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The Musician's Career Guide: Turning Your Talent into Sustained Success

Ulysses Owens Jr BY

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The following is a revised excerpt from "Chapter 16: The Mental Side of Being a Musician of The Musician's Career Guide: Turning Your Talent into Sustained Success (Skyhorse Publishing, 2021).

"You cannot have a positive life and a negative mind." —Joyce Meyer, Author, Speaker, and President of Joyce Meyer Ministries

We've touched on so many very important areas related to the music business, but we've neglected one that is equally important: mental health. One of the key drivers of being a better musician can also be the place of great challenges. Joyce Meyer, the great motivational and spiritual leader and writer whom I've quoted above, wrote a book many years ago called The Battlefield of the Mind. Within this book, she talks about how the mind is the place where some of the greatest wars are fought and won, and about how what the world experiences externally from us comes from the mind.

First, a short story:

Some time ago, I was teaching a private drum lesson, and during this lesson, so many things were brought to my attention about being a musician that I had not previously considered.

During this lesson, I saw that the student had no physical limitations as far as what he could play on the drum kit. However, his physical fluidity was limited because of his mental state.

I took the time to explain what I observed to the student, and once we acknowledged this obvious challenge he was having, we were able to re-approach the exercise, and the student began to excel beautifully on the drums.

What I learned that day was that the clearer you are mentally, the more ease you will be able to have on your instrument. Two key points I want to bring to your attention here:

  • In additional to the physical aspects, being a musician requires a lot of mental focus and conditioning.
  • Many times, the challenges that you are having technically as a musician arrive because of a mental block borne from a combination of personal and musical insecurities.
  • To elaborate—as musicians, we must take time to feed our minds with positivity. I would even suggest what has worked for me: take the time to analyze your mind and where the problem began. Most of the time, in my case, the problem was present prior to my picking up my sticks. Unfortunately, the problem was re-triggered once I started playing. Once I had them in hand, the self-doubt accompanied me and I started simply going through the motions instead of playing and supporting the musicians as I should have been. This lack of focus was detrimental not only to my work, but to my colleagues' as well. As Steve Turre, one of the world's preeminent jazz innovators, trombonists, and seashellists told me many years ago, "Ulysses, who you are as a person comes through your instrument whether you want it to or not." For this reason and all the others, we need to be able to be present when we're onstage.

    How did I resolve these triggered and non-present situations? Well, I have had to learn through the years how to quickly shut out self-doubt. I needed to figure out how to let the negativity not take root in my mind. I learned how to lower—and eventually silence—the naysayer voice within, and to channel my inner positive and encouraging voices.

    Mental health is a real thing, and as musicians, it's something we must invest in continually. In fact, next to fully developing our talent physically on our instruments, the most important task is to come up with mental strategies that can assist us. I heard someone say years ago that there is a voice on each side of our shoulders speaking to us: one speaking positively and the other speaking negatively. Depending on which one you're listening to you, your thoughts will be channeled in that direction. I actively work hard to allow positive voices of inspiration and affirmation to dominate my mind.
Musicians, we must make time to clear the mental pathways so beautiful music can be created from us and empower the audience that anxiously awaits to hear us.

It's important for me within this book to really provide a full-circle approach to what it takes to have a level of forward motion within your creative life, and that, dear students, starts with the mind.

Depression

When we talk about mental health and care, it's important to also touch on the topic of depression.

I want to speak about depression, because it's impossible to talk about happiness and peace without discussing depression, which for the artist, and especially the touring musician, is possible to encounter. Also, when you have burdens, goals, and time constraints within which you have to accomplish certain things, there is a certain level of isolation that you must experience to pursue your goals. This isolation can drift into depression. Again, taking a break can help. Of course, as I've recommended professionals to help you in other realms, you may need one in your case. However, only you can measure the severity of your feelings and, please, if you are feeling helpless, contact someone—a professional therapist—who can help you.

Consult With A Therapist Or Counselor

Continuing on the theme of contacting a therapist, here is a bit of my backstory.

I remember that within one year, I lost a dear friend who was like a brother to me, I had to move due to major financial difficulties, and a romantic relationship that was incredibly dear to me ended. One day, I was watching a commercial about depression, and it stated that if you have experienced the loss of family members or significant others through death, moving, breakup, or divorce, you should seek therapy. Having experienced all of those traumatic events in less than six months, I realized it was time to find a therapist.

Growing up in a very spiritual and frequent church-going home, we were taught to take our problems to the creator and not to go to counseling unless it got really bad. It wasn't until I got to college that I met friends who had therapists most of their lives, and who described how that assistance was greatly helpful to their mental health.

However, back to that really tough moment—I decided to seek out a therapist, and I asked one of my close friends to give me a referral. That started the journey of therapy for me that has lasted for many years. It took a while for me to find the right therapist, one whom I connected with and who understood how to help me get through my own mental, spiritual, and emotional challenges. I have to tell you that I wouldn't be half the person or musician I am now if I hadn't had consistent therapy.

My therapist gave me strategies and mental tools that I use every day to overcome the challenges that life has set for me.

