How Do We Keep on Going When It Seems Like We Should Quit?

Have you ever wanted something really badly? Even worked for it like you’ve never worked before, only to come up short?

Maybe it’s true that whatever doesn’t kill us just makes us stronger, but how are we supposed to keep on going when we fall short not once, but repeatedly?


Hope can be the difference between taking one more step and throwing in the towel. Between getting to your intended destination and falling short for good.

Because as with most things in life, the key is taking action. Not waiting until we have figured everything out in advance, but making a move in the direction of becoming that person we would like to be, even if we don’t know if we have what it takes.

The importance of stories

For many, the courage to take this first step, and the hope that ultimately fuels the journey, arise from a story. The story of an ordinary person like you or I, who, over time, grew to become the person we now know them to be.

Knowing that there will be bumps in the road, but that these bumps can and have been overcome, changes something about our willingness to deal with the adversity ourselves.

After all, we typically won’t know in advance how close we are to the finish line. Are we miles away? Or just around the corner? Appearances can be deceiving – we may be closer or further away than we think. Rather than spending too much energy trying to figure out our precise location, it may be best to do as Winston Churchill said: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”


One of my favorite stories of athletes overcoming adversity and refusing to give up is that of US speed skater Dan Jansen. You may remember this as one of the great stories of the 1994 winter Olympics, when he finally came through to win gold in the last race of his 4th and final Olympics, after failing to do so in three previous Olympics.


And for fans of the show Friends, Lisa Kudrow’s Vassar commencement address in which she describes the doubts and uncertainty she experienced on her path to success.


And pianist Jon Nakamatsu’s recounting of his many failures before winning the 1997 Van Cliburn competition.

Your turn!

You may recall a metronome app called Metronome Plus that was featured on the blog a couple months ago.

The developer of this excellent app (a musician himself), has generously provided 10 copies to give away to readers of the blog. So…it’s contest time!

How to win a free copy of Metronome Plus

To enter the random drawing, leave a comment below in which you share a story of someone (preferably you, or someone you know) who persevered through adversity and self-doubt to finally reach their intended destination.

Enter as many times as you like, feel free to link to videos like the ones above if this adds to the story, and I’ll give you a bonus entry if the story you share is your own. The contest will run through midnight, Saturday October 13th, and I’ll report the winners in next week’s blog posting. I look forward to reading your stories!

The one-sentence summary

“How often in life we complete a task that was beyond the capability of the person we were when we started it.”  ~Robert Brault

photo credit: justonlysteve via photopin cc

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

For most of my life, I assumed that it was because I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, if I performed enough, the nerves would just go away and everything would take care of itself.

But in the same way that “practice, practice, practice” wasn’t the answer, “perform, perform, perform” wasn’t the answer either. In fact, simply performing more, without the tools to facilitate more positive performance experiences, just led to more negative performance experiences!

Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking this gap between practice and performance, because their training looks fundamentally different. In that it includes specialized mental and physical practice strategies that are oriented around the retrieval of skills under pressure.

It was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing a more positive experience, but practicing a more enjoyable experience too (which I certainly didn’t expect!).

If you’ve been wanting to perform more consistently and get more out of your daily practice, I’d love to share these research-based skills and strategies that can help you beat nerves and play more like yourself when it counts.

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20 Responses

  1. Hi Noa!
    I haven’t even read the post yet, but you must be some sort of clairvoyant, because this has been on my mind a LOT lately.

  2. I have a short story of my own. Nothing earth shattering, but pretty meaningful to me. As a senior adult I am a cello student. When I was a child my parents denied me cello lessons. My husband encouraged me to start as an adult. So for many years I have tried over and over again to reach my goal of being a cellist. It seemed out of my reach in this lifetime. This year I have found a new teacher who has who has renewed my hopes. And I follow his advice and instructions. Now in under a year I am preparing to audition for a local community orchestra and am a member of a local university orchestra. Hard to believe but I can call myself a cellist! My childhood dream is a reality

  3. Thank you so much for a wonderful article, Dr. Kageyama. As always they are incredibly inspiring and help me to focus on my own goals as a musician.

    My own story of failure involves the first sub-list audition that I actually just won this year.
    4 years ago I started auditioning for sub-lists close to my home- all various times I have been denied, one year all people at the auditions were ALL sent home.

