I have been doing a lot of soul searching recently; a lot of weighing, evaluating, balancing, and defining. I have been thinking about my career as a musician, as always, but the tone of my thoughts is shifting and that’s what I am going to talk about in this post.
First, I feel like I need to reiterate that the only authority with which I speak is from the vantage of my own experiences. I share because I think it is incredibly important that we constantly hear from each other, that we are vulnerable with each other. There is no such thing as over-sharing when it comes to navigating the depths of our passions and fears that come with nurturing the diverse careers ahead of us.
So, six months ago I decided I was going to be a working horn player. With my husband’s blessing, I crossed my fingers, quit my job and jumped onto the local speeding freelance train. What ensued was a wild ride and a series of gigs that were sure to be the springboard to launch me into my full-time professional horn career. I prided myself in my ability to make my “living” only on freelance work. I felt that it really spoke for my proficiency as a horn player, and largely validated my accomplishments, efforts, and dollars-spent throughout my studies and career thus far. When I wasn’t working, I was practicing. And when I wasn’t practicing…….I was sitting alone in my apartment eagerly waiting that next email, call, or text, waiting for opportunity to plop itself in my lap. I was on high-alert 24/7, because when that call did eventually come, I would be ready. Calls came. Some really great calls came. A lot of recording, some musical theater. I was really doing it – succeeding at being a professional horn player. And although not an audition-winning candidate, I was carving my way.
It was a great high. I was working, and it was validating.
Then the day came when avocado prices spiked and I couldn’t afford to spend $10 on my favorite Mexican fruit. No biggie, I can do without avocado. Despite my inherent duty to fulfill ALL of the millennial stereotypes, I am an adult and have self control on most days. So I would wait some more; for more gigs or for avocado prices to drop – whichever came first.
Month-to-month, work was inconsistent. There would be individual weeks with multiple gigs, followed by consecutive weeks of complete silence. Eventually I reached a point where it was only safe for me to pay my bills – only my bills. I relied on my husband for the rest – groceries, toiletries, house-goods, etc. even my gas. Sitting alone in my apartment waiting for calls became just sitting alone in my apartment trying not to be overtaken by the crippling self-doubt that accompanied such quiet times. Did I do something wrong? Did I not play well enough? Do they not like me? So, I amped up the practicing. More scales. More long tones. More arpeggios. More articulation drills. I was obviously ill-prepared. I was in much worse shape than I thought. The steady – albeit weak – flow slowed to a trickle and I was beginning to crack. I was broke, unlikeable, and obsessed. A person can only exist for so long in such a state and for me it was six-ish months.
Then, the wave crested and crashed and it all began to fall apart. My husband and I lost both of our cars simultaneously to the issues that plagued them. So not only was I broke, unlikeable, and obsessed, but I was also car-less – WE were car-less. And now desperate. My hay-day was over, and I had failed. After a silent six weeks and nary a single dollar made, I decided to bite the bullet and get a “real” job.
Much to my surprise, finding a job was easier than it had ever been for me in the past, with the help of some good connections, and I was hired for a full-time, hourly position.
Happy to have consistent bill money, I couldn’t help but wonder (Carrie Bradshaw anyone?), “Was this the end of my career as a horn player?”
I felt like I had given up. I felt broken, and I felt like I would never be able to practice enough to ever win an audition. I found myself immediately regretting all of the wasted energy and effort I’d spend on anything else. I’d missed my chance. It was gone, and I was done.
Then, after a couple of weeks of training, an opportunity came. A big one. The principal horn of a ballet orchestra was looking for a sub to play the first cycle – a month-long endeavor – and I had been recommended. All I had to do was record a few videos of my playing with my iPhone and submit my resume to seal the deal. I did, excitedly, and confidently. I really believed in those videos.
And then the days passed. The days turned into a week, then two, then three…
My mind went into full-attack mode: I am horrible player. I am stupid for thinking I am good enough. I will never be good enough. I should be ashamed. I am ashamed.
I watched those videos over and over again, analyzing every attack, slur, rhythm, phrase, every note for imperfection. Sure, I found them alright. But which ones cost me this opportunity? Which ones were the reason for my failure? Was it all of them? Maybe it was my sound. Maybe it was my interpretation. Or maybe it was my hair. Maybe I wasn’t wearing the right outfit. Why did I make such a bad impression?
I stayed in this place for weeks, squeezing myself of every ounce of hope I checked my phone obsessively every few minutes if I could, every half hour at least. And although I truly enjoyed my new job, I found myself blinded by the shattering of my would-be horn career.
The pressure was insurmountable. How can I expect to ever succeed in music if I am spending 40 hours every week doing something that keeps me from the horn? I figure, I can either work full-time and pay my bills, or I can practice full-time so that I can be “good enough” to win a job – to pay my bills by playing the horn.
It was a cyclical battery of negative thoughts, snowballing and spiraling out of control. The musician inside me was gasping for air, clamoring to escape being crushed beneath the weight of such vitriolic self-loathing. I had hit bottom.
The bottom is a great place to be, though. Being at the bottom allowed me to confront myself and the series of events that led me to this place. Being at the bottom is where I made some very profound discoveries about why I play music on the horn. I asked myself some simple questions, and the answers – the true answers – shocked and revived me.
