When you see an incredible musician – are you inspired? Or are you intimidated?

Believe it or not, this reaction is not something that happens to you – it’s something entirely within your control, and flipping from one to the other can have a massive positive effect on your musical life.

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Hi, my name’s Christopher, I’m the founder of Musical U, and welcome to Musicality Now.

Recently I had an email from a podcast listener named Maria in Sweden, who said:

“I really appreciate your attitude of trying to make everyone feel like they are musical. I think it should be a human right to have time and means to express oneself musically! 

However I feel that you tend to interview people that I label as over-achievers. Maybe it’s inspirational for some but for me it’s kind of exhausting and I can’t really relate.”

I totally understand. I hear that and I think it would be awesome to feature more non-expert interviews. We’ve shared some case studies from our Foundations course in the past, but we can definitely try to share more stories from musicians that all of you in the audience can relate more directly to.

But there’s a bigger point here, and that’s what made me want to pick up on it in this episode.

This isn’t just about podcast interviews. I don’t want to speak for Maria, but I know that for me, this feeling of being exhausted by apparent over-achievers was something that happened throughout my musical life.

For a long time in music when I saw someone amazing perform or I talked with a musician who was way ahead of me in terms of skills I felt totally intimidated.

Or, to put it another way, I felt really inferior. It suddenly made me highly conscious of everything I couldn’t do, and I’d come away impressed – but also disheartened.

What I gradually figured out and what I wanted to share with you today is that in that moment when you feel intimidated by an amazing musician, there’s a choice available to you.

We tend to see intimidation as something external which happens to us:

  •  “That person makes me feel intimidated”
  •  “That person has an intimidatingly impressive level of skill”
  •  “When I see what they do it makes me feel like I could never do that”.

But the actual facts of the situation can be interpreted in an entirely different way, if you choose to. It may be a fact that they can do things you can’t, like improvising or playing by ear, or performing with total confidence and a moving level of musical expression. But that’s the only fact. Everything that happens inside you after that is up to you.

Because the alternative interpretation is “Wow, they can do that. That thing is possible. It could be possible for me too.”

In other words: inspiration, rather than intimidation.

Now I appreciate that this may not seem easy! We have an automatic mental and emotional reaction of intimidation, it happens without us consciously choosing it. But from right now on, you have an opportunity to change that. Because all it takes is becoming aware of that reaction and remembering “I have a choice here”. Once you do that, you can immediately shake off any thoughts of unworthiness or what you might be lacking, and instead reframe it as something inspiring you might choose to aspire to in future.

Why is it that so many of us fall into this trap, of automatically interpreting impressive musicians as intimidating rather than inspiring? I think there are a few reasons.

Firstly, it’s a byproduct of our cultural ideas about musical “talent”. We’ve covered that a lot on this show before and I’ll put links in the shownotes if you’re in any doubt – but suffice to say: we’ve been fooled into thinking that some people are gifted in music and others are not. And most of us put ourselves in that second camp and go through our musical lives continually feeling inferior to those we perceive as gifted.

Clearly that’s a recipe for exactly this reaction of being intimidated rather than inspired – because those people seem like the gifted aliens that we could never hope to be like.

If you get 100% clear on the talent myth and its implications for your musical life you’ll find it much easier when those moments arise to choose inspiration rather than intimidation.

The second reason we get into feeling intimidated is, funnily enough, almost the opposite – but somehow the two coexist in our minds. It’s that we see that that person is a human like us, and we compare ourselves to them and some part of us feels like we should be able to do whatever they can, so we feel disappointed and frustrated that we can’t.

We’re essentially treating those amazing musicians as our peers and then judging ourselves against their example. If we can’t do what they can do we feel we judge ourselves to be lacking.

The key here is to surround yourself with the right peer group. That’s why we place such a big emphasis on community at Musical U – not so we can sit around chit-chatting on social media all day, but because when you see people who are genuinely like you and at a similar stage or just a step or two ahead, it’s dramatically easier to feel inspired by their success rather than getting into intimidation.

It’s why you’ll never find any hero-worship here at Musical U, why we don’t issue certificates or take any kind of elitist attitude. As Maria said, we’re all about inclusivity. And it’s because when passionate adult musicians are surrounded by others who like them are working on their musicality, amazing things come of it. One thing I particularly love is when a member will comment on how they signed up really not expecting to get anything out of the community side of membership – but they’ve realised just how big an impact it can have on their motivation and their results.

It really does matter who you surround yourself with, and when you get this right, you’ll find that you have such a solid base of inspiration around you, the cases where a stand-out musician would otherwise have intimidated you – you’ll find that those too just become really inspiring and exciting.

The final reason we tend to get into feeling intimidated when we see an impressive musician is that when it comes to learning and assessing our progress most of us default to looking ahead to the goal and judging ourselves by how far off it is. But again, the actual facts at play allow for a completely different interpretation: we can always choose to instead measure ourselves by how far we’ve come and the progress we have made. The impressive musician and our own personal goal can still be something to think of and aim for – but we only judge ourselves based on our own progress forwards.

This mental judo-flip lets you instantly turn intimidation into inspiration by separating “that person is great” from the “therefore I am not great” – and instead letting “that person is great” co-exist with “I’ve really been improving” and even “one day I’ll be great”.

Like I said, this was something I discovered gradually and I had to practice a bit. And the more I understood that apparent “talent” was all coming from learnable skills, the more I surrounded myself by my true peers and saw what was possible at my level and just a few steps above, and the more I remembered to measure myself by my progress from the start instead of my distance from the goal – the easier it was to stay out of intimidation and benefit from all the amazing inspiration available to us in the world of music.

So take this away into your musical life: next time you see or hear something amazing and you feel any twinge of intimidation, pause a moment. Remember you have a choice of how to respond. Remind yourself that whatever they can do is learnable for you too, remind yourself of your true peers, remind yourself of all your progress you’ve made so far. And enjoy the experience as a fresh moment of inspiration to propel you even further forwards.

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