It’s easy to be hardcore when you’re a young musician. I remember those days well. You’re willing to play any gig at any time, drive as far and in whatever weather as needed, compromise your own comfort and income, drive a beater, live on ramen noodles and cheap beer, and to do anything else required to live the life you love, because, deep in your heart, you just KNOW that it’s going to pay off. You are gonna write that song or create that sound that sets the world on fire and it’s all gonna be gravy after that. You just need a little more time.

So time passes. Some musicians do, in fact, set the world on fire. Not you, though. High school turns to college, twenties turn to thirties, and the same lifestyle grind continues. You’re not that old yet, right? You may have picked up a spouse and/or kids by now, which changes the game a little, but you will just pick up some cover gigs for cash and maybe teach some lessons and all, you think, will be good. But it isn’t. Your original music isn’t paying the bills, so you go full on cover band. At least you’re a working musician, right? Not so bad, you get paid, and more time passes, enough time to notice a crucial difference. Where before you played to get past local gigs to the next level, now you just play a circuit that keeps you busy, hopefully, but leads nowhere. Maybe you’re in your forties by now, day job and all, and, one night on stage as you bash out “Mustang Sally” or “When I Come Around” for the millionth time while an over-served girl pukes on the dance floor, you start thinking that being a live juke box for suburban drunks isn’t what you signed on for, and maybe it’s time to adult up and quit this nonsense for good. I mean, you tried, right?

You might have lived out a variation of this tale. I know I have. I ended up so far away from where and why I started out that I forgot, for a while, why I ever did this music stuff in the first place. I learned a whole lot about the game of music and about myself over thirty years in the rock and roll trenches and I today want to share a few tidbits of that knowledge with you, Gentle Reader, in hopes of improving your mental game and saving you a step or two. Here goes nothing!

TIDBIT #1 – THE REASONS WHY WE PLAY ARE IMPORTANT!

We all must be who we are, as musicians. We have to accept our deep, inner identity because that is the part of us that made us start playing. If you had a burning desire to write songs when you were sixteen, part of you probably still does at forty. You have to honor that or it will drive you crazy. That was the big mistake I made. I started as a songwriter but got seduced by cover band money in my thirties and gave up writing for over a decade. I only made music for money. Thing is, music is not only about money. If you need both money and creativity to be happy, a balance between is needed. Cognitive dissonance is your enemy and will breed resentment. Keep your reasons alive!

TIDBIT #2 – BAR BAND LIFE SUCKS AFTER A WHILE!

Let’s face it, playing in a four- set-a-night bar band is not for everybody. It has its moments, to be sure, and is great for your chops, but it gets old fast for some of us. It’s a world away from life in a one-set original music band. No one dreams of getting old playing hours and hours of overdone material to an often indifferent or even hostile crowd of drinkers. Combined with a day job and a family, this life can be a spirit killer. Some folks are fine with it but, if you’re not, admit it to yourself. A gig is most definitely not a gig. Play in projects and venues that inspire you to do it again, not to just get drunk.

TIDBIT #3 – NOT QUITTING IS ALL ABOUT MORALE!

People quit things that they have lost enthusiasm for. The more years you spend in the game, the more vital it is to nurture your enthusiasm and positive morale in order to keep playing it. If you lose those things, you’ll be phoning it in forever and people will know. No matter what gig you’re doing, you’ve got to want to be there and feel good about it. Dig out your inner teenager again and remember why you first joined a band. As long as you can feed that inner teen with what he or she needs, your outer adult will be able to get through the tough nights and low points that come with all levels of music. Your mental game really is everything. Play it well.

I’ve come through these lessons and many more and am happy to be a fifty-year-old original music artist. My cover band days are probably done. Writing and recording music is why I’m here and always has been. I’m still hardcore, and I’m totally ok with with what I now do. To hit that point is to truly master The Art of Not Quitting.

At my beginning, there was music and desire. That was enough. All I thought about was guitars, bands, writing songs, and performing. Then, other factors crept in, corrupting me and my pure little world. The feelings of self doubt that plague most performers started and stayed with me. My biggest fear was not being good enough. Still is, really. Trying to cope with those feelings led to to the self-medicating euphoria of drugs and booze, which were fun for a while. Soon, however, they took over my life and got between me and my music. Not feeling anxiety and inadequacy became much more important than just about anything. That pursuit of not feeling became the trap I fell into as time went on.

I think this happens to a lot of performers. Our emotions, which give us so much creativity, can also be our downfall if we can’t control them. Those same feelings that often drive our best work can also knock us out cold if we let them get the upper hand. We need to balance maintaining the healthy ego we need to get on stage or record but without feeding the negative mindset that comes from believing our critics and doubting ourselves. Easier said than implemented, I know, but the dangers of becoming an ego-ed out monster or, worse, a quivering pile of doubt and fear, loom so large that getting our heads right is of crucial importance. In my life, the things that got me off center were low self-esteem in anything but music, a difficult home life, and trouble relating to my peers. Self-medicating allowed me to adopt a different personality, one that people seemed to like more than the sober, nervous me, which was ok until that personality took over.

What got taken over was my desire and drive. Rather than driving towards bettering my skills and my music, I drove directly at not feeling those old negative feelings, no matter the cost. When this really kicked in for me in the years following high school, there were periods where I didn’t play or practice for weeks at a time. I got lost in the haze. I got trapped in that new personality, content to have a social scene and the ability to keep my weakness on ice. I consider this to be the single worst thing I ever did in terms of my musical life. At a time when I should have been going hard, I was partying hard, too hard, in an effort to repress and forget my own life. I was still in bands and gigging, but was just drifting thought it all.

This was the trap, my trap, and some of yours, too, I bet. Rather than owning my shit and improving it, I hid from it, gradually drifting off course until my life became about getting high and oblivious and I almost became a drunk non-musician. I lost a decade to that negative personality, years I will never get back. My lesson from this experience was that what needs to happen is life and our minds must be dealt with and not repressed. That does not mean that we have to live sober, but it means that we have to accept and improve ourselves and our lives rather than hiding from them. This type of mental game mistake derails more musicians than anything. Most of us don’t fail because our talent runs out; playing music is the easy part. A weak mental game will kill your career before it starts. I address this type of thing in my guitar teaching practice, which is pretty non-traditional, and feel these issues are just as vital as learning theory, reading, and technique to a developing artist.

Of course, partying too much is just one of many things we can get trapped in. What are some you have encountered?