Surviving Your Life as a Musician

Everyone you see is wearing a mask. We all do everything in our power to seem stalwart, flawless, perfectly happy and perfectly in control. On the inside, however, nothing could be further from the truth for most of us. Especially for those of us for whom personal expression forms a large part of our livelihood (musicians, artists, writers), we view ourselves through a magnifying glass that sees faults before all else, and over time, this can have an extremely detrimental effect on our ideas about who we are and how skilled we are at what we do.

I am a fairly confident person in most situations, and as I wander into middle age, that includes musical situations, but what it took to get me here was a concerted effort to enjoy performing and enjoy the musical process while it was happening to me. In my mid-twenties, halfway through my doctorate, I hit a low point.

Although this was largely in my head, every single day I felt judged and found wanting. I felt that nothing I did was good enough, none of my musical instincts were right, and that it must have been a mistake that I was allowed entry to the program.

None of that was true, of course, but my perception and my inner dialogue trapped me in a cycle of stress and doubt. I went home from Maryland to Tennessee for Christmas that year, and I spent the whole break dreading my return. That’s when it occurred to me that I needed to find a better way to talk to myself, to deal with criticism and all the little successes and failures that make up everyday life for a musician.

Now I spend most of my life teaching, and I hear my students when they say things like, “Sure, I’ll try that, but it’s not going to be good,” or “Well, I did practice, but it didn’t help. I still can’t play it.” I think that they are using that kind of statement as a defense mechanism. If they tell me up front that it’s not going to be good, they’re not risking as much, whatever the outcome of the performance. If you try your absolute best and still fail, you took a big risk. If you don’t prepare and you fail, you’ve risked less all around—less time, less emotion, less exposure. You can say to yourself, “Well, I didn’t really prepare for this. Next time I will.” But next time comes, and the next and the next, and you can find yourself in a pattern of small risks and even smaller returns.

I think there’s a metaphor for life in there.

How much time do we all spend standing in our own way when something is on the line?

One of the hardest things any of us face is the realization of how much of our own time we waste in worry, in self-defeating internal dialogue, and in hiding from the true depth of what we’re capable of doing at our best. Here are a few of my strategies for handling it all.

  1. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “With great risk comes great reward.” There have been times in my performing life when I have chosen “perfection” over expression. I say it that way, “perfection,” because there is always a trade-off. I may be able to perfectly execute a piece of music, but if that is my primary goal, I will be so focused on accuracy that I don’t attend closely to expression, to having something compelling to say to my audience. On the other hand, I have found with age and time and hundreds of performances that it is rare for someone to bring up a wrong note or a squeak, but it is extremely common to have someone mention my tone, my expressiveness, or how much fun it is to watch me play. What is memorable is never the number of correct phrases, in my experience, but the experience that my engagement in the moment brings to my listeners. To make a long phrase, I sometimes risk pitch. To make something excitingly fast, I sometimes risk technique. I decided that it was worth it, to risk that perfection in favor of excitement, and for me, it definitely has been.
  2. Any time I catch myself allowing a negative internal dialogue, I shut it down. Allowing circular thinking about my imperfections never helps me overcome them, but in breaking that destructive cycle, I open a pathway to finding solutions rather than hand-wringing over the fact that solutions are needed. Recognize your triggers and learn to stop the whirl of those thoughts. Nobody needs a visit from Captain Hindsight! Focus more on what you have to do, and less on how you feel about it.
  3. Remember that everything in your life is not always perfectly within your control. You’ll see many memes on Facebook that admonish everyone to have personal responsibility and to own up to our intent in everything that happens in our lives. I think that these memes are usually shared by people to whom nothing really catastrophic has ever happened. There will be times in your life when you do everything right, and you still don’t achieve what you set out to achieve. Try very hard not to take it as a sign that you are not worthy. Many different variables go into every decision made by the entities that employ us and admit us, and you will never know all of them. Just bring your very best to everything you do, and let the rest of it slide off your feathers.
  4. Make some friends who aren’t musicians. If everyone you know and everyone with whom you spend time is part of the same world, things that are dysfunctional can begin to seem normal. One of the great blessings of my adult life is a friend group that includes an architect, a marketing specialist, an RN and a librarian, along with other musicians. When we’re together, we are not all rehashing our gigs and schedules and students and musical lives. We shop. We see movies. We go out for dinner and paint pottery and have fire pit parties. It is beyond lovely and special to have these women in my life to remind me about what “normal” is.
  5. Don’t assume the worst. Sometimes your teacher, your director, your friends and mentors may be having a bad day all on their own, which has nothing to do with you. We are all so deeply human. We take out our frustrations on each other, we hurt with our words, whether we mean to or not. When you’re faced with a problem, try to remember whose problem it is. Is it yours? Then deal with it. Is it someone else’s problem being cast on to you? Be sympathetic and understanding…and do not accept the added weight. I frequently say this: see the train to crazy town coming down the track—and do not get on!

It is possible to be a successful musician without surrendering all of your self-confidence and self-respect. Deal with yourself as you’d deal with a beloved friend, not with a blind eye to your flaws, but with the understanding and patience to keep striving to be better.

Hold tight to the things you love about your music and your participation in the musical world, and let go of the things that hold you back and drag you down. In the end, it’s always worth it to cultivate a healthy relationship with yourself!


  1. Nicky leigh

    What is it about being a musician which means we constantly strive for perfection, knowing deep down that perfection does not exist. I am always telling students that ultimately they need to know that perfection would sound strange, contrived and so impersonal. Beautiful imperfection is often so much more compelling.

    • Jessica Dunnavant

      Somehow, we internalize that message very well! I did once play a recital in which I did not miss a single note. I was a nervous wreck, trying exert that amount of control over myself, and I really had to detach emotionally to do it. All of my attention was on being perfect–there was nothing left for taking expressive risks or being in the moment. It was a terrible experience!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.