The Toxic External Validation Cycle of Classical Music

Updated: Sep 22



Now you may not be into anything “woo woo,” but stick with me through these first couple paragraphs because I promise we’re going somewhere good.


I recently got a deck of tarot cards and did a spread where one of the questions inquired, “What energies are you giving out?” to which I received the Nine of Cups.


This card is known as a “wish card,” meaning your dream has (or will) come true. From The Modern Tarot book by Michelle Tea, she says, “Something you have worked very hard for has paid off marvelously, and now it’s time to party. … See what you’ve made of your life and yourself and truly savor the goodness of it.” She says to be content and bask in what you have, and what you’ve accomplished.


So to answer the question of what energies are you giving out, what I got from this is that I’ve worked my butt off and turned my dreams into reality, and now I’m living the good life because of it.


Which….is definitely true. I spent years working and fighting and building everything that I have now, which is in fact my “dream” life. I am financially secure, I have a beautiful home, I have an incredibly supportive family, friends, and husband, and I have the freedom to do whatever the hell I want when I want because I’m my own damn boss.


Like, it really doesn’t get much better than that, right?


But…. (of course there’s a but) ...


What really struck me here is the dichotomy between that, that I am giving off this energy that I’ve literally created this happy ending dream life, and the fact that I’ve never really taken a moment to just soak this in and really sit with the fact that I literally created my dream life.


And upon coming to this realization in the middle of a therapy session, we started to dive in a little bit deeper as to why this is.


Prompted by a discussion with my friend and former roommate Elyse Tolles, as a musician, it’s always just on to the next, on to the next.


And if you’re a musician, too, or really any other performer, you know exactly what I’m talking about.


You finish one recital but then you have rehearsal next week, and concert series next weekend, then recording project due the week following, then a 2-week tour after that, then performing on so-and-so’s recital the day you return…..you know the drill.


It’s one after the other until you quit, retire, or die. And okay sure maybe that’s a little dramatic but like, it’s not entirely wrong, either.


As someone who has been in music in some form or another since first grade, this cycle consumed my life.


My life for twenty years was characterized by next, next, next, next. Never stopping to celebrate aside from the momentary applause and validation received after, say, a big solo recital or having a featured solo in an orchestra concert. But once you head home after enjoying the glow of constant praise and being showered with validating words and applause immediately following a concert, it’s immediately back to, “Great, what concert is up next? Time to get back to practicing.”


Now that I am no longer pursuing the path of being a full-time professional musician, it’s given me a very necessary step back to really observe the culture that we, as musicians, are indoctrinated into and become completely consumed by. Having quite a few years to observe from the outside, it has become so overwhelmingly clear just how unhealthy this culture is.


I mean, let’s think about this for a minute.


If all we do is work, work, work….when do we have time to take a step back and get to know who we are outside of music? Not to mention this little habit of never taking time to acknowledge and feel gratitude for just how much you’ve actually done and achieved is kinda not great for your mental health. And maybe you’re different than I was, and most of my musician friends, but speaking on behalf of myself at least, I rarely took more than a few minutes to congratulate myself or acknowledge my achievements. I was caught up in the “what’s next” mindset. Because there’s always a better ensemble, and a bigger name orchestra, and a more prestigious competition to win, right? And I won’t have really made it until I….insert whatever the next best thing is that you need to do here.


Maybe you’ve done this, too?


This bad little habit of mine, of always going going going, has now brought me to weekly therapy visits to try to help me work through and completely retrain my brain. Because if all you’re doing is working nonstop and always trying to get the next best thing...when do you rest?


Well, the reality is I didn’t (or very rarely at least).


I was like the energizer damn bunny.


I was all about more coffee, more energy drinks and supplements, more productivity hacks, more whatever the hell would help me get in more work so I could do more things and get more accolades…


More outside validation because maybe if other people keep telling me how great I am and that I’m good enough, I’ll finally actually feel like I am.









For someone who has been in music since first grade, I was constantly receiving outside validation.


