Wondering if it’s time to give up your music career? This story will help. Noa Kageyama is without a doubt, one of the most inspiring voices in the classical music field. His website, The Bulletproof Musician, provides fascinating and helpful articles on performance and practice optimization that are both entertaining and scientifically grounded. We’ve long admired what a cool career Noa has carved out for himself based on his unique expertise, which applies sport psychology to musicians. To satisfy our own curiosity, we invited him to write a post on his own career path, and were once again enlightened by the depth of insight and practical advice he offers.
People often ask me “Was it difficult to walk away?”, “Was it scary?”, “How did you know it was the right thing to do?”
To which I reply “No; at first; and I didn’t.”
Wait, what is this all about?
The Lottery Question
18 years ago, I was midway through the first year of my graduate studies, walking to lunch with some friends after a gig. We were joking about what we’d do if we won the lottery and, after the initial crazy spending spree of “buy a Ferrari/Strad/loft in Tribeca” passed, we started to think a little more seriously about how we would spend our time, once we didn’t have to do anything to pay the bills.
One friend wanted to start a record company, another had visions of a music festival/concert series, and the other simply wanted to do more performing. However, the common theme was that they had every intention of doing what they were already doing — just cranked up a notch or two (or million).
I didn’t say anything at the time, but I remember being genuinely puzzled by their plans. I mean, why wouldn’t they quit? To me, it seemed like such an obvious choice, and I knew that my post-lottery plan of action would be to finish out my degree, put my violin in its case, and leave it there for a very long time. But as I quietly surveyed more of my friends, I began to realize that I was the oddball.
What’s Wrong With Me?
As I reflected on my current and lifelong challenges, it all started to make more sense.
Getting myself to practice the violin had always been like pulling teeth. I thought that this would eventually change, but it never had. And while I knew exactly what it would take to realize my potential as a musician, I never put in the time and mental effort necessary to put this knowledge into action.
Inevitably, I always fell way short of the level and consistency of playing that I knew I was capable of. It was incredibly frustrating. Why couldn’t I just buckle down and do the work?
Three Indicators of Motivation
As it turns out, there are three key indicators of motivation: active choice, persistence, and mental effort (Schunk, Pintrich, and Meece, 2008).
I was reasonably persistent in that I did practice every day. And I was more or less focused while practicing. But I had never actually made the choice to be a violinist.
I started down this path when I was too young to decide for myself, and simply continued along the path without pausing to ask myself whether I actually wanted to be on it or not. In other words, I hadn’t opted out, but I also never consciously opted in.
As I did some soul-searching, pondered the meaning of life, and stewed in my quarter-life crisis, it became increasingly clear that I needed to make a change, and that staying the course simply to avoid the fear of the unknown wasn’t an option.
So I talked to my parents. Asked my girlfriend (who is now my wife) what she thought. And with their support, I put down the violin, and went to grad school (again) to study sport psychology, which I didn’t know a ton about, but seemed like the most intriguing of my options at the time.
The Definition of Success
Fast-forward to today, and it has all worked out better than I ever could have imagined. But curiously, I’m doing things now that I never would have guessed I’d be doing. Things that I didn’t even know I’d enjoy!
Which is not to say that this path has been all rainbows and strawberries and puppy dogs. I still have to hone my craft, learn new skills, and put in quality work every day. It’s every bit the blood, sweat, and tears that the music path was — but on even the longest, most stressful days, my life feels qualitatively different than before because this is something I chose. And oddly enough, things seem to be working out better, and I don’t feel the constant sense of underachievement that I used to.
Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden once defined success as “…peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming.”
Which leads me to the one thing that I’ve learned from my life to this point. Specifically, that willing yourself to do what it takes to become the best you can be is awfully tough if you haven’t actively chosen the direction you are headed in.
Finding (or Staying On) the Right Path
Each day presents me with a menu of things that I could do. And a smorgasbord of things that I sometimes feel I should do. But rather than getting sidetracked in those directions, I’ve tried to remember the “active choice” rule, and continue to use the following strategies to stay on the path that’s right for me.
Hopefully you will find them helpful in choosing your right path as well.
#1: The “Is this me?” Question
A bit like Marie Kondo’s “spark joy” decision rule, the “Is this me?” question can help us figure out if a path resonates with us, independent of what others might think. Is this outfit me? Is this piece of music me? Is Tae Kwon Do me? Or Hapkido?
I realized that violin wasn’t “me,” and that sport psychology felt way more “me,” so I experimented by taking a step in that direction.
#2: The “Just Start” Philosophy
Five-year plans are all fine and well, but we usually end up somewhere very different (and often better) than where we think we’d like to be in five years’ time. Rather than creating an elaborate plan that far out, and doggedly sticking to it no matter what, the “Just Start” philosophy seems to make a lot of sense in these fast-changing times.
I didn’t know how I would make a living as a psychologist, or whether I would like it or not. However, it was the most intriguing option at the time, so I took a step in that direction, and then the next most intriguing step when that time came, and the next, and so on, and continue to do so to this day.
#3: The Lottery Question
Would you keep doing what you’re doing now if you won the lottery?
That’s a question I keep asking myself. And I can’t know for certain of course, because I have no idea what it would be like to win the lottery, but as long as I can answer yes, it seems like a fair bet that I’m headed in the right direction for me.
And I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing right now. Which is a pretty nice place to be.
What’s Your Answer?
It’s your turn! Would you stay on the same path you’re currently on if you were to win the lottery?
Leave a comment below.
Performance psychologist Dr. Noa Kageyama serves on the faculty of The Juilliard School and the New World Symphony, where he specializes in teaching performing artists how to utilize sport psychology principles to perform up to their abilities under pressure.
Also a conservatory-trained violinist with degrees from Juilliard and Oberlin, Dr. Kageyama’s understanding of performance pressure and excellence come from his own experiences on the concert stage from the age of two. Through 23 years of training, complete with television and radio appearances, solo performances with orchestra, and international competitions, he experienced first-hand the discipline, hard work, and perseverance it takes to reach an expert level of performance — as well as the frustration of performing poorly at the worst possible moments.
Dr. Kageyama’s work has been featured in media outlets ranging from The Wall Street Journal to Lifehacker, and he has has provided seminars for institutions and organizations such as the New England Conservatory, United States Marine Band, Perlman Music Program, Starling-Delay Symposium, Music Teachers’ National Association, and the National Association for Teachers of Singing.
Find out more at bulletproofmusician.com.