The Letter I’d Write to my Teenage-Self About Being a Musician, 20 Years Later

Hello, my whimsical, hopeful, fresh-faced girl.

Since I have your attention for a moment, let me whisper in your ear 10 truths that will be your own only after you leave all those music degree programmes. Keep them near.

comesee-mysticmamma1) Your flute teacher –at every stage– matters. Really matters. This person will be like a midwife to help you birth your best musical self. Hunt for this person as if your art depends on it and don’t settle until you know they are THE ONE .

In your case, you will find one of these souls in your 20’s and she’ll live quietly in the Colorado mountains with wisdom so precious that you’ll drive miles out of your way into those frosty hills in order to seek her bold wisdom. You’ll know because they’ll insist that you find your own way, and challenge every musical assumption you’ve held true.  And even more important? They won’t desire that you be a cookie-cutter version of themselves– or anyone else, for that matter.

surroundyourselfwithpeoplewhoareonlygoingtolifyyouhigher-mm2) Assemble your motley crew. Moreover, be a part of another’s. These characters will help you believe in your extremely wild ideas, and clap as you wave your freak flag (or at least marvel at it with pure admiration). Your peeps will be there handing you tissues in the times you want to melt your flute for silver jewellery and retrain to be a ______.  The rest, who might be akin to a Soggy Wet Blanket, harshly skeptical and disbelieving of your abilities? Well, after you learn to identify these folk you will then learn to shed that blanket and protect your precious dreams, your creative space and your time (hasta!).

ifeelhowgoodyouare-mysticmamma3) There’s room for every flautist in this industry. Yes, even _______, who shouts off rooftops they’re the best thing since longer shelf-life Twinkies re-launched (that’ll be 2013, in case you are wondering…). You will hear it said that ‘the world doesn’t need another musician’. Challenge that. Everyone deserves space to practice their art and it’s not your place to decide who, what, when and where.
Speaking of, there is never going to be space for catty, bad-mouthing, gossipy, jealous types of behaviour in your work.  That kind of attitude assumes that there is inadequate abundance–but how could that possibly be true given the millions of ways that there are to be a musician and to make music? I see now that you’re nodding your head because you agree. Good. Let’s move on to a biggie…

youhavethepotential4) At some stage, you will have to let go of the notion that there exists a traditional flute career and that this is the only way to be a ‘valid’, ‘proper’, ‘real’ artist. Creativity isn’t sensible (thank you, Julia Cameron—you’ll discover her in your 30’s) nor is there such thing as a ‘sensible’ flute career.
Let’s dig deeper into this notion, shall we? Many of the flute degrees you’ll earn focus on delivering performance curriculum with an assumption that you’ll desire to be an orchestral player (and maybe a solo recitalist) after you leave their programme. Despite the few paid openings available for this type of work, you will at some stage feel that because you don’t have a ‘real’ job (for example, playing in an orchestral section, or performing in an art-hall setting) are a flute failure or ‘haven’t really made it’ yet. Don’t despair, this is all a part of your flute story; it’ll take years to finally be ok with shedding that belief because it’s all about the right timing, you see.  Here’s what you need to hold onto for now and it’s pretty simple: a ‘real’ flute player is anyone who plays the flute. End of.

keeptrying5) Which leads me to talk about hats.  Your flute career will involve wearing many of them. You will wear that standard hat you’ve been trained to display in music school; you’ll undoubtedly play in various orchestras over the years. Some of the hats you wear will be ridiculously unexpected (Bollywood sessions, cocktail parties, Scottish weddings, teaching recorder to 8-year olds).  Sometimes you’ll tolerate a slightly ill-fitting hat because it’s worth the temporary discomfort in order to pay the bills (i.e., Jesu, Joy of a Man’s Desiring performed on a loop for 25 mins. at a bridal show). Your other hats will include ethnomusicology and yes, newsletter writing. But the best and most rewarding will hat you’ll wear? It will be the hat you design yourself because you are allowed to carve out your own music path despite what you might have been ‘trained’ to do.