I began taking piano lessons and picked everything up by ear. My teacher could play something for me once and I’d play it back. I was told how naturally gifted and how special I was by everyone around me.


Well, to a kid who just wants to be a “good girl,” as we're told to be, it's no surprise that I thrived off of this external praise and validation.


Piano and I eventually parted ways, but I then joined choir, followed by band, which was where I found my groove.


I decided I wanted to be first chair so I taught myself how to play flute, and you bet your ass I got first chair. I went to All-State for choir, I sat first chair in All-State orchestra and in the local youth orchestra, I landed my booty as first chair in the top band in a performing arts school as a freshman, and I performed as principal flute in Carnegie Hall with two different ensembles….all before I even graduated high school.


I was told constantly how great I was.


I was encouraged to enter this competition, and do this music program, and go to this summer camp, and get a professional instrument to make sure I was prepared for college auditions, and and and…..


I never stopped to take a moment to think about what I actually wanted for myself and for my future.


I had no clue what the reality of trying to become an orchestral musician looked like.


I had no clue what the lifestyle of a professional performing musician looked like.


But I didn't care.


Because all any child wants, and any human, really….is to be validated.


Of course you want to be told how wonderful you are, and how good you are, and how you’re so good, even, that you should enter this competition and try out for this prestigious program and pursue this as your life's path.


You’re human! Everyone wants to be made to feel good about themselves.


I mean, hi, it literally releases dopamine into your body, aka the feel-good chemical, whose motivational properties play a role in addiction.


So no, I never stopped to ask myself who I was outside of “the principal flute player.”


That was my identity and all I knew. And after being told constantly how great I was and being completely immersed in music for nearly my entire life, it seemed only logical that I would choose that as my path in college and as my career.


Obviously we’re already in a pretty vicious cycle here with all the external validation making life choices for us, but you already know it doesn’t stop there. Oh no, we’re going even deeper.


Because what really solidifies this loop is that as a performer, everything we do is subjective.


My performance is judged to be good or bad based on who is listening.


So if my teacher thinks it’s not good enough? I’m not good enough.


If the audition panel thinks I’m not good enough? I’m not good enough.


If the judges for the competition think I’m not good enough? I’m not good enough.


We are literally trained to seek external validation for whether or not we’re good enough. We aren’t taught to listen to what we want, and to have our own voices.


We aren’t taught to think for ourselves.


Instead, we are taught to follow the rules of musical form and theory and historical performance guidelines and our teacher’s rendition that was taught to them by their teacher and on and on and on.


So of course I didn’t take time to think about what the hell I did or didn’t enjoy or what I wanted! My brain had been shaped to seek external validation for whether or not I’m good enough, or whether my interpretation was acceptable, or whether I should pursue this idea or not.


Now I would like to note that I am by no means blaming any of my teachers. In fact, my private instructors did encourage me to listen to myself and do what I wanted. But the thing is…


It’s really hard to hear your own voice when you’ve been taught to stifle it your entire life.


As anyone who has ever been really good at something knows, you get so caught up in this vicious cycle of seeking external validations that it’s really freaking hard to step outside of that and think about what you actually want and need.


But not only that, even if you do get some sort of nudge or inkling or wild idea, to then magically show up with the confidence to actually listen to yourself without having external validation from everyone around you? Talk about a tall order.



Struggling with imposter syndrome? Check out this post, next!




For me personally, I did truly believe that being an orchestral flutist was what I wanted. I believed it whole-heartedly. Because I love performing, and I love the feeling you get when sitting in the middle of an orchestra bringing music to life! Any other orchestral musicians know this feeling exactly. Nothing else can match it!


But when I looked ahead to the type of life I wanted to live, it just never matched up.


I wanted to take spontaneous trips. Two week trip to Hawaii? Sure, why not! I also wanted to have a house with impeccable design and furniture, and an extravagant walk-in closet a la Sex and the City filled with Louboutins and Manolos. But uh…..that’s not gonna happen on any orchestral schedule or salary that I’m aware of. (My reasoning around it? Eh, I’ll find a rich husband.)


