Constant self criticism, practicing perfectionism, locking yourself away for hours. Such is the life of a musician. Half of it, anyway.
The other half of being a musician can be so rewarding, but when you’re stuck in the first half, it can feel like there’s no point in trying. There’s so many more people that are better than you. Child prodigies show up and learn skills in half the time. You started late, and there’s no such thing as “catching up” in music. You just aren’t as good as you thought you’d be at this point in your life.
At some point, you knew you wanted to be a musician, and you knew why. It just got lost along the way.
Here are three questions to ask yourself when you feel like you have no purpose as a musician.
1. Why did you start?
Maybe you started lessons as a child because your parents made you. Maybe you had to pick an elective in school, and band was the least offensive idea to you. Even if the very beginning wasn’t your choice, you’re here because you’re worrying about the reason you bother practicing. It is now your choice.
Music gave me a sense of belonging when I felt I could never fit in. I was the girl who ate lunch by herself everyday, but I joined choir and found a community. After that, I started piano, and I felt like I found an entire world of love. It’s a little odd since it can be rather solitary, but either way, I found a place to belong.
I started working hard as a musician because I was so thankful for it.
2. How are you making the world a better place right now?
You may feel like you aren’t influencing the world at all, but remember that change has to start in one place. That place is small.
The moment I realized I could actually make a difference was during a family trip out west. The Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, AZ, is this massive gallery of instruments from all of world history. It’s divided according to geographical location and is absolutely not limited to Western Europe. I’d love to go back; there’s a lot to learn there.
My favorite part of the museum, though, is the Steinway grand sitting out in the lobby. They encourage anyone to play it.
When we took our trip, I had only been playing piano a few months, so I was still in the honeymoon phase of learning an instrument. At the urging of my mother, I quickly sat down and played one of the only two songs I knew. I developed this arrangement of “Beauty and the Beast” back then because I just loved piano that much.
To that point, I hadn’t really had a bad performing experience, so I got to enjoy playing a Steinway for the first time ever without much anxiety. When I looked up, I was surprised how many people had stopped to listen. A group surrounded the piano, and there were even people smiling down at me from the balcony above.
Afterward, a few congratulated me and asked about my background, but one person stuck out: a little girl (with her parents of course!).
She jumped up and down like I had physically flown around the room with fireworks exploding behind me. That’s when I knew I could do magic; I could influence people with music.
I hold this memory close and pull it out when I need reassurance that I can play a role in making the world a better place. It starts with making someone smile.
3. Who are you working hard for?
This answer changes with your circumstances. When I was younger, I practiced simply to make the people around me smile. But the more I learned of how dark the world can be, I decided to work for those who need a little light.
Music gave me a community when I was alone. It’s a refuge for some with mental illnesses or dire situations. I practice for them, so they know they’re not alone.
But I know I can do more. There are many musicians I look up to who donate heavily to or create their own charities. With budget cuts leaving kids without access to music education and without the same community I found, I was thrilled to learn of Josh Groban’s Find Your Light Foundation. I want to work hard to support that and other groups that are making real impacts in the world today. I can use my love to help others live.
The people who will benefit from that are the people I work hard for.
Whoever it is you’re personally working hard for, think about them when you feel pointless. It could be your parents, your sister, your teacher, your student. Let them motivate you.
It’s easy to get caught up in the monotony of practice and performance and forget just how hard being a musician can actually be. When you find yourself in the practice room in tears asking yourself, “Why?” ask these three questions too.
- Why did you start?
- How are you making the world a better place right now?
- Who are you working hard for?
These questions are just one of many ways to deal with feeling like you’re in a slump with your practice sessions or music in general. If you’re looking for other ideas, 7 Steps to Practice Joy While You Practice a Musical Instrument might be a helpful next step.
However you handle your feelings, make sure to stay gentle with yourself. :)
Journaling about your daily progress, goals, and feelings about the practice session can be a helpful way to practice that self-compassion. If you need journal prompts or a template, the free Practice Joy journal might be for you!
Practice Joy JournalFree!
Check out the full selection of contemporary classical sheet music, activities, courses, and downloads here!
About the Author
Amy King is a music theory and piano instructor currently residing in the Chicago area.
She holds a Master of Music in Music Theory and Cognition from Northwestern University (June 2020) and a Bachelor of Arts in Piano Performance and English Literature from High Point University (May 2016), where she received the Outstanding Senior Music Major Award, which is awarded to one single graduating music student per year.
Amy has been teaching private piano lessons for 12+ years, taught classroom music theory for 5 years, directed choirs spanning ages 4–25, led and arranged for a university a capella group, and composed and arranged music for various soloists and ensembles.