The Success of a Failed Musician

Like the thought of climbing into fresh clean sheets or the excitement of the first fall of snow, nothing quite beats the optimism that comes from a brand new year. The opportunity to be the best version of yourself, the chance to brush the dirt off your knees and pick yourself up one more time with the spark of fresh determination. But what if, this time, you're looking upon the new horizon of 2022 paralysed by the feeling this may be the year you admit defeat?


As musicians we strive for perfection. For our music to convey how we feel, it can't be hindered by technical difficulties - or at least not so the audience would know. With each time we visit the practice room and make even the smallest of improvements, the further and harder we feel we have to fall and ultimately fail. Wind your minds back to my Failbusters article and you'll be aware one stigma never graced the page... that of the "failed musician". The ugly stigma gracing every practice room corridor, hunting like a Dementor on the unsuspecting student, graduate or seasoned pro who has even a moment of self-doubt.


Failure - as many of you will know - is something that I talk about a lot in this blog and there's a good reason for it. A 2015 survey by the social network Linkagoal (in America) found that fear of failure plagued 31% of 1,083 adult respondents — a larger percentage than those who feared spiders (30%), being home alone (9%) or even the paranormal (15%). Whilst more recently in 2018, The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) looked at teenagers in 79 countries and found that "female students in the UK have the 5th highest fear of failure". It's interesting to note the different results when googling "percentage of adults who struggle with failure" when compared to "percentage of musicians who struggle with failure". The language of the results for adults were warm, encouraging, helpful even. The language for us poor musicians? Toxic! Headlines such as "Why Musicians Fail to Grow and Expand", "Reasons Musicians Fail" all written by musicians or critics, is it any wonder so many of us struggle with toxic thought patterns!



So why is this stigma of the failed musician so powerful, especially when you're faced with the option to explore an avenue that proves more rewarding and healthy outside the audition circuit? In my opinion, the term "failed musician" is a folk tale, a creature that holds power through fear that no-one has ever seen or met. It's not like they march the failed musicians out through the doors of the Royal College of Music in the cold, banished forever. But that doesn't make the legend less terrifying, especially for those who feel their calling somewhere else.


For many of us, especially in a profession where everyone knows everyone, it's the opinions of family, friends and our peers that makes travelling the path less travelled difficult to talk about, especially when it's so readily associated with failure. The fear of rejection, of being shunned or worse, pitied, can make plucking up the courage to tell your friends and family terrifying. Each rehearsed speech is told to a loud, worse-case-scenario audience of judgement, outrage and hurtful comments so to say it for real can often feel like a difficult hurdle to jump, not to mention facing the shoe-shuffling silence afterwards as they digest. But just for a moment switch perspective. Whenever you hear a friend tell you they didn't get a trial or they got a bad review, what's your gut instinct? To remove them from your life? To hit them with insults and distain? No (or if the answer was yes... maybe work on that approach!). You first say you're sorry and then you comfort and cheer them up. So why would any of your friends hate you for yours? The braver of us might even be bold and say if they don't support you, they weren't your friends to begin with...


Another long wielded weapon of the stigma is the fear of the unknown and it's one that's pierced me more than once. Over the past few years I have been struggling for a sense of purpose, a sense of belonging, a feeling of being able to flourish and in all honesty I've never really been sure I've found it. People pleasing and staying true to that idea of work hard, be the best and you'll succeed has meant I've just always done what I'm supposed to. The side effect of that is unfortunately an all consuming lack of direction. From the outside, I'm ticking the boxes and people think it's going well but on the inside, I'm lost, desperately trying to find that grounding confidence that I'm headed down the right path. Part of the charm of music is that in many respects it's a way of life. We're not exaggerating when we say there are musicians and there are muggles - we live in our own magical world where our identity can all too often be intertwined with our instrument. Even with all my doubts and lack of direction it's, "From a Cellist's Perspective", not a Woman's, Scorpio's, or Overthinking-20-Something's making the idea of moving away from your instrument feel more than just a potential career expander but like you're losing a part of who you are. To your Kraken you've not just failed, you're a squib who knows there's a magical world you can never be a part of. But is your Kraken right?


Think for a moment. Can you name one failed musician? When one truly stops to think about it, they're hard pressed to find an example. I'd be as bold as to say they do not exist.


"They retrained because they didn't make it past the audition circuit."


Yes, but did they fail or was it their decision to walk away? More importantly, look at their life now? Are they happy? Would you even say they've failed at all?


"They had an injury and had to give up."


That's not a failure. We can only do as much as we can with an injury, it's never our fault.


"They fell out of love with music."


It happens. Being a musician draws a lot of similarities to being in a relationship and as sad as it is, sometimes the love leaves and just like in a relationship, the end is not a failure.


Think about those that have left our profession to become lawyers, teachers, accountants or something completely different. Are they no longer welcome as friends or ex-colleagues? Do they get thrown out upon entry from concerts? Most still play and perform enjoying and flourishing from the part music plays in their life. I think, sometimes our Kraken might be rewriting the facts.


When someone has the courage to accept that the career or life they originally thought they'd have no longer brings them a sense of fulfilment or purpose, there can be no failure in it. It's hard to walk away from the path most expected, to demand more of your life, to know what makes you happy and more importantly when happiness has gone. What works for everyone around you, might not be your path. A career in music is a beautiful patchwork quilt of opportunities. If areas of your current career cause you stress or unhappiness that no longer feel worth it, it's your choice to mix it up for something that does. It never has to be a black and white approach of one career or the other, many musicians enjoy a fulfilling career of performing alongside teaching, arranging, photography, writing... the list is never ending and no-one says it has to involve music at all. If you feel like a musician, no Kraken can take that away from you.



Life is too short to be repeatedly jamming the jigsaw piece in the wrong area trying to make it fit, but it can be scary to utter the idea that you might want something different. However, they do say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result.


Go find your happy.



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