A therapist is necessary, especially for us as artists, because we are healers to our audiences, so we must be healed first before we can help others.

If you, dear student, have never met with a therapist, take the time and find one. It may take time, but make sure the therapist is the right fit for your style of counseling and communication so that you can best benefit from the healing power of talking things through with a professional.

Overcoming Fear and Staying Focused

"Fear is evolved to faith when men and women become reliant on the divine rather than social intervention." —Iyanla Vanzant, Inspirational Speaker, Lawyer,

New Thought Spiritual Teacher, Author, Life Coach, and Television Personality
As Iyanla Vanzant points out in this quote, one of the most crippling emotional mechanisms in this life that can block our progress is fear. In my work as a creative, and also with children, I have often witnessed how fear gets in the way of my students' being able to perform at the highest level of their artistic potential.

I have a child at my camp who has the voice of an angel, though she has never trained nor really worked on it; it's just simply a gift. One of the biggest hurdles my team and I are having to jump right now is getting her not to be afraid of singing. Think about this: she has a voice of an angel, and everyone recognizes it, but she is afraid to open her mouth, not because of what is real, but due to negative thoughts in her mind, and her being fully unaware of her talent.

Many of us are like that student, with ideas that could really bring the peace and resolve in the world that it needs—music within you that is exactly what the radio is missing, film ideas that will bring joy and peace to families, or knowledge to this society about important matters. Some of you also have book ideas that communities are waiting on that will activate their minds and actions in a whole new light. Yes, thankfully, there are ideas upon ideas. But if they are being blocked by past failures and thus current fears, we won't benefit from hearing from you—and you won't benefit from sharing.

Fear is debilitating to us all to a certain degree. I tell you that for every success I have had, there have been failures and ideas that flatlined. Sometimes things just don't work out, but, dear students, pluck that bad piece of fruit, don't cut down the whole tree.

I remember talking to one of my mentors who is really successful. He started a business and put a lot of money into it; it was an amazing venture. I remember visiting the business and it looked like something that was going to continue to thrive.

But when I saw him a few months ago, he told me how things had changed. He said that he had been forced to close the business. I asked him why. He said, "Initially it was a great idea, but it no longer is, so I needed to move in a different direction."

And then I asked him, "Do you feel like a failure?"

He said, "No, it just didn't work, so now it's time to discover what will."

I share his response because I think that it's a healthy one—despite feeling great pain and disappointment, he's moving forward; he's not letting the fear debilitate him.

Many of us, unfortunately, don't have his mental wherewithal—and we should. Fear creates these mountains in our mind and we perceive failure as a constant definition of who we are and what defines us.

That's not true, and it can't be true, because we have overcome so many other failures and setbacks.

A few things to realize about fear.
  • It is not real.
  • Fear is a mere feeling that seems real, and negatively impacts the perception of other real entities present in your life such as people, jobs, and places.
  • Fear can be conquered, but you have to replace it immediately with another powerful feeling.
  • Fear has no power to define you, or what you are desiring to create.
  • Fear only has the influence and power you give it.
So, I'm asking you to do something now. Remember this: today is the end of fear as you know it. Write it down in your phone, tablet, laptop or on paper. Put a time and date on it, and declare to your imagination and your mind that today is a new day, and the first day without fear being invited into the party of your life and mind.

We as human beings have full and creative license and agency to simply be in all the ways we want to be, so take it and enjoy it fully. One of the most powerful lessons we can learn as human beings is that we are what we imagine for ourselves. We cannot be what we don't identify as, which is why we must be cautious about the adjectives and labels we attach to our personality. To say you are an overcomer is to also activate that you have the potential to overcome fear. But you will never have the potential for overcoming fear if you don't first identify as an overcomer.

My constant personal work is around the idea of always working on how to have more integrity and more patience. As mentioned before, in our field as creatives, who you are internally shows up on stage. The insecurity, the deceit, the fear, the confidence, hope, preparation all of it comes through. I also know that your internal strength is what will allow you to endure all the challenges in this business.

I have personally seen people succumb to all kinds of behaviors within the industry simply because they aren't patient enough or are refusing to work on integrity.

As one of my mentors says, "There is no traffic on the extra mile." Being patient also gives you a chance to fully develop your skill and simply wait to be recognized in the way you desire. But I have also continued to have to do a lot work around not waiting to or desiring to be recognized. The work is simply enough for me.

Comparison Kills

To every one of you reading this book: I want you to never compare your journey to someone else's, because that can be the death of your motivation and progress in life and career. Having lived in NYC and been in business for a long time, I have met so many people who have become famous overnight, some who have gotten their due after many decades, and other combinations of success.

The goal is to focus on you, and understand fully what is expected of you in this life, and constantly seek to learn and love without ever separating those important characteristics from your journey. Always be willing to chart your own journey. Don't be afraid to do so.

This, dear students, has been something that helped me through every curveball: I have never subscribed to any pre-existing narratives that people had for me, and I always challenged them, because it's not important for my success to even be explainable to everyone. I just want to remain in line with my purpose. Though yes, we are different—you and I—in many ways, I am encouraging you to adopt this attitude. Drop fear. Pick up your inner strength and purpose.

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