mOLZv5jkWpsb7l20PRd3xD1Vo1_5006) And as you shape that hat of yours? Discount any notion that there exists ‘real’ and ‘serious’ music and that’s the only repertoire you should give your time to and perform. Yes, you’ll master the standard stuff because that’s how you will gain a strong foundation to core principles. When flute boredom strikes (and it will, Jessica, it will) ask yourself ‘What music would you play if you suddenly woke up and realised that every flute score in existence had vanished?’,‘What music would you experiment with if you didn’t have to perform it perfectly?’. Got them all named yet?

theearthhasmusicforthosewholisten7) By the way, don’t discount synchronicity in your musical searching – or whatever you want to call it, grace, serendipity, luck, fate, kismet…. Sometimes it’s ok to take the path of least resistance and to go where the doors open, even if they weren’t the ones you’d imagined or even at first wanted. You know that ‘fake work’ you will in the future label as prostiflution? Don’t forget that’s part of your bigger plan, too. When you’re wavering, ask yourself ‘what has come easy lately in a musical sense?’, ‘what opportunities have presented themselves at exactly the right moment?’.  

itiswhatitis-e13968477968118) You’ll find money-talk is often taboo-talk in the art world. I still don’t know why that is. But as a free-lance musician you are essentially a business owner. At the end of the day never forget that you offer (sell/ trade/ produce) a commodity. It’s always your job to make sure your (life-affirming, gorgeous, incredible) work is always delivered from the best stock you have, whomever your client may be. Given this, it’s absolutely ok to say ‘no thanks’ to a job because it clashes with your core. You don’t have to charge what the musician up the road charges. You don’t even have to participate at that charity concert because you ‘should’.  You don’t always have to work for free.

36241764389) You don’t have to suffer for your art. Creativity doesn’t have to be self-effacing, painful or be derived from a traumatic birthing experience in order to produce ‘good’ music. The creative blocks that might stem from another’s artistic career don’t have to be yours. Over time you will learn how to access your soul’s music, and finally be able to tackle:

a) the inability to produce anything without fear of it being judged
b) never showing your work because ‘it’s not ready yet’
c) the constant belief that you’re still not a good enough flautist

By the way, you will often hear colleagues say things like:  ‘no pain, no gain’, ‘it’s a dog-eat-dog world’, or ‘life is brutal’. Ignore that thinking because over time it won’t serve you much at the end of your day.

Really, if you only take one thing away, gorgeous?

REMEMBERTHAT10) Make peace with the music you create–whatever that may sound like– and the joy will always follow. Always.

Love, Future You xx



How about you? What advice would you give your younger self about being a musician?

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Many thanks to Mystic Mama for the gorgeous photos used above.

So, you want to (re)start taking flute lessons? (Congrats!) Here’s 9 essential questions to ask yourself first
Why There’s No Shame in Being a ‘Prostiflute’

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5 Responses to The Letter I’d Write to my Teenage-Self About Being a Musician, 20 Years Later

  1. Charity June 5, 2015 at 4:26 am #

    Hello, dear anxious, younger self.

    If you don’t get this note in time, please at least pass it on for me once you do get it. Send it to someone who is the age you were when you were supposed to receive it. The message below could rescue someone from self-destruction.

    My dear one, don’t ever give up hope. Do not despair. My younger self, you will go through more physical and emotional pain than you knew a human was capable of experiencing. You will even doubt God and the capacity or reality of His love. You will find yourself completely inadequate to succeed.

    I know you’re already floundering in some of these troubles, but please know that Christ’s perfection can send your fears and shortcomings as far as the east is from the west. Know that your heavenly Father really and truly is good and will meet all your needs. Know that Jesus’ love is healing.

