6 caution signs musicians can't afford to ignore


I’ve always been a risk taker. Perhaps that’s why I pursued a career in the arts. Where others saw stop signs, I saw caution; where others saw caution, I saw green lights. This madcap style made for an exciting life, but also created quite a few spectacularly bad decisions. Eventually, I learned to heed my intuition and created my own inner warning system, most of which could be found in the things I told myself when faced with a new opportunity. This had nothing to do with the easy choices—the very clear “yes” or “no” decisions that required no thought or wavering. Where I got in trouble was the “maybe” decisions. This was the area that I was most likely to be swayed by others’ opinions and my own ego. 

No one is the right artist for every opportunity, and saying yes to the wrong thing means we have no room in our lives for the right thing when it appears. This is why each of us must learn to be careful caretakers of our time and energy. No other person can tell us what’s truly right for us—we have to do this for ourselves. Warning signs aren’t necessarily stop signs; they’re an invitation to slow down, consider our options, and make decisions from a thoughtful rather than reckless perspective. These six things are my personal caution notices. You may find one or two of them are yours as well. 

I can make it work

Gigs/friendships/relationships/music—every time I’ve uttered “I can make it work,” I eventually learn that I can’t, at least not without a lot of thankless effort that I eventually grow to resent. “I can make it work” is something I tell myself when, deep down, I know I really don’t belong in that situation but am tired of waiting for the right thing to come along. When I find myself thinking this phrase, I know to proceed only if there’s a very, very, very good reason to do so. 

I can learn to love it

This one is right up there with the relationship belief that we can learn to love someone. It rarely works. We either love something or we don’t. It’s alchemy; something in us responds to something in a piece of music or a project or a person and this can’t be faked or created through an intellectual decision. There are plenty of other artists in the world who will love the music that leaves us cold, so why not let them play it? Trying to convince ourselves to love something that we really don’t care for is soul-deadening. 

How hard can it be?

This is the question we ask ourselves when we know we’re really not qualified for what we want to do, but it’s so tasty that we don’t want to walk away. I can trace some of the more cringe-worthy failures of my own life to this question. Now, when I hear myself thinking this, I know that choosing to take the risk means choosing to accept the negative consequences that will most likely come as part of learning on the job. 

Maybe I should be doing this

Should? I wish I could banish that word from every artist’s vocabulary. “Should” is what we say when we’re listening to others’ voices and not our own. “Should” is what others use when they’re pushing us to do things we don’t want to do. “Should” is about false guilt, not trusting ourselves, and discrediting our own inner artistic vision. Artistic endeavors need to make our souls sing, not be undertaken as an obligation—especially not one to fulfill another’s vision of what we should be doing. 

No one will notice

Yes, they will. More importantly, yes, will. It took me a long time to learn that the artistic projects I’m most proud of are the ones where I did my best, even if they contained mistakes, not the ones where I “got away” with sloppy work. Settling for less than our best in our music deadens our passion and artistry because we know we’re not just entertainers, we’re truth-tellers. 

One more student/gig/project/obligation won’t break me

I once ran through a  red light because I’d been so overworked that my brain couldn’t translate that “red” meant “stop.” Luckily, my car and I were unscathed, but it was a life-threatening way to learn how to stop working too much. Knowing when to stop not only improves the quality of our lives, it preserves the integrity of our efforts. No one can pull artistry from a dry creative well. 

In summary, we've got to learn to trust ourselves. Trust our guts. Run every bit of outside advice against our own inner truth meters. We possess our own inner “true North” and it won’t misdirect us, just as long as we learn to listen to and be honest with ourselves.