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The Lies I Told Myself

Larry Panella • Jazz FocusMay 2023 • May 11, 2023

Self – talk is something we all do. We can be in denial about things we need to do differently, or we might even have an overly high view of ourselves. Sometimes it fills in the gaps in our perceptions with worst case scenarios and we can end up becoming paralyzed with anxiety. Often, it is talking ourselves down and underestimating our ability. We might live in an information age, but we are far from omniscient even about the thing closest to us – our own selves. 

Fresh out of high school I dove into the deep end of the pool by going to the University of North Texas because a short-term teacher of mine said people there could sight-read anything put in front of them and I was weak in that area so I figured they must have a system. Foolish me, I went there without visiting first. My first three weeks were overwhelming, discouraging, and might have been the end of me. Indeed, it took two years for me to finally find my footing and part of what was holding me back was talking myself down and almost talking myself out of pursuing music. 

THE LIES AND EXCUSES THAT ALMOST SABOTAGED ME

Here’s a few of the choice nuggets I fed my own mind.

“It’s not fair that a lot of the other students have parents who were musicians and band directors. My dad only worked for the phone company.”

“It’s not fair because I came from a small high school with a small under-powered band program. My band director who taught me so much left and the one who replaced him was not even close to being his equal.”

“I’ll never make it into the 1 O’clock Lab band. The players here are pros. They are so much better than me. I might make the 6 O’clock (6th out of 9 performing lab bands) by the time I graduate.”

“I can’t sight read and when I practice it, I sound like a junior high player. I suck! Everyone is so much better than me.”

THE REALITY THAT BECAME CLEAR OVER TIME

It was a slow reveal to be sure but in time, I picked up on some factors beyond my initial perceptions.

Yes – many students were second and even third generation players, but while that gave them an advantage of sorts, I still had talent and when I took my eyes off of them and worked to refine and improve the talent God gave me, I discovered I sometimes surpassed them, especially when I worked on my weaknesses. Here’s the clue. Their multi-generational music background sometimes came with the baggage of very high expectations of performance, and they were often afraid to admit they needed to work on anything. Their practice was often showing off – playing something they were impressive at, but they were hiding something.

Yes – many students came from more solid programs, which were well developed and had a long history of turning out outstanding players. I did a band exchange in high school with a high school in Connecticut. They won the Berklee College Jazz Festival numerous times, whereas my band went unrecognized for the one time we went. Some of the students from that school ended up at UNT with me. To my surprise, none of them ever really rocked it at UNT. My guess is things were tough for them too but they didn’t rise to the occasion as one might expect. They were as out of their comfort zone as I was.

Yes, there were some pros just coming off of the road to complete their degree, and yes, they were way better than me, but they moved on and chairs opened up. When I finally worked on my sight-reading, the first band I got into was the 6 O’Clock Lab Band, the very band I said was probably about as high as I could get amidst so many great players. Though I didn’t expect to do it, I made it into the 1 O’clock by the time I graduated. I improved over time to be able to hang with the returning pros. They still had more experience, but now I could learn from playing with them.

Yes – my sight-reading sucked – really sucked! It was holding me back, but as I worked on it, I discovered that many of the really great players (at least to my ear) were just as scared as I was about sounding bad in the practice room, and they wouldn’t address weaknesses. Instead, they treaded water showing off in the practice room. I passed some of them up. (I am not by nature a competitive person. It just happened that way.)

FACTS TO ROCOGNIZE IN SPITE OF FEELINGS

• I am not the first person to deceive themselves with self talk in the form of excuses, lies and half truths and I will not be the last, but when I confronted the reality that I still had to get to work or I would go nowhere, and I started working little by little, only then did things changed for me. Get to work on weaknesses and then be open to some great discoveries along the way. Excuses make you weaker. Slow step-by-step working through weaknesses is empowering, life changing.

  Circumstances around you are changing all the time. If you look at them as they are (and you don’t ever have all the details), then you might likely assess things wrong and cement a point of view that is self-defeating. You might talk yourself out of trying at all. You might miss an opportunity that was headed your way. It is said, “success is where opportunity and preparedness meet.” You have no control over most opportunities. They often happen without much advance notice; a chance meeting, a player gets sick, and they need a quick sub, you get introduced by a friend and invited to sit in, etc. What you can do something about is be prepared. What a waste to have such an opportunity come your way for which you were not primed and ready! No self-discovery, no re-invention, no emerging of your own voice and no discovery of your own power to develop yourself.

• You will never get more time in life, and few if any “do-overs.” The clock ticks, and the calendar pages get peeled off. I could wish I had matured faster, but one thing is for sure; had I not faced the challenges with a sense of, “one way or another, I’ve got to learn and move forward,” I wouldn’t be where I am. I never would have gone to grad school and learned more about playing and about myself. I never would have discovered how much I like teaching.  I never would have met my wife or had a family. I never would have had the courage to seek a teaching job. I never would have gotten the chance to tour with Phil Collins or had a shot at any of the other great performing opportunities that have come my way.

All these things and more happened because I stopped focusing on the lies and just got to work on my weaknesses. I want to make it clear – I didn’t know those thoughts were lies. It took time to see there is more to the situation than my initial perceptions. Further, I had no grand plan, and there was no epiphany from heaven and suddenly everything was fixed. Neither was it an obsessive pursuit. I am not a driven personality. It was because I couldn’t imagine quitting music. I tell my students, “I was just too stupid to quit,” and in the process I learned there were things hidden from my view that told a very different story and reshaped my first conclusions.  If you love to play music, don’t talk yourself out of it! You have something to offer if you weather the difficulties and work on improving. 

In summary, stop focusing on your perceptions of not being enough. The fear of trying is an invisible form of self-sabotage. Rather, focus on the need for you to become more. Do what you can with what you have! That’s all anyone can ever expect from you and that is the key to going forward in life.

“Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.” – Kurt Vonnegut

“Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.”  – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Larry Panella is the director of jazz studies at the University of Southern Mississippi and has performed with numerous artists and entertainers including The Phil Collins Big Band, The Woody Herman Orchestra, and Natalie Cole. His recordings include The Gestures Project, Larry Panella: Under The Influence, and albums with The Collection Jazz Orchestra, The Ashley Alexander Big Band, The Phil Collins Big Band, The Michael Waldrop Big Band, The John Mahoney Big Band and Chris Cortez. He earned degrees from Northern Illinois University and the University of North Texas where he performed with the famed 1 O-Clock Jazz Lab Band. Panella is an artist/clinician for Cannonball MusicalInstruments.

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