The Musical U team talks about setbacks and negative experiences in music, and how to move past them to maintain a positive musical trajectory.
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Christopher: Hello and welcome to the Musicality Podcast. I’m joined today by three members of the Musical U team. Stewart Hilton, our community conductor, Adam Liette, our communications manager, and Andrew Bishko, our product manager and content editor.
We’re here to talk about moving past negative musical moments in our past. And doing so to reach our musical goals. This is a topic that we on the team grapple with fairly often in our work at Musical U because when people come to Musical U they generally come with a fairly long musical back story. Whether that is feeling like you’re not a musician for most of your life and then finally taking the plunge in retirement. Or playing music every day of your life but never really feeling like you’ve quite cracked it.
Our members come from a wide range of backgrounds, but what they all have in common is that there is some part of them that doesn’t feel 100% awesome about their musical identity. And of course we step into the picture to try and fill in some of those concrete skills that can let you feel like a confident natural. Let you express yourself and let you really enjoy every aspect of your musical life.
So of course we end up talking a lot with members about some of the past experiences they’ve had. Things that may have happened to give them the idea that they’re not musical. And this comes in a range of guises, from family situations to early music education or indeed lack of it. To gigging with bands and having a negative atmosphere. All kinds of places that can show up in your musical life. And I’m sure that as I’ve been talking now, you’ve had moments pop into your own head of sticking points or painful experiences or those bits of your musical back story that you’re maybe not so delighted with. Or that you feel if you could just put that one to rest maybe you could move forwards.
So I’m really excited to have this chance to talk with Stewart, Adam and Andrew about their thoughts on this topic. And what we can maybe do to acknowledge those negative moments and then move past them. So let’s kick things off with Stewart. Stewart, say a quick hello and then tell us, what do you think about this topic of moving past negative musical experiences?
Stewart: Hi I’m Stewart Hilton, and I’m the community conductor inside this site. You may all know me as my other personality, GTRSTU777. That is what you see in there. And also outside I play guitar in a few different groups so that keeps me busy.
Yeah, this topic is pretty dear to me as I’ve gone through a lot of things in my own life. Stemming all the way back from even being in band in schools, in 5th and 6th grade. And things that happened with teachers of all people. But that can happen and I’m sure there are probably many people that have had similar experiences where sometimes the ones that we’re looking to, our mentors can turn into being our biggest negative input. Which is, since I teach and I know others on here teach too. I think that’s something we all love teaching for is because we want to be that other side of the coin. And to encourage and be the positive thing in people to bring you into your own musicality. Which is a great thing and we love seeing everybody on this site doing that.
One is, as I was thinking, we have no control over thing that are said to us. Actions that affect us, however we are able to find ways and how to handle them to help us move forward and not let them disable us from our dreams. And we’ll get to all that. Also there’s things we do I think in our lives and I heard someone discuss it as a ledger living. And what that means is like a ledger book where you keep all your finances.
In our head we tend to keep certain instances of our past in our heads. And it kind of directs our life. So finding ways to fix that or be inspired by that is a good thing. Some other things I found online, this study shows it takes 12 positive reviews. If you have a business and we all see the reviews online for different things. For 1 negative review, it takes 12 positive reviews to negate those 12 negative ones. Or to, yeah, the 1 negative one, it takes 12 positive ones. That makes a lot better sense.
Also, a Harvard and Business Report I was reading did a study found the best performing teams are pro teams almost on average 5 positive remarks opposite a negative comment. This also includes sarcastic comments or disparaging comments. So it just shows how that negativity affects us. And then how we have to figure ways out to move past that.
Christopher: Yeah, and that’s a really critical thing isn’t it? No pun intended, but that feedback. There’s all kinds of negative musical experiences you might have. But hearing someone say something rude or critical or negative about your music making can cut you straight to the heart, can’t it?
Stewart: Oh, yeah.
Christopher: And 100% agree with those studies in the sense that we all intellectually might think that one positive comment balances out a negative one. But I think all of us as human beings have found that that is not the case.
Christopher: If you perform in public and one person comes up to you and points out a mistake you made. And then 10 come up and say how great it was. You’re gonna be thinking about that one negative when you go to bed and that can be really tough. I think particularly for young musicians. Stewart, you were talking about your teaching there and I know you’ve taught some youngsters as well as adults. And when it’s so much a part of the identity you’re trying to build up and the ego development, it can be yeah, brutal to hear that one negative comment. And I’d love to hear from Andrew about some of these things. How has this come up in your own musical life, whether through feedback or other experiences?