    Over the summer, I was in one of the strangest auditions for a sub-list, where the judges directly spoke to the personnel manager blatantly expressing I would not make it on the list, and I was told to finish the rest of my excerpts after this peculiar exchange.

    It wasn’t until this August that I participated in another sub-list audition close to where I am obtaining my master’s in performance that I made it on a sub-list.

    The weirdest thing being perhaps that I felt like I deserved it less than any other audition I have ever taken! It goes to show what kinds of tricks our mental psyche can play on us in an audition that is just for a sub-list.

    I am proud to say that like Dr. Nakamatsu, I am proud to be a loser! It is true that you learn more about your playing and yourself when you have bad experiences!

  4. I built my self-esteem through travels. By myself, travels wich seemed at first bigger than me : Canada from coast to coast, 2 months backpacking in south-east Asia… In fact, it was easier done than thought of, but furthermore I met a lot of people with interesting stories!

  5. This may not be the story you had in mind, but here goes nothing.

    I started my screw up streak my freshman year of high school. At age fourteen, I was receiving excess amounts of praise and encouragement for being a notably good trumpet player in my high school, population: 500 students. Thank goodness I recognized that I had no perspective, that making the high school jazz band does not mean I’m NY Phil-bound. We have enough egotistical trumpet players out there, I hope I’m never one of them. However, recognizing this lack of perspective did make it hard to put myself out there. This was first noticeable at my first audition, CT Southern Regional audition.
    Screw-up no. 1: I didn’t show up.

    The next year I did show up, worked on the audition material months and months in advance, and did pretty well. Same went for All States. As if I wasn’t receiving too much praise already, placing in an ensemble on the state level, my community made it a big deal and it freaked me out. I knew I still didn’t have a good perspective. The state level was Connecticut. I’m not trying to pass the success off as nothing, but my lovely, nurturing community made it sound like so much more. I was worried that I’d start believing them and get arrogant.
    Fast forward to college auditions. I knew where I wanted to go, but was afraid I wouldn’t get in. I got in, I’m going there now, but that’s not the point. A part of me knew I needed to get rejected somewhere. I hadn’t lost an audition that mattered to me yet. I started looking at the big name schools and tried to choose one I’d audition at, something to put my all into and fall short. I did NOT want to keep going on this winning streak.
    Screw-up no. 2: I got intimidated and never applied to a reach school.

    The number of screw-ups go up from there, all falling under the category “too afraid of rejection to try”. Thinking about it makes me feel pretty ashamed. There’s no pride in cowardice. I can’t say “Well, at least I tried.” I didn’t. I thought about it, swirled around the idea of success in my head, “sobered up” and thought about everyone I thought deserved it more than me, and then didn’t even bother to put in the application. I am happy that I am not one to let arrogance hold me down. I think I work twice as hard because I know I’m not good enough. But how much better could I be if I’d taken the leap? Tried my best and went for it? Perhaps I wouldn’t have succeeded, but maybe that’s the perspective I’ve been looking for. Trying, losing, trying, losing, over and over again until the one day you don’t fall short, if that day comes.
    Fast forward to October 2012. I’m working hard to get over this fear. I’m performing constantly and feeling more afraid than ever before. I’m preparing a couple of works that I’m planning to submit to competitions that are way out of my league. This week, I started having doubts. I’m not trying to be a brown-noser and say “this article changed my life as I know it” or anything like that, but you ought to know that it really helped. I’m not going to give up now. Hopefully, if some article or contest like this comes up again later, I’ll have some real screw-up stories I can talk about. Thanks for your help!

    1. Wow.
      Having the insight that you NEED to lose to become better, and having that insight at such a young age, is something I take my hat off. I wish you all the best and the courage to fail !

