The Mental Game Of The Music Business
(It’s all in your head)


The so-called “mental game” has become widely discussed in sports as many athletes have admitted to receiving help from sports psychologists, therapists, etc. Most professional athletes realize that at a certain level the playing field is so competitive that the difference between winning and losing is truly all in your head. This concept is well known to sports enthusiasts because they’ve seen the drama unfold before their very eyes. Whether an athlete cracks under the pressure of a big game or rises to the occasion when it’s all on the line, the mind is usually the defining factor in these situations.

Musicians are the same as athletes in this regard. Instead of pitching out of a bases loaded situation, we might have an important audition or performance. Instead of being tormented by a past mistake such as a game losing fumble, we might have been scarred by an abusive teacher, a bad performance, or a negative association with a song we can never seem to remember.

Now, I don’t want to sound like a self-help guru here, but I believe that the mental game might be the single most important aspect involved in being a professional musician. There is so much talent and competition in the music industry that a strong mind could be your best asset in separating you from the pack. Also, this mental fortitude can help you overcome other obstacles as well.  Many mentally tough musicians battle physical odds/handicaps and become successful despite their disadvantages. For example, the late, great jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt lost use of his third and fourth fingers (on his left hand) in a caravan fire. This probably would have caused many musicians to quit and find new professions, but Django vowed to relearn the guitar despite his new handicap. He eventually emerged as one of the best jazz guitarists who ever lived, which is a testament to his strong mind. I’m not denying his insane innate talent, but his mental fortitude and unwillingness to accept defeat was the reason why he was able to bounce back. Now you may or may not have a physical handicap like Django, but the music business will find ways to throw adversity at you at a rapid pace. If you don’t adopt this survivor-type attitude you will most likely fall by the wayside.

Note: I’m not a therapist but as a full-time professional musician for the last 20 years I’ve seen a ton of talented people who struggled with success due to their own minds. It’s a really difficult subject for me to explain, but I’ll try my best here. So, here we go…


Lost Confidence

Confidence is a very fragile thing for musicians and it can be rattled or destroyed by a number of factors. Once your confidence is low, it will obviously affect your performance, social interactions and more. You won’t sound as good or inspired, which will directly impact your work. Also, since the music industry is based heavily on relationships and appearance, you never want to come across as insecure. Here are a few things that could lead to low confidence.

1) Rejection – The first thing that can destroy a musician’s confidence is rejection. This is an unfortunate reality of the music industry and pretty much every musician has to deal with it. If you’re unable to effectively deal with rejection in the music business, you won’t be around that long. I did a separate blog post about overcoming rejection here, so I won’t waste time rehashing the info in this article.

2) Abusive Teachers – There are some music teachers and professors that are so strict, mean, scary or demeaning that they can seriously affect musicians’ confidence for years to come. I’ve seen more talented musicians lose confidence due to bad learning experiences than almost anything else. If you are told that you “suck” enough times, you may start to believe it and if you don’t believe in yourself, it’ll be hard to convince people otherwise.

3) College Experiences – Most people who attend music school (colleges, universities, etc.) were “big fish” in High School, therefore they usually enter into higher education with a lot of confidence. Unfortunately music schools are full of talented individuals and some people are not prepared to embrace this level of competition. When I was a student at Manhattan School of Music, I saw many musicians deal with this reality in different ways. Those who persevered came to grips with the environment and began trying to find their own niche and voice. Most of these “successful” students were not very concerned about the success or failure of the others…they were just focused on their own reality. Those who failed in adapting to their new roles in higher education seemed to either develop anxiety, depression or both. Note: When I refer to the “successful” students above, I’m simply talking about the success they had dealing with this competitive environment. I’m not claiming that they had any more career success than the people who had a tough time dealing with this competition. Many of the people who struggled with this in school ended up bouncing back and becoming more successful than these “college stars”. I’m simply illustrating these points to show you that higher education can sometimes cause low confidence that musicians will need to reverse in order to be successful.

4) Traumatic Musical Situations – Sometimes a bad gig or musical situation can actually result in a form of Post Traumatic Stress. I know that sounds extreme since the music business is far from an actual battlefield, but it happens all the time. Here are a few hypothetical situations that could produce lasting confidence issues and intense anxiety symptoms.

