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Musicians are Their Own Worst Enemy

Updated: Dec 23, 2020

This is a guest blog by Coach Rebecca Jeffreys from Sprouting Healthy Families, LLC

For most of my life, I have been a musician. That’s over 40 years of lessons, two college degrees and constant gigs. I’m super proud of what I’ve accomplished (college teaching positions, performances in famous venues, radio play) but in the end I eventually had to ask what I had truly accomplished.

When I was a young dedicated musician, I was conditioned to critique my own playing in order to better myself. I was also conditioned to critique others. Years of doing this can get great results as far as capabilities but it can also really wear a person down. I spent a lot of time living in fear. Fear that I was not good enough, fear that I would lose an audition, fear that a missed note would ruin me, fear that a day without practice would mean the end of my career. I took every gig I could, including the ones that were degrading and the ones over holidays; I invested in a secondary degree even though the market didn’t really support music as a career; I invested in producing CDs which never made back my investment; I bought the best instruments I could afford and I used the best marketing materials I could access. Every year when it came to taxes, I had lost money. Did I have any fun? Sure! My ego had a grand old time! I loved the media attention, I loved the rush of the applause, I loved the positive reviews, I loved being seen as an expert and I loved the artistic outlet.

And then I didn’t.

My sense of self-worth and being able to contribute to our household was being thrown in my face every April. By definition of accolades, I was successful but I was not even close to being able to support myself financially. I was fortunate to be married to an amazing man whom I always called my benefactor. Through his generosity, I was able to invest my income into my passion and not worry about bills. But as I aged, I started to evaluate my purpose in our relationship and when I saw how little I made, my self-esteem shrank too. It became suddenly very clear that my art has been very self-centered. Practice was done alone, I was marketing myself as a product, I was my own agent and I hated it. If I was honest with myself I could have seen the signs when I was in graduate school. I was grumpy. I even got in trouble with the dean for insubordination but that’s another story of which I am totally proud. At the end of my time at graduate school I was returning home from a concert in Rome. A gentleman next to me on the plane started chatting. He was a very interesting Eastern Indian who was a chaplain at a prison. Eventually he asked if he could read my palm. Sure! He told me two things: One- I was going to have two kids (well he obviously did not know what he was saying. At the time I was not able to have any. More on that…) And his other comment was that I did not know what I wanted to do with my life. That one shook me. He was right. Up until the last 2 years or so, I always knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a professional musician. I went to grad school because that’s what you do and I did not want to disappoint all the people who had supported me up to that point. So I followed through and I got crankier and crankier.

Jump ahead many years and a small miracle happened. An 8 pound miracle named JJ was born. We knick named him “baby magic” because he was not supposed to happen. We were thrilled! I was particularly thrilled because I had an excuse to step away from music. Yet, again I was worrying about disappointing others. So I played an occasional concert and taught a few students (reluctantly). Here’s where I want to share some important advice:

Do what you need in life! Don’t make my mistake and wait until you are 53 to change careers. You are more than your instrument and your talent. So much more! Let people see this and you will also see the gifts you have to share with others. I wasted a lot of time pleasing everyone else but myself. When my son came along I had time to explore other hobbies of mine such as gardening, teaching flute choir (without worry for income) and travel! My holidays were finally my own again instead of playing gigs. Had I stopped defining myself by my income? Well, considering I was a full-time mom, I did not and I now defined myself by my ability to help others. You can’t put a number on that. Did I feel like I sold out by not being so busy with my career? Absolutely not! In my 20’s I looked down on people who did not stay true to their art. But as I aged and became wiser I learned that they probably were much smarter than I was. Being a musician is not for everyone and often times success does not come down to talent but marketing and networking. If that’s not your cup of tea then you are smart to seek a rewarding career elsewhere.

No musician likes to hear the advice “Find another career. You can always make music.” It hurts but it hurts because we know deep down, that it is true. Those of us with a passion for our art can’t imagine not living and breathing our craft. But the reality is indeed, we CAN always play music! So my recommendation is that musicians be realistic about their career choice. Face the economic realities, the stress, the extra hours spent practicing, the wear and tear on the body, and the hours on the drive to the gig and see if it’s worth it. Because when you’ve played your 100th wedding for strangers, gotten yet another rejection letter or had a drunken party guest land in your lap (true story), you may have second thoughts. It’s Ok and probably healthier to pursue another career and make music the secondary craft. (I hate the word hobby!) Your soul will thank you!

What ever you chose I hope it’s fulfilling, wealth building and true to what you want in this life. It really is OK to not be a poor artist!

A few tips for figuring out a second career:

  1. What can you teach (other than music) that people need to know? (on-line courses are big right now!)

  2. Are you willing and solvent enough to get another degree or certification? Look into a 2 year degree for a certification in a medical field, cosmetology or the trades.

  3. Make a list of all the things you love to do and invent a business around it.

  4. Invent a product that everyone needs and sell it (this is obviously oversimplified but not out of the question)

  5. Get a coach to help you find your skill set and build confidence in your new sense of direction

This is a guest blog by Coach Rebecca Jeffreys from Sprouting Healthy Families, LLC

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