Find Your Tribe: Musicians and the Need for Community

“We live in an era of meanness”. 

I read that last week in the headline of an article—the same day a composer friend was suffering from a career blow, a pianist friend was discouraged to the point of wanting to give up, and I endured several blistering (and personal) attacks from online strangers.  Yes, it’s true.  We live in an era of meanness.  If we put ourselves out there, we’re going to get attacked.  It might not be right away, but eventually someone will target us with nasty comments or bad ratings.  

Self-preservation tells us to pull back, refuse to present our work or our opinion to the public, and thus protect ourselves.  Yet the artist’s job is to communicate vision through notes, words, movement, or image.  To do this we have to be open and sensitive to everything in our lives while simultaneously being tough enough to survive inevitable bad press.  

My career contains successes and failures.  I’ve received praise and extreme criticism.  I “went pro” as a pianist when I was in my early 20s.  I sold my first book at the same time.  I’ve never known a time in my career when I was praised and had no negative reviews.  If I hadn’t had a tribe of supportive friends around me, I’d have left both professions years ago.  My tribe are the people I call when I need a “reality check”—truthful feedback, given in love. Fellow artists themselves, they know just how difficult it is to put our creative babies into the public glare, and how painful it is to see our work savaged by other people. Many times people are part of my life through one stage of it and then drift away when circumstances change.  Other times, I’ve found people who have seen me through the ups-and-downs of my career (as well as my less-than-tidy personal life) and are still present. 

I cannot overemphasize the need for community in the arts.  We may live in an era of meanness, but we also live in an era of opportunity—a time when the internet allows us to build community with life-minded people all over the world.  Those of us who value cooperation over competition and encouragement over petty criticism have a responsibility to build communities for other artists and ourselves—both in person and online.  It doesn’t guarantee that no one will ever troll us again, but at least we’ll have people to commiserate with when it happens.

Unless you’re very lucky, musical tribes aren’t so much discovered as built.  My experience has consisted of a lot of trial and error, but these four things have been invaluable:

Be generous.  Connect people with opportunity.  Offer help.  Be positive.  Sincerely celebrate others’ success.  Give—not because you want to get back, but for the sheer joy of giving.  Cultivate an attitude of abundance, not scarcity.
Avoid “frenemies”. Frenemies are those people who pretend to be supportive and caring but due to their own envy or insecurity choose to tear you down in little ways.  If you feel drained rather than energized after spending time with someone, it’s likely you’ve encountered a “frenemie”. Proceed cautiously with that friendship.
Think local and global. No one person can do everything for another, and it’s likely that unless you live in an artistically vibrant place, no one location will be enough to build your tribe.  Thankfully, new artistic friends wait for you in a myriad of on-line locations.  Find them through blogs, social media, and chat rooms.  I’ve “met” some of my favorite people online.  
Be the friend you want to have. As the cliché says, you’ve got to be a good friend to find a good friend.  Be present, supportive, and learn to listen.  

We live in an era of meanness.  Through friendship, warmth, generosity, and listening we can change this—one relationship at a time.