Why is “winning a job” so important?
All any of us wants in life is to feel validated, to feel like our efforts and resources have been spent wisely. We all want to be recognized for a job-well-done, and winning a position with an orchestra is one of the most visible ways to receive this validation. Winning a job assumes the following to be true:
- You are good enough.
- You are competitive.
- You are strong.
- You have what it takes.
- You are “the best” (at that audition)
- You are better than everyone who lost.
This list is not comprehensive, but it consists of the things I feel, and felt, when I imagine winning an audition. Feeling validated feels good. It feels like a breath of fresh air. But looking at this list, particularly at the last bullet-point, I do not feel good it. I don’t feel good about needing to feel better than anybody. That is completely incongruent with who I am as a human being, and inconsistent with the moral code I live by. So why do I crave feeling this way?
(*Pause – if you haven’t read any of Eckhart Tolle’s works, I highly recommend you drop what you are doing and rush to your nearest bookstore…right now. It doesn’t matter what you read, it will change your life, but my personal favorite is A New Earth. Click here to learn more about Ego as defined by Eckhart Tolle.*)
So, why do I need to be validated by anyone? Why can’t I validate myself?
Do I love playing music? Yes.
Do I love the horn? Yes.
Am I ever going to stop, whether I “win or lose?” No.
So why put myself through this?
What is the point of it all?
What is my purpose?
My purpose in life, at its core, is to help others to heal. In the same way my music teachers, the composers, and recordings I listened to helped me, I want to help others. Adolescence was a dark place for me and band was my escape. Contributing to a purpose greater than what I was dealing with at home helped me move forward. I gave everything I had to music. I aspired every day to be better – in music and in my personal growth – and that motivation fueled me; it propelled me from one day into the next, and I never stopped, it is the reason I am here today. I want to help heal people. I want to learn others’ stories, I want to hold their hands and I want to help lead them into a brighter path. Healing others is my purpose.
And then it dawned on me. Music is not my “Why.” Music is my “How.”
Music is my method. The horn is just a facet of that method. But neither are mutually exclusive to my purpose. I can help people find peace and healing in their lives with or without an instrument in my hands. In fact, in many ways it might even be easier to do so without an instrument in my hands, and certainly easier to do face-to-face, rather than sitting in the back of an orchestra.
This realization initiated in me a weightlessness I have never known, and led me – one into another – to a series of (what I consider to be profound) affirmations:
- I play music on the horn, because I love it and I choose to.
- The joy I get from practicing is constant and profound and does not depend on how frequently or infrequently I am able to do so.
- Celebrate all of your successes and do not allow them to be diminished by the scope of your dreams.
- Success is not objective. You get to decide what your success is, and no teacher or committee can take that away from you.
- The key in surviving this crazy mess we call life, is to walk every day in the path of your purpose. Navigating life is like a crossing a high-wire: slow and steady would ensure safety, but fear is what motivates us to cross as quickly – and carelessly – as possible.
- Goals are not fixed points in time, they are malleable, abstract manifestations of the potential we recognize within ourselves. As we change and grow as people, so too will our goals. Seek to realize your own potential, and you will find that the target is much more difficult to miss.
- There are no rules. Since success is subjective, the “timeline” for success does not exist. There is no such thing as “too late” and pace does not matter. What matters is that we are moving ever-forward in the direction of our goals mindfully and with careful intention.
- Stay away from toxic arrogance. Those who operate in a state of constant self-inflation are really people who have lost their way trying to convince themselves that the wrong path was the right one.
- Competition is a primitive instinct embedded deep within each of us that tells us in order to survive, we must win. Nobody is going to die if we do not win. The greatest risk we run is dying having lived an unfulfilled life in which we force ourselves to the finish line too quickly, out of fear.
- Quality of life is not measured in wins or losses. It is not the method we choose, but the goals* we pursue and the love with which we pursue them that define us. (*remember what I said about goals)
- Lead your life with love and joy. You are the only person who can validate your own worth.
We take ourselves so seriously too often, and to our own detriment. This reflection has released me from the prison of my tuner, my metronome, my obsessive over-analysis, and I can now focus on honing my craft without the stress of any undue sense of urgency.
I can allow myself the time that I deserve, while enjoying the process of bettering myself as a player; without any of the pressure that comes from feeling too slow. Life is not a race. We all reach the same end and I would have rather live and loved playing, than not have loved playing at all.
Yes, there is an objective reality to it all. As professionals, there are standards to be met. But personally, I have never seen the sacred doctrine which outlines the speed at which we must rise to meet those standards. We all grow at our own rates. That is a hard thing to reconcile while watching your peers win jobs at 20-23-25 years old, I know. But winning a job is not the only way. That was their path, and our paths, whatever they may be, are just as valid.
The truth is, we can’t wait for opportunity to come knocking at the door. We must never stop pursuing what we love, in the way we love pursuing it, for as long as we love it. Like I said, there are no rules. Play for your purpose. Carve your own path.
Just because our time has yet to come, doesn’t mean our time won’t be just as great, if not greater. The good news is, we are the ones who get to define for ourselves whether that time has come, or not.