Myth-Busting in Music

Phil Circle
5 min readJun 16, 2023
Phil Circle Photo Shoot Outtake

I wrote this in springtime. Spring is a time of renewal, with countless rituals across time to try and encourage or mystify us about something that’s literally natural and is going to happen anyway. We’re superstitious. We dig mythology. I’m personally fascinated by human cultures and myths and origins. With regards to musicians, Joseph Campbell said we’re the myth-makers. And that’s true. But, I’m less excited about the myths many have attached to music education or preparing others for the professional world of music. These include; the idea that you either have talent or don’t; that you can be tone deaf; that, if you come from a musical family, you have an advantage; that people might “boo” you off the stage the first time you get out there; that you’ll be “discovered” by some guy with a briefcase full of cash; that your entire band risks falling into a haze of addiction, that this is somehow romantic, and after one of you dies in a tragic accident, you’ll all regroup at Betty Ford Clinic for your return to the top; that you’re going to write that hit song and find happiness; and my “favorite” one; that there’s some place that you can get to and everything will be perfect.

So, I’m going to address each of these.

Here’s each thing I listed, with my response. It all comes from a lifetime of experience. And keep in mind that many of these things are legitimate fears and the requisite guards against failure that we invent, and I heartily recognize that. But they’re not to be believed. And once we step through our fears, we should discard these. We should also make clear to the next line of aspiring musical artists that these are all myths.

You either have talent or you don’t.

I think it’s true that each of us may have specific proclivities to certain things and these will drive our desire to learn and master them. But I also know that plenty of people who appear to have talents in some area fail to ever see them through. For instance, I’m great with numbers. But I’m no mathematician, nor do I have a desire to be one. And yet I’ve seen so many people uncover a burning desire to make music without showing much in the way of skills, and through digging and working, they’ve uncovered tremendous creative gifts. Which is what I think talent tends to be: creatively applied skills. And yes, I realize I may be making myself less special, but I’m okay with that. I worked for this, trust me.

You can be tone deaf.

That’s just a flat out, nope. If we were tone deaf we’d never know our friends’ voices, our favorite songs, or a siren blaring, when we heard them. You simply need to develop your ear-voice coordination. Yep, more skill building. And yep, I’ve seen proof. I’ve had people walk into my studio and not come anywhere close to hitting the notes I was asking for, and 3 months later, they were blowing people away.

If you come from a musical family, you have an advantage.

I’ve seen no evidence to this effect. I come from a musical lineage. But I’m the youngest of six and only two of use still play music, even though we were all trained in it. And I’ve seen way more students who were fantastic musicians, with absolutely no musicians in their family. The only advantage you may gain is if your family encourages the pursuit and you also want it. Interestingly, my Dad was an entrepreneur, but he was the one who encouraged me in music, more so than my Mom, the musician and producer.

People will “boo” you off the stage the first time you get out there.

Only in the movies. I’ve never in my life seen this happen and I’ve hosted thousands of open mic nights and events. It just makes for good drama in film, like lots of other things.

You’ll be “discovered” by some guy with a briefcase full of cash.

Once again: Only in the movies. You’re actually going to have to work really hard, and if some guy shows up at your gig with a briefcase full of cash, I’d question if he’s just laundering money through your music. More seriously, in the modern business, if someone comes to you with funding, you’re already there and may not need it. Remember, you’re the boss.

Your entire band risks falling into a haze of addiction, and this is somehow romantic, and after one of you dies in a tragic accident, you’ll all regroup at Betty Ford Clinic for your return to the top.

I actually had a counselor at Betty Ford tell me that every musician is either in treatment or should be. That’s really the only falsehood I heard in the nine weeks I was there, as far as addiction treatment information sharing went. I was the only problem in any of my bands, with only two exceptions out of the dozens of musicians I worked with over the years. Those exceptions were my second wife (trouble finds trouble), and ironically, a saxophone player from some town in Wisconsin called Eau Claire. Ironically, because I ended up living there many years later with my third (time’s the charm) wife. She’s never been the problem. I think in the arts, we’re so comfortable with telling our truths, it’s just more widely admitted, and also unfortunately romanticized, when we struggle with addiction. And I’ll give a little credit to the idea that once someone gets clean, they may rise up again. But more likely, they’re just getting back on track.

You’re going to write that hit song and find happiness.

Two things here. 1. Your happiness isn’t found in hit songs. 2. It’s unlikely you know which song is going to be a hit. Is there a formula that many hit songwriters have used? Sure, but you haven’t heard all the crap they wrote and threw away. Just keep writing, keep evolving, and love it. And keep in mind that many hit songs, most of them really, don’t stand the test of time. At best, they become nostalgia for the generation they spoke for.

There’s some place that you can get to and everything will be perfect.

Please learn to enjoy the process. This isn’t some platitude we use to make ourselves feel better when we’re not seeing our goals fulfilled. This is something we use to prepare ourselves for success with a healthy mindset. Ideally, as soon as you get somewhere, you already have the next place in your view. Striving is a way of life that breeds fulfillment and often comes from gratitude. And I promise you, learning to find joy despite what’s happening around you will make those great moments even more powerful. You’ll begin to get that sense about life, that you get when you’re hiking in the mountains. You go down into a valley with great anticipation of crossing it, to climb the next hill, to come upon another valley, to find your way up a taller hill, to pass through a deep crevice, to surmount a beautiful summit and see the world spread out around you. By the time you reach the crest, it’s already long past being your goal. Love the hike. And you may insert your own metaphor if you’re not a hiker. I’m actually more of a walker these days, but remember the former.

Be the change you want to hear. Make great music.

--

--

Phil Circle

Phil Circle is an award-winning singer-songwriter, author and coach, native Chicagoan who lives in Los Angeles, and founder of Phil Circle Music in both cities.