Musicians spend an incredible amount of time in lessons, masterclasses, studio classes and ensembles from the time we begin to play our instrument. From the first sound until you graduate from your final degree or certificate, we are led and supported by mentors and peers.
And then…it stops.
The community support of being in school evaporates at our final graduation. It can feel as if the competition meter gets turned to max and we suddenly need to prove our worth at every turn. Where before (if we are in a healthy learning environment) there is room for exploration and mistakes, now we must suddenly and magically know how to navigate whatever is thrown at us.
Our training leads us to believe that this is the way it should be. That once you walk out the school doors for the last time you will understand exactly how to proceed with job applications, auditions, evaluations of your teaching, rigorous tenure processes and more.
For a while, this might work. The belief that we can figure it out can carry us a long way. But music is a field that brings tremendous highs and lows - a great performance, a bombed audition; a fantastic rehearsal, a student who is disruptive and unresponsive.
Eventually though, a version of decision fatigue sets in. We are constantly analyzing and questioning ourselves, and it might feel like the whole world is doing the same.
After a particularly high point in my own career development, I had a sudden and jarringly negative performance experience. It rattled my sense that I knew what I was doing. Had I just been making it up all along? Were all of the positive things that happened coincidences? When was everyone else going to realize that I was flying blind?
What followed was a rough patch of anxiety and self doubt. We all go through these ups and downs, but this time felt different. I just couldn’t pull myself out of it, and the fear that others might see a weakness in my performance abilities was overwhelming.
Then a friend suggested that I read George Mumford’s book The Mindful Athlete. Mumford turned his life around through mindfulness and went on to coach the Chicago Bulls and the LA Lakers in mindfulness. Some of the topics he teachers are right effort and flow.
The book was eye opening to me, and the beginning of a shift in my thinking. If athletes like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Lebron James at the absolute highest level of their career were getting coached on mindset and flow, why did I think I needed to figure it out all alone, by myself?
As I continued to grow an interest in mindfulness and performance mindset I also started to more deeply explore yoga and anatomy.
Again and again as I was learning about the mind and body I kept thinking, why isn’t anyone teaching and coaching musicians on these topics?
How much stress, anxiety and injury could we avoid with a better understanding of our anatomy, brain and nervous system?
Even further, how much could we benefit from continued outside perspective on the way we approach our craft?
I don’t think we have to look very far for the answer.
If you’ve ever watched the olympics, you are bound to have seen an event where the expected champion had a poor run and didn’t medal, or won a bronze instead of a gold. Are they disappointed in the outcome? Yes, of course. Do they come back and try again? Almost always.
Athletes at the highest level spend all their energy on building the skills they need, including mindset, with continued feedback, and when you compare them to musicians I think the difference in emotional response becomes clear.
Through their training and receiving immediate and outside feedback athletes are miles ahead of us at believing in their strengths and developed abilities, and knowing that one bad day does not predict the future or define our worth.
Think about it this way - the NBA is full of the world’s most talented basketball players, and yet in every game one team is guaranteed to lose. One team is bound to make mistakes and not play up to the level of their opponents. Do those losses define them? No, they become the material from which they grow.
Compare these examples to how we often feel like a terrible or inadequate musician after an out of tune note or a crummy rehearsal (let alone a bad audition) and I think it becomes clear that athletes are doing something right.
There is a perception in our field that if you ask for help or instruction after a certain point you are a bad musician, not enough, or unworthy.
I think that’s total garbage, and that the biggest key to a healthier career and workplace for musicians is to get over this idea that we must be superhuman.
You might be starting to think, well, that’s all fine, but how do I apply it to my own life if I can’t afford lessons, a personal trainer, mindfulness guide and mindset coach?
I think there are a lot of ways we can open bring feedback and continued learning into our lives, some of which don’t cost a thing.
Ideas for creating support and connection:
My best teachers taught me that we are students for life.
We never stop learning, and you never know what you might learn tomorrow, next year, or in five years that will change your perspective and help you move to the next level.
I want to point out here that I'm not suggesting we don't trust the skills we have grown. We have to stay in touch with our abilities and our intuition. What I am suggesting is that perhaps one of the most important ways we can unlock a more gratifying experience is through insight from trusted sources and community with those who inspire us.
As part of my own commitment to learning and creating a system of feedback and community, I enrolled in George Mumford’s Mindful Athlete course this fall. Every six months there’s a study group where we dive deep into how we can expand our access to what George calls “the masterpiece within” through the concepts of mindfulness.
I just finished my first study group this week, and the process of learning in a community of others who also want to live and work with intention and heart was so rewarding.
I’m not going it alone, and I don’t have to. Neither do you.
Through sharing what we’re learning and how we’re growing we all become better, so let me know: how do you bring feedback and community into your professional life
Hi, I'm Morgann! Flutist, teacher, aspiring yogini, and life long learner figuring out how to create my way through life one crazy idea at a time.