Mindfulness for Disappointed Musicians

I run a mindfulness group as part of my counseling work, and I’ve been involved in some way in mindfulness research since 2008. It took some time for the concept to click with me. I knew about atypical mental states from religious studies, and assumed that mindfulness was something like hypnosis or a trance of some kind. In fact, one way to look at mindfulness is to consider it as completely the opposite of those things – it isn’t a way to alter consciousness to take us somewhere else, it’s a way to ground consciousness in the simple act of being, moment-by-moment.

After the concept clicked for me, the most obvious application of mindfulness practice in my mind was as a treatment for musical performance anxiety. In my capstone undergraduate course, Psychology of Music, I designed a research study to test whether mindfulness was as effective as other kinds of performance anxiety treatments (e.g., beta blockers). Sadly, the course was not set up for us to actually run our studies, but having treated several musicians for music performance anxiety, I do know that being mindful of the present is an important part of it.

My more recent reflections on mindfulness have brought me to a less obvious (to me) way for mindfulness to help musicians: coping with disappointment.

I’d say the majority of musicians are disappointed. Musicians of the world: if I’m wrong about this, feel free to correct me.

The last couple decades have been hard for musicians in general. In the ’80s, a decent guitar player or bassist could be reasonably sure to have steady music work and even pay the bills with it. When I sold guitars in music retail from 2006-2011, I was already seeing the writing on the wall. Think whatever you want about Lars Ulrich fighting against Napster in the early ’00s, but he was right about the impact of digital downloads on the music scene. Music is cheaper than ever. Bruce Dickinson recently complained to a music magazine about this:

“When you consider that most people, when they sit down and listen to an album, they might drink a pint of beer or have a can of energy drink or something else like that. So they’ll pay the price of an energy drink, but they won’t pay the price for the album. And it’s sad. I think everybody needs to be educated about the fact that music has real value and musicians have real value; they spent years working on their craft to entertain people.”

As much as I love Bruce and his amazing air raid siren of a voice, I’m not sure that musicians can fight against the tide here. And I also don’t think lecturing audiences is the way to do it either.

Consider also how difficult it is to hustle in social media. I’ve talked to musicians privately over social about promoting music on Facebook. The consensus seems to be that Facebook, by choking off bandwidth to less popular and local musicians’ fan pages (unless they pay money, which they can’t do because they’re less popular), may have destroyed a generation of singer-songwriters and other artists. If there was another social media venue with the same amount of reach that didn’t pull the same shenanigans, we’d be somewhere. But we’re not.

So what does that leave us with?

Disappointed musicians. Disappointed with the number of downloads they’ve gotten. Disappointed with the number of people who show up for a concert.

It’s so easy to get discouraged, and sometimes this can show up on the face of a performer as they look out at their little crowd.

But if musicians complain about that disappointment, they can seem incredibly whiny. And you can’t whine your audience into caring about your music.

So how could a performer approach this disappointment mindfully?

When people don’t download your music or come to your show, what meaning does your mind attach to this? Does it mean people don’t like you personally? Do they hate your songs? Do they care? Do they know how much it means to you? Did they have something better or more important to do?

Your mind wants to make sense of the world. Even the answer “they all hate me” makes more sense than “there is no reason why fewer people showed up tonight.” There’s a strange, perverse comfort in self-hatred, and I’ve noticed that most artists and musicians have a very rich struggle with it.

But the answers your mind produces are not helpful. You are on stage.

If you play a bad show because of your disappointment, you are punishing the people who did come. Bad form!

I know what it’s like to play to a literal empty hall, but if people did come to your show, reflect on that. They appreciate you and they want to hear something. Take a moment to breathe. Look at the faces of the people who came to support you. Feel your instrument or microphone against your skin. Notice your sense of nervousness, excitement, anxiety, or calmness. How does your body feel?

Even if the crowd is noisy, inattentive, or apathetic, see if you can cultivate an attitude of thankfulness. You are alive. You are doing what you love. Your hard work and passion have brought you to this point.

One problem I observe in artists and musicians is that there aren’t many objective goalposts for what it means to be successful. Does it mean having 100 people at your shows? A local following? Getting on the radio? Recording a Live at Budokan album?

What if success in music is being absolutely content with what you’ve done so far? What if your five loyal listeners are truly enough?

And if you don’t have five loyal listeners: what if you were absolutely content with creating a work of art that satisfies you?

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