Take the Musician Motivation Q

Question for you: as a musician, is your motivation crystal clear? Because I’ve a story for you. It’s about an organist I met many years ago. I no longer remember his name or where he was from. But he was an American I met in Paris — we were both there on grants studying music. We met at a concert and he exchanged business cards with me. 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. Truth is, the judgmental side of me went into full cringe. I thought this was only something that real estate brokers did. Back then I had that typical snobby “anti-marketing” musician’s mindset and thought that as artists we shouldn’t stoop to being so “commercial.”

But what REALLY bothered was the “I play for God” line. I’m not a particularly religious person, and back then, as a grad student, I was fairly cynical. I don’t remember my specific reaction to his card, but I may have questioned him about it, trying to discern if his tag line was sincere or if it was a cynical marketing ploy. Or an arrogant declaration that he ultimately answered and sought to please only God — as opposed to us mere mortals, his audience or employers. In the end, the organist seemed on the level. But something in this must have struck a chord in me because . . .

Years later I’m still asking musicians core questions about their motivation

Musicians are often unclear about their true motivation for making music and so their commitment to doing the scary work — and doing it consistently — may suffer. And that, of course, gets in the way of their moving forward in their careers. I’m not saying it belongs as a slogan on your business card — I AM saying that your need clarity on why you make music.

Getting centered about your motivation is the first step to making real progress.

Here’s how trombonist Doug Yeo, former Boston Symphony member, approached the motivation issue. This is an excerpt from a terrific FAQ he posted about performance anxiety. 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?”

And he suggests you also consider:

Who is it you’re playing for?

He writes, “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 his clarity of purpose. And again, maybe God’s not your thing, but I maintain we DO need to be aiming at something higher and bigger than ourselves. Something more than pleasing the audience. Think about the impact you want to make through your music. What’s the change you seek to make in the world?

If that seems grandiose, I can also make this really practical. The truth is, unless you’re reaching up to the heavens, or toward a healthier planet, or aiming to help create a more peaceful world, chances are you’re stuck simply trying to satisfy your own ego. Competing with and comparing yourself to others, trying desperately to be “good enough.”

Without a higher aim, we lose sight of what music is ultimately FOR.

And we miss out on having a much more rewarding career and life.

Is your motivation crystal clear? Take the Quiz

Fill out this quick survey and check on what’s fueling your music-making these days.

FYI, this quiz is from the latest edition of my book, Beyond Talent. But, thanks to that unnamed organist and to Doug Yeo, I’ve now added a missing spiritually-informed option. And of course, you can add your own.

I can’t wait to see what motivates you!


If you’d like help leaning into your motivation and want to explore getting expert coaching—let’s talk.

And don’t forget, you can join our FB Live discussions in our free MusiciansMakingIt Facebook group.

Here’s to your forward motion,

Dream Big, Plan Smart, Live Well

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