And then there was my personality. I’ve always been the person that doesn’t like being told what to do. In fact, I was that kid that if you told me not to do something, and especially if you told me I COULDN’T do something….I’d say watch me. I’ve also always been the person who takes over group projects and does it all myself because I wanted something very specific and nobody else could do it the way I wanted. And um, yeah that doesn’t really work super well with having a career where your job is to literally do what someone else tells you to do. (My reasoning for this one? It’s okay because I’ll be making music surrounded by amazing people and bringing joy to others, so that will be enough to justify stifling my actual personality.)


Not to mention the fact that...if I’m being really real...I never enjoyed the process.


I was never in love with the process of practicing and learning and perfecting a piece of music. Like, sure, I can do it...


I know all the steps and strategies and the how-to…


But it never lit me up.


So I would learn music well enough, then get bored and distract myself with other things.


Because with music, once you get the process of practicing down, it’s rinse and repeat. And no matter how many new etudes or pieces I pulled out, or how many new tricks I threw into my sessions to change it up, the routine was still monotonous to me.


(And uh….spoiler alert, but if you don’t enjoy the process now, becoming a “professional” isn’t going to magically change that. 🙈


Hindsight is 20/20 though, right?)


I always had these underlying blocks, even when I truly believed I wanted to be a professional orchestral musician.


I knew these things about myself, but I was so addicted to the high of emotion and validation that performing brings that I was blinded. I had my blinders on so damn tight it was cutting off the circulation to my true self, and it blocked me from seeing anything else around me.


It blocked me from noticing all of the things I could do outside of flute and music that I actually really enjoyed and was also good at.


It blocked me from seeing all the nudges I was getting that maybe there was another path that could allow me to still perform but also do other things that I’m good at, all while celebrating my personality traits and allowing me to live the lifestyle I had always dreamed of for myself.


But I was too caught up in the loop of external validation to see any of it.


Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t regret any aspect of my life or career thus far.


Because if anything had been different I wouldn’t be where, or who, I am today. I am grateful for everything that has brought me here. But I do wish I had been able, and willing, to truly look at what I wanted sooner than I did.


And I’m sharing my story in case anyone else needs to hear this.


If you are also stuck in the endless validation loop but are feeling those underlying nudges like I did, know that it is okay to honor those.


And it is okay to listen to yourself.


You are good enough.

You can do whatever the hell big idea you have that you’ve been told is too crazy or that you can’t.

You are allowed to believe in yourself and your ideas, even if someone else says otherwise.

You are worthy of creating a life and a career that you love.

And you deserve to be happy.


In my opinion, the true definition of success is simply being happy. So whatever that means to you, pursue it with all your heart.


YOU are the only one that knows the life you want to live.


YOU are the only one that will walk this path. Not your teacher or your parents or your friends….you.


You are the one that will live this life, and your only responsibility is to your own happiness.


If you are able to get quiet enough to listen in and hear what you truly want, if it is the same as the path you’re currently on then that’s wonderful and I’m so happy for you! Now get out there and keep chasing that dream with reckless abandon!


But if you listen in and deep down you know there is something else you are feeling called to, I applaud you.


It takes strength and courage and an incredible amount of honesty to change courses. It’s not easy, and in fact, it will probably be terrifying as hell. But know that you are not a failure. You did not waste all those years. And you are not crazy! Yes, it will challenge you, but it will challenge you to become a better version of yourself. And in order to live a life of true happiness, you have to live as your most authentic and true self. (Trying to suppress your true self doesn't work, it's gonna come out eventually one way or another. Trust me on that one. 😂)


So, my friend, if you’ve made it this far, grab some champagne and let’s cheers.


Cheers to knowing you are enough.

Cheers to standing up for yourself and what you want and believe in.

And cheers to defining success by nobody else’s standards other than your own.


🥂













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