Rejection—it’s an inevitable part of life as a professional musician. You fail to advance in an audition round, your grant proposals are turned down, or you experience radio silence in response to your email pitches. Rejection just comes with the territory. The question is how to deal with it. Let’s examine how to handle rejection in an unfair music profession.
Of course, nobody likes to be rejected
And though we’re professionals, we’re also human.
As a creative artist, you put your naked vulnerability out there on stage. So, when you’re rejected, it feels personal. It hurts.
Rejection can bring up feelings of hopelessness and despair, and it can exacerbate any self-worth issues you may have (it sure has for me). You can easily lose perspective, especially if you’ve exaggerated the importance of any one audition, application, fundraising request, proposal, or networking encounter.
Rejections can leave you feeling bruised and battered as well as angry and resentful. They can get you to question your talent, your skills, even your career choice. And it can be hard to keep in mind that a single rejection is not an indictment of you or your music.
So put your oxygen mask on first . . .
Let’s Talk Self-Care
Self-care means building positive habits for coping with the highs and lows of the profession. Here are my three favorite self-care tips:
1. Give yourself a specific amount of time in private to vent, yell, or cry as needed in the immediate aftermath of a rejection. My web developer uses a 3-minute timer to get her big feelings out, so that she can release the negativity and then turn her attention to what she needs to focus on in her day.
For me, writing is a great way to release the big emotions of anger, resentment, or frustration, to get them out of me and onto the page. I recommend you write by hand, pen to paper, using whatever inventive cursing is needed to fully express your feelings. Once you’re done, it’s best to burn, shred, or flush away your writing so you clear the purged feelings from your system and your space.
Whatever you do, do NOT turn the negative emotions back on yourself. Let’s avoid engaging in the “Festival of Self-Loathing” (I’ve been there, done that far too often).
2. Get support from your closest circle—the people who love you no matter what, who believe in you and your music, and can help you find the silver lining in the midst of a setback. Cultivate a circle of mutually supportive friends so you can have each others’ backs. Give as good, if not better, than you get.
3. Come back to center. No matter how busy you are, you can designate 10 minutes each morning quieting your mind and focusing on your breath. Many musicians find yoga, qigong, tai chi, or other “moving meditation” practice especially helpful. In addition, I keep a gratitude journal to write down what specifically I’m grateful for each day. This helps me experience more of the good and the beauty that’s all around us. Having a spiritual practice can also help you find center and call you back to your purpose, to why you make music in the first place.
But how are we supposed to make sense of rejection?
The truth is, selection committees and other gate-keepers operate with a logic we aren’t privy to. We can’t know all of their priorities or pressures, nor can we ever know for sure what they think of us or our work. In the end, many of these decisions are subjective matters of taste, priorities, fit, and timing. Such decisions are neither logical nor fair. And they are beyond our control.
Here’s how I first saw this in action: as a grad student I applied for a Fulbright to study cello in Paris with the teacher who had the sound of my dreams.
And I didn’t get it. I was devastated and ready to give up on the idea of ever going abroad to study with this cellist.
But my friends all advised me to quit my bellyaching and just try again the next year.
These are the kinds of friends we all need because I did try again. And I won the Fulbright the second time around.
Now, were my qualifications and my playing amazingly different that second year? NO. But it was a different selection committee, a different pool of candidates, and I had upgraded my grant writing skills. Go figure.
I went from believing that I was unworthy and a failure, to being told I was a “winner.” It showed me how ridiculous it was to define myself in terms of external validation.
The lesson here is that one rejection is just that: one rejection. Don’t let it define you. Try again.
If it’s a situation in which you can get comments from the competition judges or selection committee members, that’s great. Wait until you are calm enough and have enough distance to be at least halfway objective. Ask for feedback and read the comments carefully, doing your best to avoid getting defensive. Of course, you may not agree with the judges but give yourself a chance to learn something useful and see what can help you improve your chances next time.
We are all works in progress.
It can also help to think of the “putting yourself out there” as a numbers game. It’s typical for people who book their own concerts to report a 1 in 10 ratio of booked gigs to pitches sent. That means for every 10 pitches you send out, you’ll get, on average, 9 rejections.
Yeah, ouch. And the same ratio applies for grant applications.
So clearly, you need to adjust your expectations accordingly.
HOW you respond to rejection is up to you: it’s a CHOICE.
The truth is, part of your job as a musician is learning to deal with rejection and with the emotional roller coaster of a life in the arts. This means being willing to be vulnerable and risk being rejected. Over and over and over again.
My biggest rejection story
When I was writing the first edition of Beyond Talent: Creating a Successful Career in Music, I sent proposals to more than 20 publishers. Not one of them was interested.
And early on, I’d been given advice not to bother with Oxford University Press. I was told they were only interested in academic books, not self-help guides.
I also shopped around for an agent. And I found one who offered to send my proposal off to a short list of specialized publishers and if nothing came through, we’d go our separate ways.
Well, nothing came through with the agent or on my own.
It was Zip. Zero. Nada.
Did the rejections get me feeling discouraged? YES.
Did I ask myself, “Why the hell am I torturing myself doing this?” YEP. I was tempted to quit again and again.
But I was committed to seeing the book project through.
Why? Because the work was teaching me not only how to be a better coach but a better person.
I was committed to the writing and to finding out how to get my work out there. If I couldn’t find a publisher I was also considering self-publishing.
