Here’s the question: is your motivation crystal clear? If you’re like most musicians, it’s a little murky. To help, I’ve got a story for you plus a quick and easy Musician Motivation quiz so you can clarify your WHY.
First, the story. Many years ago I met an American organist in Paris—where we were both studying music. We met at a concert and exchanged business cards. And on his card he had his photo and the caption, “I play for God.”
Now, at that point I’d never seen a musician’s business card with a headshot on it. That was the first shock. I thought putting your photo on business cards was something only real estate brokers did.
So the judgmental part of me, of course, went into overdrive. Back then I had a snobby “anti-marketing” musician’s mindset and thought that as artists we shouldn’t stoop to being so “commercial.”
But what REALLY got my goat was the line “I play for God.” I’m not an especially religious person, and back when I was a grad student, I was particularly cynical.
I don’t recall what I said exactly, but I know I asked him about the card. I was trying to figure out whether his tag line was sincere or if it was some kind of marketing ploy. Or maybe a testimony that he made music to please only God—as opposed to mortal audiences or employers.
In the end, the organist seemed to be on the level. But something in this exchange must have struck a chord in me because . . .
Years later I’m still asking musicians questions about their motivation.
What I’ve found is most musicians are unclear about the WHY behind their music making.
As a result, their commitment to doing what it takes to get their music out into the world—that may falter. And course, this gets in the way of moving ahead in their careers.
I’m not saying your WHY needs to be a slogan on your business card. But I AM saying that you need to be clear, at least with yourself, about why you make music.
Getting centered in your motivation is the first step to making real progress.
This is about aligning your values with your actions. Clarifying your purpose can fuel you with the energy needed to move ahead in your career—even after disappointments and setbacks.
Here’s how trombonist Doug Yeo, former member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, approached the motivation question. This is an excerpt from an FAQ he posted on his site. In it, Doug invites readers to consider:
Why are you in music?
Doug writes, “I ask the question because I think our motivation is important. Are we playing to impress others, or to express ourself, or simply to take a risk, or is playing just a challenge to be conquered?”
To help you answer the question Doug suggests you consider:
Who is it you’re playing for?
“When I play the trombone, I play for five distinct audiences. I play for myself, because I enjoy expressing myself through music and simply enjoy playing my instrument. I play for God, because He has given me my talent and I wish to praise Him by being a good steward of the talent He has given me. I play for those who have invested in me as my teachers and encouragers (whether they be dead or alive, present or absent from the performance venue) because I appreciate what they did to help make me who I am today. I play for the composer and/or arranger of the music I am playing because I wish to faithfully interpret their music through the lens of my own life in a way which would cause them to learn something about both themselves and about me. And I play for the audience – whether it be one person or 60,000 – because I enjoy sharing what I have to say with them. In performance, I am aware of all five of these audiences. I’m not thinking of them consciously every second I am playing, but their presence in my mind has been there for many years and I know that they are all with me in one way or another.”
I love Doug’s clarity of purpose and that so much of his WHY is about honoring others. And I love the sense that when we make music we are connecting with more souls than those who are physically present with us.
Got a Higher Purpose?
In terms of having a higher purpose for your music, if God isn’t the answer for you, no worries. This is a judgment-free zone.
But I’d still maintain we need to be aiming at something higher and bigger than our own egos. That we’re better off—and that the world is better off—if the purpose behind our performing or composing is about more than pleasing ourselves and getting approval or praise from others.
So if God’s not your jam, think about this from another angle: what’s the impact you want to make through your music. In other words . . .
What’s the change you seek to make in the world?
And if that still seems too grandiose, let’s get practical. What’s the good you want your music to contribute toward?
The way I see it, unless you are reaching up to the heavens, or toward a healthier planet, or aiming to help create a more peaceful world, chances are you’re stuck competing with and comparing yourself to others, trying desperately to prove yourself “good enough.” That’s the maze that too many musicians are trapped in. And it’s a guaranteed recipe for heartache.
Without a higher aim, we lose sight of what music is actually FOR.
And we miss out on having a much more rewarding career and life. For me, an intentional life, with a clear motivation, is the better road to take.
So stretch yourself and . . .
Clarify Your Motivation, Take the Quiz
Fill out this quick form and check on what all is fueling your music-making these days. It takes less than a minute—easy peasy. Click on the form below or use the link HERE.
If you’d like help leaning into your motivation and want to explore getting expert coaching—let’s talk.
Here’s to your forward motion,
Dream Big, Plan Smart, Live Well