My teacher told to me:

Stay the course.

Too often, aspiring musicians of all ages and echelons are swayed by things other people tell them. Various powerful people convince us that we’re worthless, or unpopular, out of sync, or nearly as damaging: that we’re supreme beings. Do not make the mistake of buying into any of it.

One of my best friends abandoned a playing career because his raging alcoholic mother’s voice replaced his own inner compass. All he could hear was that he was a shame, an embarrassment, never good enough. He did everything, include move hundreds of miles away to start a new career that revolved around his mother’s dreams to try and appease her, only to have her alcoholism ruin that business and along with it, both of their credit ratings. I have been around musicians my entire life and can honestly say that I have known few finer musicians than this guy, but now you’d never know it.

Another person I know was reviled by the other students at CSUN, the butt of many jokes. Nobody knew how or why he got into the performance major, but he clearly was not up to the task. I admit that although I never verbalized it, I asked those same questions in my head, mostly because I felt like the cumulative ability of the department was an indicator of the validity of my own degree. Ensemble teachers would come down on this guy like a ton of bricks. Jason!* Can’t you count? Jason! That’s not swing! Jason! If you were more out of tune, you would be back in tune again! It was endless. He auditioned every year for AYS and YMF Début Orchestras, and every year but his last, was rebuffed. And yet, every time I went to the practice rooms, he was there before me and left after I did. Every time I hitched a ride, he was listening to the pieces we were working on. He graduated, quite possibly the finest instrumentalist of the entire class, and we had some mega stars that year. He works more than almost any musician I know now, and what’s more, he enjoys it. I’m willing to bet it’s because he didn’t waste time or energy absorbing the voices of negativity. He knew that you just have to keep going. Even at the highest level, the rigor of practice remains the same. His work ethic set him up for success, and his frame of mind guaranteed it.

My own experience is probably common. I have been told at one time or another that I am sublime. I am a farce. I should abandon music. I am a gift to the craft. I’m not tough enough. I’m the best. I’m the worst. Most hurtful was always the input of my parents, who, in their attempt to show concern, revealed a deep lack of confidence in my abilities from an early age. It seemed like the more I progressed, the less they thought I was capable of. What I have come to realize is that unless your parents are on the exact same path (and even if they are, their perspectives are skewed by proximity), they haven’t the faintest idea of what a life in music looks like. I tried to illustrate the infinitesimal nature of LA Phil and studio jobs (what musical success looks like to many outsiders) and that the latter was more about politics and timing than ability, but it’s a hard case to argue that ends up sounding like an excuse. On top of that was always the barely veiled assumption that my injuries were somewhat overstated and were more likely an indicator of my unsuitability for professional music and lack of toughness. It is still a balancing act, to try and hear the concern and love and ignore the implied insults, but I have found that the real test of toughness is to take the bar that has been set by your parents, teachers or peers, and hold it up yourself. Only when you focus on your own goals do you achieve meaningful success. Just like you can’t succeed through anyone else, you’ll never be satisfied or at peace if you’re living for someone else’s praise or acceptance.

Moral of the story: While it’s important and informative to hear what other people have to say about you, remember that they too, are human. Much of what other people say about you is a reflection of the way they see themselves.

The other side of this issue, next post.

*not his real name

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3 Responses

  1. Emily,

    I've just discovered your blog and have enjoyed it tremendously. This post is applicable not only to musicians but to any difficult endeavor that tends to elicit "advice" from outsiders.

    I just started the cello a month ago at the age of 40 and am completely in love with it. Thanks also for your podcast about The Talent Code. It not only inspired me, but it helped my son to understand more about the quality — or lack thereof — of his piano practicing.

    I look forward to reading your blog regularly for tips and inspiration.


  2. "Much of what other people say about you is a reflection of the way they see themselves."

    This is the real gem of this post (for me anyway)… It makes being a student very hard, because you have to figure out what to ignore from other peoples' advice.

    Your story about "Jason" reminds me of a story about Nigel Kennedy that a violist who went to school with him told me (At least, I"m pretty sure it was Nigel Kennedy… might have been some other famous violinist).

    For what it's worth – a lot of the most amazing (and famous) players had experiences where they were told they would never make it … Yo-Yo Ma in particular comes to mind. I bet part of the reason for their success was hearing that & then developing the determination to be better (or holding up the bar as you put it in your post)

    Is it positive? Is it nice, accurate, right? No … But, did it do these folks some good in the long run? (looks like yes)… (No, this does not mean I'm advocating this behavior, I'm just saying there are two sides to every coin)

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