    Right now you know that, but it’s merely in your head. You will need to believe this in your heart. My younger self, you haven’t lost everything yet and been left with God as your last remaining safety net. You are going to have numerous falls, and so many are going to seem like a fall into a bottomless pit that has no net at all. But time and again you will land, be lifted, and granted healing and relief from pain.

    Then you will believe. It will be those experiences that will convince you of the certainty of God’s love: there is nothing you can do that will make God love you any more, and there is nothing you can do to make God love you any less.

    My dear one, you are starting a hard journey in learning the truth that what God thinks of you is really the only thing that matters. Sure, your fluting is not going to be impressive as compared to the fluting of your classmates, but who cares? God doesn’t. That reality is going to be the most freeing experience of your life, and it will allow you to go make music, to teach, and to excel in the interests that God gave you.

    You will be freed by the fact that you will always be good enough in God’s sight due to the merits of Jesus’ perfection: “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” Your crippling fear of failure will begin dissolving.

    Your journey will take you across North America and even virtually overseas. Along the way, you’ll collect a rather motley crew, including a cool flute lady named Jessica who will tell you again and again that the ability (or lack thereof) to perform the standard serious rep neither validates nor negates your status as a musician. Jessica will affirm your God-given love of folk music and remind you of buried passions that will eventually be given an outlet.

    My dear, your identity is not determined by what people think of you, but it is what God thinks of you: “A person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (St. Paul). Yes, you already know that you cannot earn God’s love; but someday you will realize you need not earn it either.


    Your Revived, Older Self

    PS Remember, “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (Jesus).

    • Dr. Jessica Quiñones June 8, 2015 at 10:42 am #

      Hi Charity, Thanks for that contribution–there is so much wisdom in this to take away from your letter regardless of one’s belief system! I look forward to hearing about your latest folk playing adventures, too…

  2. Willia November 1, 2015 at 10:37 am #

    Hello sixth grade little me,
    What I am doing now reminds me if a song called Little Me. Don’t worry, you’ll know what I am talking about someday. It has no flutes in it. Sorry ’bout that.

    I am going to tell you something you need to hear. About the flute.
    Yes, I still remember the time you went to that one school for just a few months and your band teacher said, “I honestly don’t think it’s in your ability to play the flute.” How could I forget?

    My advice is not to worry. In time, you’ll find out she was wrong. Completely wrong.
    Honestly, I am not sure if you will become a flutist or not, that part of your life still hasn’t been decided yet. But not to worry. It doesn’t make you any less of a flutist.

    I recommend you practice. Not even once a day, just at least 45 minutes a week. It may seem small but it’s better than the 10 hours a year stuff you think you’ll be able to get away with. Don’t look at me like you have no idea what the- oh yeah, you’re still pretty young- like you don’t know what I am talking about. You know very well.

    I also recommend that you find more about flute as a career than just thinking you can get into it with the snap of your fingers because it will ruin you when you find out in ninth grade and then realize it’s WAY more competitive than you think. Whether you decide you still want to be a flutist for your career is up to you, but at least make the decision when you’re young so you don’t get your hopes up/ you are prepared.

    But I want you to always always remember that you do not have to be a member of some great orchestra 30 years down the road to feel like a successful flutist. You will still be successful, and maybe even more.

    In your school-band life, there will be this one guy who will always be in first chair and no matter how hard you try you will never be able to surpass him. No matter how hard you try, you will never surpass him until you realize it’s not about being better than him, it’s about setting your OWN goals for flute, and not basing it off of your jealousy of another’s skills.

    Another thing, never never never put down your flute. Oh, so you don’t end up becoming a flutist? That has nothing to do with it. In time, you will find out that just because you loved flute never meant it was because it was suppose to be your career. You will realize that it was because you loved it. Simple as that. Settle for working at some bookstore or a coffee shop. Something less competitive. Forget the fact that there are millions of flutists on Earth. It doesn’t mean you aren’t, no matter how lowly you think your skills are. You enjoy doing it. That’s what counts. So in 50 years from now, I hope you still have a chair that you use solely to play your flute. Whether you earn a degree in it or not.

