The one thing I wish I knew as a young musician
"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat." T. Roosevelt
Success Early in Your Career
The thing about having a measure of success early on as a musician is that it can distort your expectations of yourself. When you’re “the best,” whether that’s because of talent, parents that make your practice, or access to great teachers, you begin to believe that the only place you belong is at the top. So,
getting into top-tier schools
being first chair in an ensemble
being invited to an elited summer festival
are simply what you expect of yourself every day.
It feels like there's something wrong with you if you aren't the best rather than something right with you for being on top.
Of course, as you become a fish in bigger and bigger ponds, the winning diminishes. Now you’re not first chair, but you’re still in the top 4. You didn’t win the competition, but you made it to finals. And eventually, you don’t advance in orchestral auditions or get passed through the tape round for something.
The pond gets bigger and bigger, the competition gets more and more intense, and your playing hasn’t yet caught up to this new level of expertise. It is inevitable - there will always be people who are better than you, more experienced than you, or more successful than you.
Living with a Distorted Mindset
You understand this, in theory, BUT, your mindset hasn’t evolved from when you were in 7th grade. There still exists within you a black and white, internal structure that now judges you as unworthy. As not good enough. As a failure.
So many musicians live in this space. I know them - I was them. The space of trying to prove to themselves that they are “good enough” by working longer and harder, by requiring more perfection, by shaming and berating themselves when they fail. It is a painful, stressful life to endure.
A life where the successes are diminished and the problems are magnified. We think we need to be hard on ourselves in order to succeed.
Take it from the girl who quit it all - this is not a winning strategy.
There needs to be another way to walk through the life of the musician. A way that strives for a high standard, pursues excellence AND ALSO nurtures the creative spirit of the artist. From my experience, the most compassionate thing the artist can do is learn how to talk to herself with grace and kindness. That is why this blog focuses so much on resilience, reframing, and affirmations.
We need to rebuild an internal scaffolding that allows for failure and that fosters an identity based primarily on character and effort, not accomplishments.
The Man in the Arena quote came to me many years ago through Brene Brown’s book, Daring Greatly (a must-read for all musicians.) I had already quit flute, probably 10 years before I read the quote, and know that it would have changed my musical career if it had come to me sooner. So, lest that be your story as well, I am grateful to share with you the wisdom and truth held within these words.
Here are 3 takeaways from the Man in the Arena quote that will change your creative life.
1. As musicians, we are taught to look outside of ourselves for validations. From teachers to adjudicators to critics to colleagues - we are intensely keyed into what other people think of our playing. We want to know where our place is and how we stack up against other musicians. But, when the external evaluations stop being favorable? It is literally soul-crushing.
The credit belongs to the human in the arena. If you are working hard, being brave, and putting your work into a world that desperately needs it, that is enough. Just keep putting your work into the world. Over and over. Again and again. That is what the artist is called to.
You are not called to keep your work hidden until it is perfect. You are called to bring forth beauty and touch people’s souls. You are called to grow in your humanity and love of others. You are called to share the messy, imperfect, painful, glorious states of being human. None of that requires perfection. Get in the arena. It is literally the only thing you are meant to do.
2. There is no effort without error and shortcoming. In other words, You Will Fail. You will. It is likely you will fail more than you win. That is how it is meant to be. If you are not failing, dear musician, you are not in the arena. Period. If you are not doing things that scare you, that make your hands shake and your stomach turn, you are not in the arena. Failure is the entrance fee. Failure is how you know that you are on the right track. Failure (and heartbreak over failure) is evidence that you are all in on the high calling of being an artist.
3. The measure of the human is whether they dared greatly or not. You have the agency to decide what daring greatly looks like for you. For me, there were seasons of life where quitting flute and releasing myself from all the “should’s” and “what if’s” was daring greatly. There were other seasons when daring greatly meant being broken and vulnerable with other humans. Maybe for you, it is choosing to believe in yourself again. Or maybe it’s taking every audition posted in the International Musician. Or finally starting that concert series you’ve dreamed about.
Dare greatly. Dare authentically. Dare to step into what you were made for.
As a little gift of encouragement to you, I’ve created a free printable of the Man in the Arena speech for you to post in your practice space. Read it while you warm up, memorize it while you work through scales, and carry it in your heart every time you step into the arena.
Next Steps and Additional Resources
Here at The Musician's Mindset, we have some incredible resources for developing and implementing mindset practices that will transform how you perform on stage.
First, check out our Personalized Mindset Tools Quiz to discover the mindset strategies perfect for YOU!
Join the waiting list for my FREE mini-course, How to Stimulate Your Vagus Nerve and Calm the Heck Down.
Founder of The Musician's Mindset
Katie is dedicated to helping musicians overcome stage fright and believe in their own unique artistic voice. She believes live classical music is a powerful antidote for the division, pain, and loneliness pervasive in the culture and strives to support all artists to confidently share their work with the world. She lives in Cincinnati with her husband, three kiddos, a dog, a snake, and a goldfish named Orca.