  6. I have a big performance next week. I just played the piece for someone yesterday who made a comment about going a little farther to shape the phrase a certain way. As I pondered this over the course of the day I realized that was a metaphor for my life. Often I don’t go far enough. I give up a little too soon on some things. Then along came your post. If I am anything I am persistent and I have seen success just from keeping going through thick and thin. I love music. I do, and so I will never give up because it is a passion burning inside of me that I can not give up.
    Just a few years ago I considered quitting to be a stay-at-home mom. I definitely took it easy the year my son was born, and really, I had to. Physically and emotionally there is a lot to deal with after giving birth. I am glad that I took things back a notch, but I did keep up my playing. I would say it was a year I coasted a bit. I was able to ride on the previous years of schooling and practicing, and that lasted me for a while, but then I started realizing my playing wasn’t where it had been. I had to push through and practice when I could at first, until I was able to get my practicing amounts back to where I would like them. I love my son very much, and family has a high priority in my life, but these last few years have strengthened my love for my instrument as well as my love for my family. I have seen that I do have the ability to make life work being a mom and a violinist, and I am always striving to make that balance work out. I am setting high goals for myself again on the violin, and am seeing my playing get back to where I want it to be. There are still goals I have not met in my playing, but I’m pushing through, learning more about myself in the process, and realizing the journey is a lot longer than I thought back when I was in school. It’s not just win a job and enjoy, it’s win a job, and learn to continue to strengthen your playing within whatever job life gives you. I still want to be a better violinist. I’m happy with my current freelancing career as a mom, but I don’t want to stop there. I always want to improve my abilities, get involved in the musical community around me, and learn more about myself in the process.

  7. In his book Mastery, George Leonard writes about the necessity of being goalless.

    It was hard for me to get next to that idea, until I came up against some sharp disappointment. Then it suddenly made sense to be goalless and keep on playing anyway.

    That’s as close to explaining it as I can get. Spock out.

  8. Very timely article, as I’ve been stuck in the self-doubt stage for the past couple of weeks. I took up the French Horn at age 47, and joined a community band, having no idea of where the journey would take me. I started doing grades, and was totally disguisted when I (only) achieved a Pass on my first exam, grade 3. That was the lowest mark I had ever gotten in any exam, in my life! I dusted myself off, brushed up my scales, and achieved a distinction in my grade 4.
    It’s been a 7-year journey of ups and downs ever since. I left the community band because the music wasn’t challenging me any more, joined an orchestra where I was the only brass player, and am now playing with the best concert band in the country, though each rehearsal is an incredible challenge and I spend at least an hour a day practising the pieces (I doubt the pther players believe me when they hear me!!). During the summer months, I was playing 2nd horn parts, as others were on holiday, but now the better players are back, I’m back down to 4th. For the past 2 weeks, I’ve been disheartened and wondering “what’s the point?” if others will come in ahead of me, even though I’m way beyond my wildest expectations. Your article has helped me a lot; I know I will keep going, keep turning up to rehearsals, and keep doing my best. I can’t do any more. I don’t aspire to ever being a professional player, but I would like to play continue to play with this great band, and in the top venues that they play in. If my position is sometimes 4th and sometimes 2nd, does it matter?

  9. I find for me, someone who is currently invovled in the audition circuit constant rejection can be incredibly debilitating. I have over time learned to take a different approach to how I perceive my playing. My goal is always to improve the bottom line of my playing. I have found there to be less peaks and valleys in my quality as my consistency has increased since my bad days are no longer as bad. As my teacher once said, “You have to set your own level of acceptable playing and NEVER permit yourself to drop below it. As a professional is sometimes can be just about getting the job done even if you never want to relive the moment again.” I thought on this and it has really changed the outlook I have.

    1. I remember getting into an argument online with a number of awestruck amateur pianists about inspiration. I maintained that being a professional meant that you didn’t wait for inspiration to strike but got the hell out there and played well no matter what you were feeling. They were really offended at this — but I still think I’m right. Professionals can’t afford to luxury of waiting for the rainbow fairy angels to come swat them on the head with the wand of wonder. They have to be prepared to go GET inspiration and not wait for it to come to them, because it’s their job — and they have to be so good that even if they don’t personally feel inspired, they can still crank out good stuff.

      I remember an article one time about Joshua Bell where the writer quoted from a reviewer who gave Bell a glowing review of a performance someplace, where Bell had gotten sick on some bad food the day before and after playing immediately went offstage and ralphed into a wastebasket. o_O I imagine Joshua wasn’t feeling overly “inspired” during that performance, but being a tier-1 pro means it didn’t matter.

      1. I had planned to abstain from commenting, but had to chime in on this. Indeed, being a pro means doing what you need to do to put your best foot forward even when you don’t particularly feel like it. It means doing the work every day that makes you deserving of the occasional flash of inspiration.

        Most often, motivation or inspiration follows action, not the other way around. If we write long enough on a consistent basis, we’ll eventually turn out some decent stuff. If we just go outside in our running clothes, the motivation to keep on going kicks in once we start breaking a sweat.

