About Overwhelm in Music

We doubt there’s a musician alive who hasn’t felt overwhelmed at some point in their musical journey, like everything was just way too difficult and complex. In this episode, we share the three biggest causes of musical overwhelm, and how to combat them.

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Today I want to talked to talk about overwhelm. Recently I put on a free training series in support of the new course we were launching, Foundations of a Musical Mind. And if you’re on our email list or social media or you’re a member of Musical U, you will have heard a ton about that already! But you might not have caught the free training we provided before the launch, on the subject of complexity in music.

Now part of this was going into the nitty-gritty of what makes particular skills like playing by ear or improvisation complex. But first I tackled the issue of general complexity – feeling like everything is just too hard and complicated in your music learning.

This bit of the training *really* resonated with people – this feeling of overwhelm, that can end up stifling your passion and creativity and enthusiasm for music.

So I wanted to share a quick excerpt from that training here today, where I run real quick through the most punchy advice we give on this topic here at Musical U. I mention a handout and a podcast episode in this excerpt, and I’ll put links to both of those in the shownotes for this episode.

If you’ve battled this problem of overwhelm in your musical life – and if you’re like 99% of us musicians, you have! – then I hope you’ll find this framework useful for pinpointing the source of that overwhelm and how you can squash it.


Musical complexity.

As I mentioned at the beginning, I believe there is a single root cause of most of the complexity that may be plaguing you in your musical life, and in the next session we’ll be discussing that in detail and how you can unravel it once and for all.

But first I think it’s important to address the overwhelm part of complexity. Not any one topic or skill seeming complicated or difficult. But the simple fact that there are lots of different things vying for attention in your musical life.

And what’s worse, it can seem like even when you manage to focus on one area, that sends you down a rabbit-hole and suddenly even that one area seems vast and overwhelming.

Tell me if any of these sound familliar:

“I really struggle”
“I dabble in lots of things but never go far”
“I’m reluctant to sign up for anything new until I complete the courses I’ve already started”
“we end up developing many bad habits and waste a lot a our time”
“I wish I had more time”

I want to particularly pick up on that last one, lack of time. Because it’s one of the most common frustrations among musicians that I’ve ever encountered.

And I’m not going to deny it. Your lives are genuinely busy. If you’re anything like me you have a busy work or study life, you’ve a family, maybe even kids or other family members you look after, you have responsibilities in your local community, and somehow on top of that or squeezed in there you have your passion music – and possibly even another hobby or two that’s battling for precious time each week.

It can feel like you’re pulled in a thousand directions and everything is yelling out for attention, and wherever you choose to spend your time there are things you end up feeling guilty for neglecting.

So there is a real challenge there.

But what I’m going to propose to you in this training is that lack of time isn’t actually a cause of your lack of progress or frustration in music learning, even if it feels like it right now.

Lack of time is actually a symptom – it’s a symptom of the complexity that’s going on, and we’re going to be talking now about what you can do about that overall complexity, then in the next session about some of the skill-specific complexity that comes up in music.

I’ve seen repeatedly with our members at Musical U that it’s possible to fit in enough music practice time to make steady progress forwards, even among the busiest of lives. But there is no time to waste, so it’s essential that you crush the complexity and use your time as clearly and effectively as possible. That’s what I’m hoping this training is going to equip you to do.

So let’s get into it.

For this topic of overall complexity I’m going to talk in terms of “overwhelm” because I think that’s the emotion it stirs up. When we think about our musical life and there’s just too many moving pieces and too many tasks and everything seems inter-related and complicated – the result is that we feel overwhelmed.

It can feel like a great crushing weight that paralyses us and makes it hard to take any action at all.

And so normally it’s that overwhelm itself that becomes the barrier for us. Because if we tackle any single area of our musical life we’ll do fine. There are some that are in themselves complex, and we’ll be talking about that next time. But if we assume that any one bit is manageable then what we really need is tools and strategies to handle the overwhelm.

I’m going to share with you the three big causes of overwhelm and strategies for tackling each. You can use one or more of them, they’re most effective when used all together.

In short we’re going to be talking about: Where are you going? How are you going to get there? How can you ensure your journey is successful?