    Oh- and another thing! Start early and learn to be comfortable with practicing in the same house as your parents. It will cripple your current flute life and then it will become harder and harder to say, “Okay… I guess you can listen to me practice.”

    One day, it’s going to happen. You are going to get so intimidated by having a degree as a flutist that you won’t be able to fall asleep at night and you’ll forget what enjoying the flute was actually like. You’ll see it as a job- because in reality that’s really what you will be thinking it will become. It could. Because once you get to my age, you’ll have been practicing three hours a day and selling your soul to the flute, but the difference is not because you see it as a job, but because it is your favorite thing to do.

    Take private lessons the second they are offered. They are a huge deal and will lead to spending countless hours regretting your decision not to take them. And I honestly mean that. You’re going to start throwing fits in high school because you didn’t.

    Set your own goals. (This is actually advice that could be used for future too) Don’t let college set them for you. For example, have a goal to make a cover album of some song every week. Set a goal where you master a scale a day. Doesn’t matter. If college says jump off a building, would you do it? So why must you feel the need to get a degree in the flute? Work on playing the flute to satisfy your love for it, not to represent success. Success doesn’t always involve jobs or degrees.

    Lastly, no matter what you think, no matter what anyone tells you, you are AMAZING at the flute. You might not be that guy in first chair but the fact that you will get in the habit of practicing it everyday for the purpose of enjoying it makes you the best flute player in itself. A college degree does not measure one’s success- only personal standards can truly determine such a feeling!

    Your Future You,

    • Dr. Jessica Quiñones November 2, 2015 at 12:32 pm #

      Hi William, loving your advice to yourself, particularly ‘Success doesn’t always involve jobs or degrees’. So many clients I work with have a stigma that because they didn’t go to music school they aren’t ‘real’ flute players. You bring such wisdom in your writing…thank you for this share, you’ve got me all inspired now–

  3. Julie Adams December 21, 2017 at 4:04 pm #

    Dearest Julie,
    When you received your first flute (purchased from a local Denver thriftstore), you thought it was the most magical gift in the world. Especially when it became apparent that this was your instrument. Not clarinet, not French horn (Oh, was THAT an adventure) or any stringed instrument. Playing that flute had the power to take away all the pain of being raised in foster care, feeling that your parents care of you was more damaging than anything else you experienced in life and not knowing what your future would hold. Or if you even had a future as your foster mother was fond of telling you that you would never be smart enough to amount to anything worthy.

    But that flute changed everything. That flute opened doors to opportunities and teachers who saw your potential and did their best to nurture it and you. Despite struggle, fear and insecurity you kept persevering. And that perseverance is what enabled you to never give up. It helped you get into college and pay for it, which you would not otherwise have been able to do. It prevented you from falling into a life that would have destroyed you with drugs. alcohol and more because you were able to see, through your musical journey that this way lay madness and no hope. It helped you to stay humble when dealing with so many instances of other flutists competitive natures and to find the flutists who were your buddies and inspiration through the craziness of music school and into adult life.
    The biggest and best part of being a flutist is that it allowed you to find and make a life for yourself that is honorable and worthy. And while you are not an official orchestral performer, you are still a wonderful flutist who chose to teach and inspire youth through sharing your gift. Even though your day job is as a teacher of special needs kiddos, you ARE STILL A MUSICIAN. And a wife and a mother of three fantastic kiddos.
    You have a right to the beautiful Haynes flute that you are blessed to own. You have the right to play whatever music touches your heart and to play it WITH your heart without fear of rejection or judgment.
    You did right, shy, insecure, scared Julie. You did right.
    With love,
    Adult Julie.

    (Oh my gosh! I cried writing this.not sure if that is good or not.)

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