        One of my absolute favorite books is “The War of Art” by Stephen Pressfield which talks about the resistance that keeps us back from becoming ourselves, and the solution, which he calls “turning pro.”

  10. I always say that I wish I had understood better as a kid that the universe rewards bullheadedness more than brilliance … I’ve now lost count of the number of times I’ve watched Nakamatsu’s speech, and I never knew it existed before today. Thanks for linking it.

  11. Hey, Mimi — I am so impressed with what you’ve accomplished.

    “If my position is sometimes 4th and sometimes 2nd, does it matter?”

    Not if you’re having a good time. There are enough people on this planet who rank highly and aren’t enjoying it — or got to the top and were shocked at how dissimilar it is from what they hoped for.

    Hey, Dr. Noa — I very much like all Pressman’s defining characteristics of a pro. The one that springs to mind with regard to Mimi’s story is “a professional is recognised by other professionals.” The tribe needs braves and squaws — one chief at a time is enough.

  12. My story:
    Actually, my story isn’t finished yet – I’m still plugging away, with not a lot of traditional “professional success” to show for it. I perform locally, and I make as many opportunities for myself as I can manage. But as my teacher and I were just discussing last week – I could have quit so many times, and those were times of breakthrough for me. I may take a week or a month off, but I come back, and I come back, and always I am better for the break. She remembered a time 2 years ago that I had completely forgotten – preparing for a studio recital, I broke down in tears in the hall. Once she reminded me, it came flooding back: Standing next to the piano feeling so completely a failure. I worked hard, and I had a beautiful instrument that I tried so hard to train. After all these years, I felt no better than I had been as an undergrad. What was wrong with me? How come I couldn’t SING?! I had poured so much money, time, energy into becoming the singer I just KNEW I could be. My throat was closed up with the tears of frustration and disillusion, and as she put it, that was a “rock-bottom” moment for me. I could quit. It would be very easy – honestly, I was perfectly good enough for any church choir or community chorus (outstanding, actually), and no one was counting on my income as a singer – it would actually be a huge savings, considering how much lessons cost — and the torture of not living up to the standard I had set for myself would be over. But… Something in me refused — refuses! — to quit. I don’t know how NOT to be a singer, to continue becoming the best I can be. And I think that’s what has changed over the past 2 years. I have left off comparing myself (mostly) to all the other amazing singers I know, and begun loving and enjoying the singer I am. I have a lot to offer, too, and discovering what makes me unique is a lot of fun. I’m still working hard, and I still want to be a “real” pro singer with more pay gigs than pro bono or self-funded ones, but my goals have changed, and, more importantly, my attitude has changed (with a few lapses, which are quickly gotten over). So what if I don’t have a full-time career? I still have a beautiful, now highly-trained, instrument, and I know how good I am. I don’t need others to tell me how great I am (although, I must say, it is quite nice occasionally!). I have become a teacher myself, and the thrill when a student “gets” a concept is as gratifying in its own way as performing. I am still training, auditioning, and the gigs are finally coming, just like I knew (hoped?) they would. Funny how things work out when one’s perspective changes…
    Two quotes that I found last week about keeping on:

    Perseverance is the hard work you do after you get tired of doing the hard work you already did. ~Newt Gingrich

    Look at a stone cutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred-and-first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not the last blow that did it, but all that had gone before. ~Jacob A. Riis

    1. In April 2012 I was diagnosed with Focal Dystonia. It is a neurological movement disorder caused by repetitive use and other medically unproven factors. Over a period of years, I gradually lost the ability to use my left hand while playing the violin. Soon after my diagnosis I told my students and colleagues. However irrational, I was convinced I would loose their respect and my students would all go to find a different teacher. One colleague said, “You will understand more about the left hand than any of us.” I thought, “I don’t want to understand more about the left hand. I want my life back.” I found a teacher who had helped many people with orthopedic conditions but had never heard of Focal Dystonia. I had seen his students play, read his book, researched him on the internet, and decided he was the one that could help me. After 35 years of playing violin, it took me 4 months to learn how to play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star again and some days it still doesn’t go well. In August I taught 4 of my colleagues everything I have been learning and next week we are all going for a group lesson with my teacher. They are eager to learn everything they can about how to play in relaxed and healthy ways. It would be irrational to say I am thankful for Focal Dystonia but I am thankful for the knowledge that I can share.

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