• Situation 1 – You’ve been attending a jam session (with talented players that you would like to network with) for about a year, but have never had the nerve to sit-in until tonight. You ask to play and the band calls a song that you’ve never performed. You struggle to make the chord changes and it’s a complete disaster. The entire band stops playing abruptly mid-song and the bandleader then asks you to get off stage. All the musicians on the bandstand give you the cold shoulder and you’re on the verge of a panic attack. The audience is aware that you messed up too because most of them are also musicians and it’s pretty obvious something went wrong. Since your career is all about your reputation, you’re humiliated, depressed and worried that the entire professional music community will think you suck. You pack up your instrument and try to get to the door without anyone seeing you.

• Situation 2 – You’re a songwriter and you’re opening for a bigger band. During your set, the audience gets bored with you and most of the crowd walks outside. The remaining audience members proceed to boo you offstage. They heckle you and make it clear that they only came to the venue to see the headliner. Humiliated and depressed, you pack up your stuff and leave.

• Situation 3 – You have been trying for a year to get a music production job with a well-known artist and you finally have your shot. The artist’s representation has decided to give you chance since you’ve been so persistent, so they send you a bare-bones song idea. Their instructions are simply, “just make it great and we’ll let you know.” You produce the track non-stop for 2 weeks and eagerly send in your final version (of which you’re super proud). After a quiet, nail-biting week, they finally get back to you and they absolutely hate it! There’s literally not one thing they like about your production and it took you nearly 100 hours to complete. You’re emotionally crushed because you love this artist and you fear that you blew your only shot. Also, your confidence is rattled because you thought the track sounded great before their horrible critique. Doubt creeps in, then depression…


All of my examples above are obviously horrible, but they’re actually very realistic in this business. These situations represent some things you may have to deal with in the music industry and all of them can be turned into a positive. For example, in situation 1, after you go home with your tail between your legs, you must regroup and come back stronger. First, you should learn the song you screwed up and then you should beef up your entire repertoire so that a similar train wreck doesn’t happen in the future. You essentially have to chalk this up as an important musical experience and learn from it. Don’t look back and rehash these painful memories, just try to improve yourself and vow to return to that jam six months or a year later and “kill it”.  In the second example (situation 2), you have to accept and understand that not everyone is going to like your music and that’s OK. If you search for your favorite band or musician on YouTube, you’ll see that no matter how popular they are, there are always a fair amount of “dislikes” too. You can’t please everyone and you shouldn’t worry about it. One famous example that I cited in my article about famous musicians who overcame rejection pertains to a new artist named Jimi Hendrix being booed off the stage while he was opening for the Monkees in front of a large audience. The moral of this story is, sometimes you just have to trust your vision and move forward with blinders on. In the third example (situation 3), you simply have to take a deep breath and try again. If you are able to get a revision to this artist, great, if not, it’s not the end of the world. You have to understand that music is not a “get rich quick scheme”. It’s a long game so you must keep at it, pay your dues and keep improving. The bottom line is that every successful musician I know has a few traumatic stories they can tell you and they’ve all learned from these experiences and moved on. The truth is that these horrible situations are actually good for you in a weird way, because they teach you valuable lessons and make you more resilient for whatever happens next…


The Power of Confidence

Self-confidence is responsible for making good musicians great and lack of self-confidence can make great musicians mediocre. If you are confident in your abilities, you will most likely get further than those with comparable skills who doubt themselves. Also, if you believe in your musicianship and fear nothing, you can easily surpass those with more raw talent than yourself. Of course, you must put in the work and be great at your craft, but your mental approach will either “make you” or “break you” in the end.

