What is the “messy middle?”
In any project, the messy middle is the sometimes, boring, sometimes frustrating stage between the excitement of the beginning and the vindication of the completion of the project.
In your music learning, it’s the repetitive, too often mindless practice stage after the initial learning of the notes but before you feel like you can truly play the piece. You’ve been there; I’ve been there. We’ve all been there, and it isn’t fun.
The messy middle is a necessary stage of development. In this stage you begin to develop a deep familiarity with the piece, which will be the foundation of your musical interpretation and your technical security. But while this stage does take time, it need not be a struggle.
If you’ve wondered why you never really finish a piece, or if you get bored with the piece before you can play it, you’re getting stuck in the messy middle. It’s likely that you are blaming yourself for not practicing hard enough or long enough, or just not being good enough, but it’s more probable that you’ve bought into one of the myths around the messy middle. Let’s bust those myths now so you can get back to making music.
Myth #1: The Endurance Myth
“I just have to grit my teeth and prepare for a long struggle.”
Yes, music practice takes focus, concentration and determination, but it’s not about muscling through. Once your practice feels like heavy lifting, you won’t be making much music. Shorter practice sessions over a longer time frame will keep your creativity fresher while you build security and confidence in your playing.
How to Bust the Endurance Myth: Set limits to save yourself from boredom and frustration. Set a specific amount of time each day to practice the piece, preferably a slightly shorter time than you think necessary. In this way, you will have the motivation to practice smarter rather than harder and effectively reduce your messy middle learning time.
Myth #2: The Repetition Myth
“If I just keep practicing, the piece will eventually come together.”
Doing something repeatedly doesn’t mean it will get better; you may just become an expert at doing it wrong. Practicing music isn’t primarily about repetition. It should be about bringing the music to life, giving it a voice, and communicating its message to a listener. When your practice is aimed at the musical expression you want for your piece, you will find the right solutions to the technical challenges you encounter.
How to Bust the Repetition Myth: Use your repetitive practice to strengthen your musical understanding and expression of the piece. This is exactly the right preparation for the work necessary to finish your piece, and it makes your practice more creative and enjoyable too.
Myth #3: The “Ready” Myth
“I will know when the piece is ready to finish.”
Most musicians stay in the messy middle stage too long. They have the mistaken idea that the notes need to be “solid” before they can prepare to play the piece. The reality is that you should move your piece forward to the finish stage before you think it’s ready. As you begin to mold the piece into its proper musical form, the remaining technical difficulties will be ironed out.
How to Bust the “Ready” Myth: Push your piece to the finish stage when it is at about 80-85% ready. Creating a tripwire like this will encourage you to take the final plunge and get your piece ready for prime time!
NOTE: If you’d like to learn more about the three stages of music learning, I describe them (and the proper practice techniques for each) in my book Kaleidoscope Practice: Focus, Finish and Play the Way You’ve Always Wanted. Check it out here.