Andrew: Well, as Stew was speaking, I was thinking about one of the most cutting remarks that was made to me about my music, really turned me around. Because I deserved it, and I realized that I deserved it. This was when I was at the Conservatory. And basically, while I had classical training growing up, for a great part of my musical life at that point, I had been improvising and creating things myself and I hadn’t really been relying on a whole bunch of training, and I learned some tricks, I had learned some things that you know I was very, very comfortable with and was really my comfort zone to play in certain keys, in certain things. But I wasn’t able to play in all keys. I wasn’t really hearing a lot of the music that I was playing. I hadn’t really developed my ears to a certain point.
I remember my mentor there at the New England Conservatory saying, you know, it was like, basically I don’t remember exactly the words but, he’s like saying you know you gotta do this basic stuff. And I realized I had just been faking a whole bunch of stuff. And I was kind of ego about, you know I can do this, cuz I had been performing with a band, you know I was dancing on stage and doing all this stuff you know. But I won’t tell you what I was wearing. But you know it was, but I did have these really cool platform shoes, these green platform shoes that I would wear with these yellow pants, you know.
And so, like it wasn’t about the platform shoes and the yellow pants. It was about the music and there was a place where, okay, I had to. There was things for me to learn. And I buckled down and you know I was really also was like, wow, I had gotten into the conservatory. I had somehow did this but you know that didn’t insure that I was really the real deal.
I made a lot of changes in my music. It had gotten a lot more disciplined. I got a lot more humble. And I, and I really, um, buckled down and did the work. So in that case, because I was mentally prepared for it, it wasn’t like I was a youngster, you know, I was almost thirty years old and I was ready for that. That was a very good experience.
Another experience that built a lot of strength for me, that I wanted to share, built a lot of strength in me, was when I, in the eighties I was living in Italy, and this is how I got back into music. I got back in as a street musician. I was playing the flute in the street and I had bells on my feet and I’d dance around. But that was my source of support. And you know I met this girl and we were traveling together and we were sleeping on this beautiful beach. And in the night some hooligans came and they cut our sleeping bags were we had our valuables and they took my flute. And, um, that was pretty devastating to me because that was like my life line at the time. But I went and I bought a plastic flute, little plastic pipe for a few bucks. And that’s what I played on until I saved up enough to buy a real one.
And I realized then, and then of course, I broke up with the girlfriend, that made it doubly worse. But, and it gets, oh. I don’t want to go down there. Anyway, but here I am. I am here with this plastic flute. And I remember where I was. I was in Sorrento where they were having this big classical music festival. And there was all these classical players walking around with their nice flutes and here I am on the corner with a little piece of plastic. And I remember asking this one girl, “Can I just play your flute? I’d love to play a flute again.” And she’s just like, “no, no, don’t touch that.”
Anyway, so I’m playing this plastic flute and I did it. And I realized it wasn’t the instrument. It was me that was making the music. I was the one who was making in and I had a lot of fun with that little thing and I made a lot of the music and I made enough money to buy myself another flute. So that built a lot of strength in me to over come various setbacks. A lot of instrumental set backs that I had afterwords.
Christopher: Gotcha. Well I think you’re the master of coming up with podcast episode titles. I think this one’s gonna be, It’s Not About the Green Platform Shoes, It’s About the Music. Adam, without wanting to sound too mean, Adam, I would love to hear about some of your negative experiences in music and how you tackled them at the time.
Adam: Oh man, I mean, how many do we all have? There’s all, if you’ve been playing music for long enough, it’s not about how many times you made it, or it’s not about IF you ever made a mistake, it’s how many times you did. Because that’s the reality of this art. You will make a mistake, if you put yourself out there, if you’re performing and playing for people, it’s going to happen. And I’m really happy we’re talking about this because it can be so crushing to someone who is just coming along and trying something new. You know I think it speaks broader to where our society is right now with social media, anonymous people just ripping each other apart. I mean, Twitter, it’s, it makes me sad when I go on Twitter sometimes because it’s you know it’s just like a black hole of despair at times. And in music specifically, you know, we have Simon Cowell, you know, American Icon, and Simon Cowell is paid millions of dollars a year to just rip people apart. And I wonder like what does that do to our psyche as musicians when we’re then listening to other people.
