10 Things I Wish I'd Known When Graduating From Music School: Part 2

For the first 5 things, see last week’s post here.

Ithaca College campus + Lake Cayuga

Ithaca College campus + Lake Cayuga

6) You're never done (and that can be a good thing)

When it comes to practicing music, there’s always more to learn, which can be overwhelming, but also really exciting. The key for me is coming to an acceptance that I can’t do as much as I’d like, but making a consistent effort anyway (still a constant battle). Consistency is worth so much more than it seems - showing up every day to practice really adds up, even when I’m only squeezing in an hour or less each day. I say this to my students all of the time, and it’s hard advice to follow, but a bunch of tiny steps add up much faster than zero big steps. I used to really lament the length of my to-do list, and how it never totally disappeared, but I’ve come to terms with setting boundaries on work time to make space for other facets of life. Which leads me to...

7) Don’t work all of the time - Get space/distance from your work

The culture of music school, for me, glorified being as busy as possible, bragging about how little free time you had, how many credits you were taking, how many hours you practiced, etc. - all telling us to work more, not to work better. It’s taken me a long time to deprogram myself from this attitude (this may be a lifelong process!) It really comes down to this: I do love my work, but do I want to work constantly with a feeling of pressure looming over me? Of course not! This is a very American attitude, too - Germans would wonder why American workers are so inefficient that they need so much overtime to get work done. Also, great songs are not written about productivity and to-do apps, they’re written about real life experiences - we need time and space to have those!

8) Don't be such a perfectionist - just do a lot of stuff

This one fits in with #5 from the last post, but it deserves its own spot. I love this quote from Ira Glass - we have to wade through the period of making not-so-good stuff before getting to the good stuff. That means just doing a lot, knowing that I’ll naturally improve because I’m continuing to practice these skills.

Mistakes are helpful - they teach us things. I’ve played tons of wrong notes - does this mean that I’m not a good musician? (Not as long as I know how to conceal them, or use them to my advantage!) I’m becoming more and more fascinated with the process of learning new skills (see #4).

9) It doesn’t have to be (that) hard

We’re taught to work so hard - as the descendant of farmers, I certainly have the Midwestern work ethic baked into my DNA. So, when something isn’t as hard, I’m almost suspicious, because, isn’t it SUPPOSED to be hard? On the spectrum of things feeling difficult, we can go too far - things that feel extremely hard, where I’m meeting a lot of resistance, maybe aren’t the best fit. It takes some life experience to understand how things feel when they’re in different places on the spectrum, and to make decisions about how valuable each opportunity is. I think I’m getting better at deciding when something is difficult enough that it will take away time and energy from my most rewarding activities.

10) Your work is intrinsically valuable because you want to do it.

It’s always been easier for me to see how my actions measure up with others’ expectations than to truly decide what work is most important to me. First, that’s silly, because I probably don’t even correctly guess what these expectations are, and second, this is a recipe for unhappiness. It sounds cheesy to say that if your work makes you happy, it will make others happy, but this is totally true - this energy is contagious! Deriving personal value from my work is the most important to me, but financial value is obviously also a concern to those of us doing creative work. With enough effort, personal value on a project can translate into financial, but in the meantime, the struggle is to strike a balance between what my mom likes to call the “mosaic of jobs” that many artists have. This involves some kind of crazy calculus involving energy, time, ease, and a number of other factors, but as long as I’m working on some kind of passion project, I’m typically happier than if I’d given it up in favor of having more free time.

Most of these things have more to do with life lessons than with my specific career path - I’ll have to meet you back here in 11 more years for the next installment!