messy Middle

Growth hurts.

Whether it’s those painful knees of a growing adolescent, or a lesson learned through a painful mistake, growth is usually the fruit of struggle, perhaps some frustration and occasionally failure.

Thomas Edison didn’t invent one lightbulb. The lightbulb that finally worked was the result of thousands of lightbulbs he invented that didn’t work. The butterfly wasn’t born with beautiful colors on delicate wings. It began as a caterpillar that had to surrender its caterpillar nature and shut itself up in a cocoon before it could emerge as the butterfly it was destined to become.

The path to any achievement has its metamorphosis stage. It is then that the transformation happens, the growth that will lead us to our goal. Yes, it’s the messy middle, but it’s also the most powerful phase of learning.

To use the messy middle to your greatest advantage you need to be prepared to endure the struggle and persist when it looks like you’re losing ground; in short, you must embrace the messy middle. 

Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind as you work through this difficult stage is not to let the backslides defeat you. Progress is never a straight line, and the messy middle has more switchbacks than any mountain trail. While one day’s practice seems to bring significant progress, often none of that work appears to carry over to the next day. So you repeat your practice from the day before and once again, the next day shows no forward progress at all. It feels like one step forward and two steps back.

When you feel yourself slipping into that loop, your best strategy is to skip to the next level. Instead of repeating your practice strategies from the day before, you must actively push for change. Practice as if you had maintained the progress you previously made and then lost. Take the tempo to the next benchmark, deepen your expressive range or speed up that problem passage. 

You must resist the urge to keep practicing the same thing the same way, waiting for lasting progress. Instead, the better plan is to push further. Rather than just trying to regain lost ground, practice for a goal slightly beyond where you stopped the previous day. The ultimate plan is to keep moving ahead for several days in a row, even if your progress doesn’t feel secure. Then spend a couple of days in consolidation mode, practicing without pushing ahead, letting your mind and fingers absorb and process the work you pushed them through. 

The messy middle can be a trap. When the progress and growth seems so slow, our inclination is to stay there too long. We are unwilling to try to push the piece to the finish because there are so many places in the piece that aren’t secure. There is a point, however, when the growth has happened, whether we can see it or not, and staying in the messy middle longer will hinder its development.

At various points during the messy middle, you should be testing your piece, playing it all the way through. You will know you are approaching the finish stag when you are increasingly able to play the piece somewhat consistently and a measure of control. When you are able to feel fairly comfortable playing the piece through at a tempo close to your goal tempo, you are ready to move out of the messy middle and begin to prepare your piece for performance. 

The metamorphosis that is an automatic process for the caterpillar must be an intentional focus for  musician in the messy middle. Always keep looking to move forward, to be undaunted on those days when nothing goes right and to remember that without the messy middle, our music would never be able to fly.

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