And I had this wonderful teacher, I’ve talked about him on the show before, my trumpet teacher. And he gave us this poem, and we had to put it on our practice journal. And One line from it is, Promise yourself to give so much time to the improvement of yourself that you have no time to criticize others.
That really stuck with me. It’s like if I’m going around and nit picking other people’s mistakes, the little things that they’re doing wrong in their music, I mean, what can they say about me? But if I’m focused solely on what I’m trying to do, you know, that’s the better way to achieve your goals, to become the musician that you want to be.
And one of the things I have really been focusing on as I get a little bit older and start to shift in my life is, you know, this idea of mind set and maintaining like this positive perception on life. And it’s kind of funny because if you go to Amazon and you search for like Positive Thinking, there will be like, what, ten million books about positive thinking, because we have to teach it right. But if you search for like negative thinking, I mean how many books? We already know how to do that. We know how to think bad about ourselves, we know how to criticize others. No one has to teach us how to do that. We know.
And it kind of reminded me, because I want to leave you with something that you can start doing today. And it reminded me of a phrase, it’s from the Bible. It says, “that which we gaze upon, we become.” And I think if we purposely put ourself out there in a positive way, then that will reflect back upon us.
And so what I try to do now, whether it’s through music, whether it’s in some of my business work or the other types of stuff I’m doing, if I’m asked for feedback on someone else’s work or if I’m working with someone, I try to purposely start by looking at the positive things that they are doing. And even if there are corrections that need to be made, you know, if we try to frame it in a positive manor, like look this was great, why don’t you try to do it this way? Or it would sound really good if, as apposed to Simon Cowl “That was terrible. You should just quit.”
You know that doesn’t help anyone and I think that if we just take the moment to become a cheerleader for others, to help realize not only that everyone faces this, but they can move on past these negative moments, these mistakes that they’re going to make, that will in turn help us realize that we can move on as well.
Christopher: Fantastic. Yeah, I think that, that point about it impacting your confidence is a huge one and also that it’s a two way street. You know the way you treat others has a huge impact on the way you respond when someone treats you similarly. It reminds me a lot of our get confident module at Musical U, where we have like a grab bag of techniques you can use to help develop your musical confidence. And one of the tips in there is to practice giving compliments because we tend to be rubbish at receiving compliments as a musician. And so one of the other exercises is to practice receiving compliments well. But first it’s abut just finding opportunities to go out and say nice things to people whether in the world of music or elsewhere, because I think societally we are, as you say, very good at negative comments and not so good at the positive comments a lot of the time. And particularly when it can be under the guise of critique or you know, helpful feedback. When in reality, for that person emotionally, it’s just gonna come like a ton of bricks.
Adam: And the great thing is, this is one of those non-musical skills that we sometimes talk about in Musical U. When you adopt this ideology, this positive mindset, it can have a great impact on every aspect of your life. You know at the time we’re recording this there’s, you know, some things going on in my life, and I could look at this as, I had plans and this ruined it. But instead, you know, there are other people that are facing more difficult circumstances that are resolved of what’s going on, and I’m still pretty lucky. Focus on what I can do, what I can control, as opposed to what I can’t.
Christopher: Yeah, and that was the other thing that I really wanted to pick up on from what you said was that focusing on the positive, and trying to find the positive, because you know, you were talking about doing it with other people, you know, before you critique, say something nice. But also, as you just said, it can come up in the sense of finding the silver lining in a situation.
But it’s come up several times on this show before in the context of recording yourself. Because one of the really painful things about using this amazing technique of recording your practice and listening back, is at first, none of us like the way we sound. And that goes double if you’re singing and really listening to your voice.
But probably the most helpful tip, apart from just do it, is when you do it, listen for something specific. Listen for something specific you’re trying to improve. And just focusing on was that what it meant to be? And of course you can also take a moment to appreciate all of the things you did right. And that can transform what, on the face of it, would just be a very painful listening and being like, oh, I don’t sound amazing, into something that is both positive and constructive.
Stewart: Yeah, I was just thinking, with what Andrew said and Adam with what you just said, um, the difference, you know, yeah, I always thing there’s two different types of criticism. One is the destructive, you know, which we’ve all had, versus, in words and actions. But the other one is constructive, which is the better.