This is easily illustrated in terms of the placebo effect. If you were given a sugar pill that claimed to “make your time better”, I bet that your time would improve (if you actually believed that the pill was legit). This is obviously not airtight because some people with bad time (who don’t work on improving it) would continue to have poor time. But many other people with chronic timekeeping problems are simply having a mental block, because they don’t have confidence in their “time”. Some of these people may have been told that they were dragging or rushing by a musician they respected or maybe, for whatever reason, they are simply obsessed with analyzing their time while performing. BTW, if you’re contemplating whether you’re rushing or dragging during a performance, that’s never a good sign. You should always be thinking of the bigger picture during a performance or preferably not thinking at all. Confidence is the key here and it will help much more than just your time. It will help you solo though difficult chord changes, adapt to musical situations quickly, compose music in different styles, whatever! Essentially, confidence will make every musical task easier, because your mind isn’t second-guessing your every move. This mental efficiency will allow you to effortlessly perform without the mental anarchy. If your mind is criticizing or analyzing everything you do, this lack of mental efficiency will manifest into musical problems, inspiration problems and more. Basically, your mental state will come out in your music for better or worse. Note: Being prepared is probably the best way to build your confidence. If you practice frequently, know all the tunes, etc. you should be naturally confident, which will lead to mental efficiency. After all, if you’re prepared, what do you have to worry about?


Anxiety and Depression

Many of these situations I’m talking about can cause anxiety and depression for musicians too. For instance, if you know that you have a gig coming up with a few of the musicians from “situation 1” (above), you might be freaking out a bit. I’ve actually seen musicians get physically ill due to situations like this because they weren’t able to deal with the stress. Also, the same event (situation 1) might cause a musician to spiral into depression and not want to perform for a while. These psychological scars can be long lasting. Again, you must find a way to be resilient and turn these things into a positive.


Anger and Resentment

Some musicians harbor anger or resentment towards other musicians and/or musical situations. This is good way to waste valuable energy, burn bridges and screw up your mind. When you are in a musical situation, you have to be solely focused on the task at hand. If you’re focusing 50% of your energy toward negative emotions, you’re only performing at half your ability. Also, the other musicians on the gig will probably notice this drama, which will make you less likely to get work because nobody wants “bad vibes” on the stage. You have to find a way to get this chip off your shoulder or it’ll bite you in the ass. Wait until after the gig to hate the drummer or be resentful of the money situation. If you can’t trust yourself to “be cool” with a certain person in a musical situation, it’s probably better not to take the gig until you resolve these emotions.


Emotional Resilience

Again, as I said in one of my past articles, you must learn how to handle rejection in this business because you’ll have to deal with it often. This doesn’t mean that you can’t be scared, anxious, humiliated or depressed. It just means that you must be able to cope with these emotions and come back stronger. For example, many famous musicians have battled with stage fright including Adele, Bob Dylan, Carly Simon, Cher, Rod Stewart, Fiona Apple, etc. Their fear was a natural reaction to putting themselves “out there” and I doubt many people would categorize these artists as weak. A good example of this concept in action can be seen in MMA (mixed martial arts) and boxing. Most fighters will admit to being nervous before a fight and some will even admit to throwing up occasionally in the dressing room due to nerves. The successful fighters are able to “flip a switch” when the bell is rung, which enables them to forget about everything except for the task at hand; essentially putting them in the zone! This is an important lesson to musicians – you have to drop all of the BS that’s on your mind, go out there and kick ass! Another thing that some MMA fighters and boxers have to deal with is coming back after being knocked out. Think about being knocked unconscious in front of hundreds of thousands of people, going back home to train and finally getting back in the ring/cage. The true champions are able to come back stronger after improving themselves and their game, while many other fighters are never quite the same and they end their careers on a low-note. Again, I’m not claiming that these “true champions” are impervious to fear and emotion. They’ve just dealt with this situation in a positive way and made it a learning experience. This is exactly what you have to do as a musician, although hopefully you won’t have to get physically knocked out first!



So remember, your music career is a rollercoaster and you have to go along with the ride. You’ll go up and down and there will be unexpected bumps in there…hopefully nobody sitting in front of you (on the rollercoaster) will puke on you. OK, maybe I went too far with the rollercoaster thing. Anyway, just be strong and consider your music career one big learning experience. Also, have confidence in your abilities, because this will transfer to your attitude and your music. People will be drawn to your vibe and doors will open. Like I said before, you must be great at what you do before you take this advice, but once you’re ready, believe in yourself!


-Adam Small


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