My last-ditch attempt was to send a proposal to Oxford University Press on my own. I thought, what did I have to lose?
And then, against all odds, Oxford was interested. I even found help from an agent I met at a summer writers program and she negotiated the contract for me.
After all the rejections, this seemed like a dream.
And what came after still feels unreal: lots of speaking engagements in the US and abroad, and much more learning and coaching. Five years later I wrote an expanded second edition, and Beyond Talent was also translated into Japanese and Chinese.
And fifteen years after writing the original book I wrote the third edition, completely revised with Hero’s Journey material and a real focus on getting past the internal obstacles that plague most musicians.
The point is this: if I’d stopped after the first or second—or the 15th rejection—I wouldn’t have gotten the book published and I wouldn’t have the career I’ve had because of it.
What was the story I told myself through all the rejections?
It wasn’t “This is hopeless” or “Who am I trying to fool here, I have no business writing this book.” (Although, of course I had those thoughts at times.)
And it wasn’t, “What’s the matter with these publishers: Why are they rejecting something that’s clearly amazing?!”
The main story I was telling myself was that it was my job to improve. I believed in the project so I asked myself, “How can I do a better job in this proposal?” And “How might I strengthen the sample chapters?”
To help, I attended writers seminars to get professional feedback that challenged me. My commitment was to do the work, no matter what the outcome.
I didn’t know it then, but I see this clearly now in me and my clients: that how we respond is a choice.
What response will you choose? Here are your 5 options
After a rejection you can choose any one or combination of the following . . .
1. Become depressed . . .
and take time off to feel sorry for yourself. Of course, we all need to lick our wounds, maybe for a day or two. But past that, I find I’m likely to spiral down into a depression that’s much more difficult to crawl out of.
After a rejection, pay attention to the story you’re telling yourself. After disappointments, typical stories include, “I’m a loser,” “That was rigged,” “That person hates me,” “I can’t catch a break,” and the ever popular, “I’m never going to amount to anything.” If that’s part of your inner monologue, it’s time to change your story.
2. See yourself pitted against your circumstances
Maybe the story you’re stuck in is “everybody is against me” and “this shouldn’t be happening to me.” If you see the world as a series of closed doors with people actively preventing you from succeeding, that’s what you’ll experience.
Be careful here: we each create our own realities based on the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and what we’re capable of. We just don’t realize that we’re walking around seeing the world through lenses we’ve created. Know that you can change your story, and that this will change your future.
3. Get angry and resentful
and go around holding a grudge. After all, the profession IS unfair. Of course, life itself is unfair, but this can be tough to swallow whole. So we take negative experiences personally, thinking we’ve been singled out by the fates to be punished. This is not where you want to get stuck.
Because unfortunately, anger and resentment aren’t feelings you can compartmentalize. They eat at your stomach lining and impact every area of your life and relationships. That’s a high price to pay for this response choice.
4. Decide you don’t have what it takes
We all harbor self-limiting beliefs. Unfortunately, if you buy into yours, you end up essentially giving up on yourself. Maybe you’ve scaled back on your goals and play it safe in your career. You may have unconsciously decided to only go after things that are well within your comfort zone.
Maybe you “hide” in your performances instead of taking risks and really going for it. Or you may delay ambitious projects, telling yourself you’ll wait until you feel ready and confident. Which could be, at this rate, when hell freezes over.
The problem is most of us don’t even realize that we’ve made a choice.
It’s not conscious, but our fear and Resistance end up calling the shots. And then this becomes habitual—the hiding and the backing away from risks—and we wake up years later to find we’re living a smaller life.
**The best response I’ve found is to . . .
5. Get back to work
Sure, you need to express your emotions and deal with the disappointment. But in the end, you realize you can’t control the gatekeepers’ decisions. So you don’t spend too much time and energy being resentful and angry, or wallowing in self-pity. Instead, you get back in the studio and focus on the process: the work you’re fascinated by.
If you choose to be committed to your own artistic growth—to the process as opposed to the outcome—you’ll have much better odds of succeeding. Why? Because you are in it for the long-haul and less likely to take any one rejection as definitive.
But let’s be clear on this: there are two sides of the work needed to advance your artistic growth. There’s . . .
The artistic work itself
and, if you want to share that work with audiences there’s also . . .
The career work: managing the business side of your art
Musicians need to be committed to both. Make no mistake, one without the other won’t do.
You can’t simply make great music in isolation and expect an audience to find you. So the practicing or composing by itself is not enough.
You also need to get out there and make things happen. Take risks, pitch yourself and your music, and learn from the feedback you get.
So expect rejections—they are part of the process. Dealing with it—learning how to pick yourself back up and keep going—that is the sign of a resilient artist.
Get the help you need
Here are my favorite book recommendations for musicians on how to handle rejection. These have been enormously helpful to me and my clients. They are:
Making Your life as an Artist by Andrew Simonet. Available bound and as a FREE PDF. Love it.
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. Especially the section on “Turning Pro.” A classic.
The Tools (and the terrific follow-up book Coming Alive) both by Phil Stutz and Barry Michels. Amazing.
And if you’d like targeted help designing a custom action plan with expert coaching and accountability—so you can move forward in your music career despite rejections—let’s talk, YAY!
Here’s to your brighter future,
Dream Big, Plan Smart, Live Well