Updated: Sep 15, 2020
A drummer friend called me once from the road. His band was enjoying a nice wave of success, with a single on the radio and a tour selling out big halls and theaters all over the country. They had worked hard and broken through to a huge fan base. Now it was time to capitalize on the momentum and build on new opportunities. But while everything looked great on the outside the strain of the tour was starting to wear on the players. New pressures were suddenly blurring into one another and the pace was starting to shut people down. Nobody was talking anymore. Factions were building. Rumors were developing. My friend couldn't shake a nagging feeling that he was about to be fired from the band.
I was sorry to hear about the problems but not shocked that they could happen. I can still remember the personal turmoil I was going through as Counting Crows was breaking. Many players assume that if you can just endure the hardships of an early music career you will eventually reach a level where the problems finally disappear. But it doesn't work that way. Achieving your professional goals doesn't suddenly make everything easy. Some aspects improve at each new level but eventually the excitement evens out and the old problems are replaced with new ones. If you haven't learned to deal with your emotions while climbing the ladder, success will simply bring you to the same spot as before, only in a nicer hotel room.
Although talking about "feelings" is the last thing I ever thought I'd do in a public forum I have discovered that knowing exactly which feeling is present can be a great way to clarify my thinking and better assess a situation. As discussed in Part 2 of this series, most dark feelings and moods arise from fear. But the thing that scares us in the first place isn't always evident and so often goes unidentified, which can make the issue harder to overcome. Sometimes the problem is sudden and obvious but even small yet constant irritations can have the power to set us on edge and reduce our hangability. I had the good fortune to be on tour in Europe one time and a funny little issue began to cause lots of ill feelings. Who could be upset while getting paid to travel around Europe, you ask? Here is an actual case study from the field to show how music life can be:
On this tour we were traveling in one of the box-style vans that are commonly used in European countries. They are roomier than American options but, unlike a bus, compel everyone to sit together for the duration of the drive times. This kind of situation normally works out just fine but on this run we had a guy who liked to whistle while he read. It would have been forgettable except that he whistled for hours at a time. A couple of different people asked him to stop but the temporary breaks only served as a reminder of how long it'd been since there had been silence. And then, as if nothing had been said, he would get into his book and begin whistling again. After two days it was making everyone crazy, including me, so I decided to do some work on myself. Here is how I identified the feeling and narrowed down the problem, allowing me to keep my composure and proceed in the best possible manner.
I started with a statement that summed up how I felt and then questioned every thought that developed until I arrived at what seemed to be the real problem. It went something like this:
He is whistling incessantly!
What's the problem with whistling?
It makes me edgy!
I don't like feeling edgy!
Why does the whistling make me edgy?
Because it's wrong to whistle incessantly inside a crowded van!
Who says it's wrong?
Everybody KNOWS it's wrong!
Not everybody, because it's happening.
It makes me mad!
Because it's annoying!
I'm afraid I'm gonna go crazy if it doesn't stop!
This went back and forth until I was able to realize that the most accurate feeling I could identify was deep annoyance - with a vague tinge of fear. The fact that I couldn't sleep, read, or think on the drives was robbing me of the ability to relax. Underneath that, however, was the fear that my feelings might build from annoyance to agitation to aggravation, until I finally lost my head and snapped! Pinpointing my fear of "snapping" was important because it put the problem back on me. Unlike external forces outside of my control the ability to keep from actually lashing out was something I was pretty sure I could handle. There was still the constant irritation to deal with but without the fear I could now think more clearly about what to do next.
In this case, the best course of action seemed to be to explain my position to the whistler and see if he would stop whistling so much. And here's where the biggest change happens. In defining my feelings about the situation I was able to take a vague but real sense of panic off the table. Also, processing the information allowed me to see it more clearly, enabling me to convey my position in a more natural and genuine way. If I were to tell the whistler that his behavior was rude, or that his judgement was bad, or that he "must be crazy!", I would just be starting an argument. But unlike opinions and judgements, explaining the way I felt wasn't something open to debate. While people can take sides on a position, no one can argue with the way you feel.
I saw the whistler the next day at breakfast and told him privately, and with as little drama as possible, that I was having a hard time relaxing when he whistled and that I wondered if he would be willing to stop. Instead of accusing or attacking him for some perceived wrong doing, I simply explained how the whistling made me feel and asked for his cooperation in helping to end my personal problem. Approaching the issue this way usually elicits a good response and this case was no different. The whistler hadn't realized how bad it was and apologized kindly. The only problem, he said, was that he didn't realize when he was whistling, and so, didn't know how he could stop.
The fact that the whistling wasn't under his conscious control meant that the only thing I could change was my feelings about it. And that brings us to an important point to consider if you plan on spending much time in the music business. There are simply times when you reach a dead end and must learn to surrender to the reality of things as they stand. If the AC on the bus breaks down in Texas during summer, there's no way around the fact that you are going to be hot for a while. At that point the only thing you can control is your attitude. If your thoughts are clear of blame and resentment a solution that makes sense will often present itself. In this case the whistler couldn't stop the whistling so I was stuck with it. But maybe not!
I decided to arrange my schedule so that all the things I needed to do with headphones took place on the drives between cities. I saved the music I was working on, podcasts I was listening to, and books on tape, all for the time in the van. A couple days later during a lunch stop two of the other players called me to their table. I was surprised to discover that they were upset about something. "What's wrong?" I asked. They said "That whistling is driving us crazy!" I had to laugh. I'd almost forgotten about the whistling. It hadn't bothered me in two days.
If something or someone upsets you it doesn't help to think (or even know) that their behavior is wrong. Nor will it help for you to despise or seek to punish the person responsible. Getting others to agree that you're right feels good for a little while but it doesn't stop the problem. In the past the best I could have hoped for would have been to suffer through the irritation without losing my composure. But by discovering how I felt, seeing where the issue was, and thinking clearly, I was able to not just endure the problem but avoid it completely.
Eventually the whistling stopped on its own. Upon realizing the silence we noticed the whistler had absentmindedly put an unlit cigarette in his mouth. Voila! At the next gas stop the tour manager put a pack of Swisher Sweets in his cup holder and the problem was solved for the rest of the tour.
The friend I mentioned at the beginning of this post was able to work out the issues with his band and they are still making music and touring the world. I wasn't able to keep it together myself and was sacked from Counting Crows. I have a wonderful life and am grateful for all I've been given but I regret the fact that I was so easily affected by my fears and worries at that time. I wish I could have handled my emotions differently and been a better friend and band member when I had the chance.
Successful musicians generally have great lives and there's no reason you can't, too. But strong emotions are triggered at every level and realizing how to identify our feelings and control our emotions early on will greatly increase the odds of making a living as a player. In the music biz the only way to maintain a long career is through constant vigilance to a perpetual set of decisions and duties, which means there are always new hurdles to jump. The trick is not to insulate ourselves from the inevitable difficulties but to change the way they affect our moods and actions in the first place. The happier we are, the more comfortable we'll be to hang out with, and the more music we get to play.