And, uh, you know, when I was younger, I still have a destructive tenancy in my head to like nitpick myself, but I’ve gotten a whole heck of a lot better over time. Um, and now, you know because my wife knows, knows me, you know, I was like at the end of a show, I start like saying and really mean that one part was bad. She was like, are you getting negative on yourself? I’m like no, no, no. I’d say I also had some really good points, you know, or I did this right or did that right.
We were talking about experiences. I grew up and I stated playing in the metal scene in the eighties. And as Adam knows, the eighties was a metal shred fest and I was not a good shredder. I was more of a Blues guy trying to do metal. Although I did the rhythms, I could do a lot of the rhythmical stuff real good when it came to the lead, I was more of the bluesy guy. Because of that, you know, certain things were said, and that sort of thing.
But I had to just kind of wait through it and I had a few people say, oh, you know, I love shredders, but you know sometimes I like to hear some blues stuff with you guys that you do. But it has, you know, over time I’ve gotten better at listening through and going “I can work on that, this is, but this is good”. And that becomes a really good part of getting over some of that stuff that happened when we were kids.
Christopher: Yeah, for sure. And I think we’ve touched on a few times here that it is, it can be so personal. You know, if you’re doing music right it is a personal thing and it can be so bound up in your identity and your self image and your confidence and your capabilities.
You know for me one of the stand-out painful moments in my musical past was when I was getting ready to audition for the chapel choir at my school. And up until then I had been a decent, quiet singer. I had taken a few singing lessons, but I wasn’t really pursuing singing. And anyway, so I went and took a couple of lessons with a teacher at my sister’s school, so that I could come back to my own school and audition.
And anyway, we did a couple of lessons, it was fine. She was happy enough. I did my pieces. And then at the end of it, she was like, “listen, I’m going to say something to you and feel free to hate me afterwords, but the way you say your S’s is a bit weird and your choir director might have a problem with that. So that’s maybe just something to think about.”
And I, to give you the context, I was like I think ten or eleven at the time. So, you know my voice wasn’t breaking, I wasn’t dealing with that stuff, but a really painful age to be told something like that. And obviously I had been aware, I had had teasing like kids at school saying I had a lisp and all of that. And you know, I hope it doesn’t come across too much on this podcast, I think I said in the first episode, sorry if it does. Because I do still say my “S’s” weird, and it’s less bad than it was. But that singing teacher pointing this out to me, and that being, like my, that was my takeaway from those singing lessons. It wasn’t, “Hey, you’re prepped for this audition. Hey, you’re a pretty good singer.” It was, “You’re weird about the way you say your “s’s.” And so, I auditioned, I got into the choir. It was all fairly happy and plain sailing, but I was never a soloist in that choir. I was a good singer. I played my part. I was never asked to stand at the front and sing. And, I’m confident that was at least, in part, because of this issue with the way I said my “s’s.”
And anyway, long story short, I gradually got better at it. I got to the point of doing a solo performance in a theater production at school. And later in my 20s, I kind of grappled with this and was like, “Oh, I should really fix this.” And so, I went to a speech and language therapist, and she showed me, you know, there was a different way to say my “s’s.” Again she wasn’t delighted with the way it turned out, and I was satisfied. And I now have a way of tackling this that let me feel comfortable starting a podcast.
But, you know, it’s still an issue for me. It’s still part of my identity as a singer, as a person. And I can trace it all back to that one bit of feedback, which was very well intentioned and very well put but still really cut me deep and had an impact on who I was as singer for the next ten plus years.
And I think I would just want to share that to make the point that it’s not, you know, negative things come along, and you just have to deal with them and find the silver lining and everything’s great after that. That’s not what we’re trying to say here today, I don’t think. It really is more complex than that. Whether you’re a kid, and it’s, you know, it’s someone commenting on your voice breaking. Or your first performance doesn’t go well, and someone notices. Or, you’re an adult, and you’re carrying this baggage around with you and trying to be okay with that and trying to still feel confident and capable as a musician.
And I think, if there’s one thing I’m proudest of with this podcast and the fifty plus interviews we’ve done so for, it’s that I think you could pick any single one of them and point to how that person’s musical journey was not a smooth road. You know, these people aren’t coming on and saying, “Well, I was born with a trumpet in my hand, and I played for the next thirty years. And I was a world-leading artist.” You know there is always a twist or turn in there, and I hope that anyone listening. Aside from the stories, we’ve all shared today. I hope you’ve taken it encouragement from those interviews every week. That even the very best musicians have had those negative experiences. We all handle it in our different ways, and sometimes, there’s a nice way to package it up and feel like you’ve made it constructive and move on. And sometimes, it’s something you’re gonna carry around with you, and it’s going to be a part of who you are as a musician. But it doesn’t need to hold you back from reaching your goals.