Now if you’ve been following us for a while or you’re a member of Musical U then some of this will be familiar to you. And there’s a lot to pack in here so I’m going to move quickly. But whether the ideas are new to you or not, if you take a few minutes to think about each of these and how to apply them in your musical life you’re going to find those feelings of overwhelm quickly start to fade away.

Since I’ll be going through these quickly I’m going to provide a handout too with more detail and examples for you, and of course if you have any questions or need help just shout in the comments.

1: Vision and Goals

The first of the three is about vision and goals. The easiest way to feel muddled in music is to dive in without being clear on what you’re actually trying to accomplish.

You know you’re enthusiastic and excited – and when you simply combine that with all there is possible to learn, the result is total overwhelm.

Instead you need to begin with the end in mind. Set a clear picture of what you want to accomplish, what at Musical U we call your “Big Picture Vision”. And then figure out what training goals are going to lead you to that vision.

Just setting a goal, any goal, isn’t necessarily enough – not all goals are helpful! So At Musical U we have a framework called the “MAGIC” framework for goal-setting that helps you make sure the goals you set will really work for you. I’ll put the details of that in the handout for you.

If you can’t say immediately, right now, what your Big Picture Vision is, and what your current Goal in music is (ideally a “MAGIC” one) – then I would say that’s the #1 cause of any overwhelm you’re feeling. Fix that first.

And a quick side note because I know some of you are thinking it: How many goals should I have? • The answer is “try to keep it to one, for each area of your musical life”. I’m not going to insist on a singular focus across all your musical activities. But if, for example, you’re taking instrument lessons, working on ear training, and starting a band – then a single goal for each of those would be appropriate and help you to avoid overwhelm in any of them or overall.

2: Plan

So once you have a clear vision and good goal, you need to figure out how to get there. You need a plan. But like goals, not all plans are created equal.

What we’ve found most effective is a 6-8 week training plan leading towards your specific training goal. Break it down into about 5 steps that lead you there in sequence. Factor in all three of the essential aspects of music learning: instrument, theory and ears. Plan on spending 15 minutes each day, most days. Try to keep to a fixed schedule where possible. Don’t overdo it, a little and often is better than occasional epic practice sessions. And plan where you’ll get help if you need it.

Now I could talk at length about the reasons behind each of those recommendations, but if you’re looking for a shortcut to creating a plan that will work, I suggest starting with this. Of course the details of what goes into the plan will depend entirely on the goal you set, and that’s a whole other topic – right now we’re just talking about crushing complexity and ridding yourself of that feeling of overwhelm. And I can guarantee that a plan like this is going to do that for you.

3: Progress Tracking and Support

Now it’s all well and good having a suitable goal and plan – but that only alleviates the overwhelm for a day or so. After that it’s time to actually do the thing!

So you need some strategies for ensuring your journey is actually successful, that you follow through on your plan and that you reach your goal.

There are two big pieces to this.

The first is progress tracking. It’s easy to get overwhelmed in the midst of a plan if you lose track of where you are in that plan and what’s next. So there are various techniques that can help here, including: A practice log (simply what you did each day), a progress journal (more detailed and descriptive and reflective), recording yourself and listening back, and trying to keep up a “streak” of practicing day after day.

Those things will all help you stay clear and motivated in following your plan. But what if there’s a problem with your plan, or you hit a point where just putting in the practice isn’t moving you forwards? That’s why the other big piece of ensuring a successful journey is having support.

This can come in the form of: teachers, coaches, musician friends, accountability buddies, or whatever support options are provided along with the training resources you’re using.

Now just to pick up on that point for a second – I’m going to provide a link to a podcast episode I did about this because it’s really important to understand what support for an “online course” should look like – because that word can mean a huge range of things, and the right kind of support can absolutely make the difference between you having easy success and you feeling frustrated and overwhelmed.

So I’ll link to that podcast episode for more info on that.

So those are the big three causes of overall overwhelm and what you can do to tackle them.

If you:

  • Have a Clear Vision
  • Set a MAGIC Goal
  • Create an Effective Plan
  • Track Your Progress
  • Get Suitable Support

Then those feelings of overwhelm will quickly disappear. If you feel overwhelmed right now thinking about your musical life then ask yourself which of these are missing.

Put it in place and you’re going to feel much clearer and more confident in everything you’re doing.

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