Before we wrap things up, any last minute thoughts or painful stories about platform shoes anyone would like to share?
Stewart: The other thing that I had to learn because of that is the whole topic of forgiveness. And it may seem like a small thing, but it’s actually, a pretty heavy thing as I did some studying. Because we tend to hold on to those things, and they can direct us in so many different ways.
But if we forgive, it’s actually healthy for us, you know. If we forgive some of those things that have happened to us from other people, and let those go. It’s an amazing thing. They say your blood pressure goes down. Sicknesses start getting better. So, it’s amazing. You know, I’ve seen … My wife and I have seen people who hold on to things just completely self destruct. And it’s a sad thing to watch, but you can watch it. It’s like just let go of it. But they can’t let go.
Christopher: That’s a really powerful thing. [crosstalk 00:35:21] You know, it’s a hundred percent within your control to decide whether to carry these things around with you in the future or not.
Adam: And also, sometimes things happen in our life, we don’t really know why they happen at the time. Just a story from my past. I was a bugler in the United States Army Band, and I had to play in front of twenty-five thousand troops and the sergeant major of the entire Army. And I butchered it. It was one of the worst performances of my entire life. The entire band was sitting there looking at me, like, “Oh my God!” Even the sergeant major was looking at me like, “What the heck was that?” And what happened was that I had gotten a little bit arrogant in my playing, and I hadn’t properly prepared, hadn’t properly warmed up that morning. You know it was like six-thirty in the morning, and I had to perform. Not the easiest time.
Two months later, I had to perform the same thing in front of President Obama. So, little bit of … But if I hadn’t made that major mistake, I don’t know if I would have prepared the way I did when I finally had to do it in front of the big boss. And I did do well in that performance.
But, like I said, sometimes these things happen. These mistakes happen, and if we choose to learn from them. Apply the next level of thinking to it and our preparation, it can lead to great things.
Christopher: Yeah, absolutely. I think that, that notion of taking something positive away. That idea of forgiving anyone you are carrying blame against, and also just, I think, the recognition that all of us as musicians are going to have these setbacks, these twists and turns, these painful moments. Those all go a long way, and I think the last thing I’d throw in there is just what we touched on earlier in this conversation which is … You know, Stewart called it the “ledger living.” That idea of a balance sheet, I think, is a useful one. Because, as we noted, one negative comment will outweigh ten positive ones. And that’s a trite little observation in itself, but you can make use of it. You know, you can actually act on that, which means storing up those positive comments. Giving yourself some way to remember them and making sure that when the negative one comes along that you remind yourself of all of those positive ones.
I know when I first released an app on the App Store, and for the first time, I was receiving public reviews of something I’d made. I really had to learn that lesson because it hit me hard every time someone left a critical review. Even if was just four star instead of five star. That was the one that I remembered. And I learned that if I kept a little printout of all of the positive ones, it was a lot easier to bounce back. And it think, so you know, you can stock up on the good so that it’s a lot easier to keep your momentum and keep your stride when those little setbacks occur.
And I don’t want to end this episode by being totally self-serving, but I will just touch on one of our major themes at Musical U which is community and support because I think we’d be remiss if we talked as if you are all alone in this. You know, everything we’ve discussed is great stuff you can do in your own head to help with this. But the bottom lines is whether it’s a teacher or a coach or a mentor, someone you can look to and be like, “Oh, this went terrible! Help!” And can give you some good guidance. Or a community of musicians, like-minded peers, friends and family, people who you can turn to and show a little bit of vulnerability and know that they’re going to come back at you with positive feedback and reinforcement and encouragement. That is an enormous benefit for you in your musical life.
Christopher: Thanks so much guys. It’s been really fun to unpack this with you. I hope that everyone listening has enjoyed hearing us bare our painful musical moments. I’m sure we could all reel off several more. And as I’ve said, the back catalog of this podcast will provide plenty more raw fodder for anytime you’re sitting there thinking, “It’s just me who isn’t amazing at music.” Or, “It’s just me who makes mistakes.” Or, “It’s just me who gets stuck.” Go back and listen to a few interviews, and I guarantee you will find yourself well corrected.