If only it were easier – but it rarely is. Being a creative, an artist, a musician is to invite constant obstacles and setbacks.

These roadblocks can sideline us, even cause some of us to give up completely.

In this episode, John discusses the inevitable struggles you will face and how to find inspiration and new directions within.

Episode Transcript

Episode 98 – Embrace the Struggle

Hey there, this is John Henny. Welcome back to another episode of The Intelligent Vocalist. I do so appreciate you spending your precious listening time with me. Alright, today I want to talk about the struggle. Boy, we do not like struggling, and I think part of it is just the way we evolved on this planet for most of our time on this planet. We have been malnourished, we have been starving, we have had to conserve energy in periods where there’s little to no food, and so struggling is not something we like. We have these old brains that want to seek out high calorie food because we think it’s necessary for our survival on some level and we like to conserve energy. And when struggle comes, it is viewed as something by the body, in the psyche and our emotional nervous system as something less than optimal.

We try and avoid it. When struggle comes, it’s often, how quickly can we get past this? How can we first of all avoid it in the first place, and when it comes, how do we make it just end quickly? And I’m here to tell you as a singer, a creative, an artist, a teacher, whatever it is that you do within this wonderful world of music and singing, struggle is a vital part of it. I’m reading a book right now by I think it’s Ryan Holiday called The Obstacle is the Way, and it’s kind of this stoic philosophy of you want to embrace the obstacles. And there’s a really good point there. And it’s not embracing obstacles for obstacles’ sake, but there is something to be learned in the struggle. There is something to be learned in the obstacle.

I’ve had people come to me in the past or they come to my Music Academy and they just have this vague idea that they want to be a successful musician or producer, song writer, singer, artist, rock star, and they don’t really have any path towards getting there. No idea, and they kind of just want to be led by the hand to this promised land of fame and fortune, and they often want to avoid the struggle. But again, the struggle is the way. The struggle is what’s going to turn you into an artist, is what’s going to turn you into a great singer or a great teacher. If you don’t struggle, if everything’s easy, you’re either amazingly gifted or you’re avoiding the work. It’s interesting. There’s a movie coming out, I think by the time you hear this maybe it’s out, called Yesterday.

And the plot appears to be that everyone’s forgotten who the Beatles are, except this one young man, and so he starts– or actually, no one even knows who– the Beatles never existed, except for him. So he starts playing Beatles songs and within months he’s the biggest star in the world and everybody thinks he’s a genius. So yeah, if you’re coming out of nowhere writing songs as good as Lennon and McCartney, sure, maybe you’re not going to struggle too much. But for the rest of us mortals– and the fact is Lennon and McCartney had to struggle. The Beatles struggled in Hamburg, Germany playing these horrible sets that lasted all night. I think that’s where The Hard Night came from. But they’d have to play like eight hours a day, seven days a week, living in horrible conditions in these horribly rough clubs, and that’s where they really learned their craft.

And everyone talked about how, who had heard the Beatles before they left for Hamburg, and then when they came back, it was just remarkable how much better they had gotten. They had, as you will, paid their dues. And I once made a joke about, you know, if people wanted to open up restaurants the same way musicians want their careers and it’s like, ‘Did you go to culinary school?’ “No, but my mom says I’m talented.” ‘Do you have the finances to open this business?’ “No.” And it really is the list of everything that you need to start a small business, and of course in the musician mindset, you don’t need that. And there’s almost a sense of, if you’re talented and you have some gifts, the world is waiting for you. The world owes you something. And I’m gonna sound like your parents, but the world doesn’t owe you anything.

The world’s not waiting for you. If your music career doesn’t happen, if you let obstacles just shut you down, no one is going to bemoan that they never heard your music. Every Broadway show that’s going to go on will go on, unless of course it’s shows that you never wrote, that we were never aware of. I can’t imagine how many great artists we have lost that we’ve never heard that could have been on the level of a Prince or a Paul Simon. Who we never heard because when it got hard, they just gave up. And even though they had the gifts and they had the talent, they didn’t embrace the struggle. And speaking of Paul Simon, it is considered that his greatest artistic achievement is the album Graceland, in the mid 80’s. I think came out in 1986. And this album, he’d actually, in the early 70’s, Paul Simon– Simon and Garfunkel had broken up.

He had three very successful solo albums, so he was kind of riding high. Then he decided he had his vanity project where he was going to make this movie that he was going to star in about a musician called One Trick Pony that bombed. Then he was going to do a Simon and Garfunkel reunion album. And he decided the songs were too personal and he erased all of Art Garfunkel’s tracks, as I understand it, which led to a horrible falling out. And that album came out and it bombed. So he was really looking at his career kind of in free fall, and in that obstacle, in that struggle, he figured he had nothing left to lose and someone had passed him a tape of some South African music. And this pop music that was driven by accordion and fretless bass and these drum feels that he’d never heard before. And he was intrigued by it, and he went to South Africa to work with these musicians.

Now him doing that in the mid 80’s was rather controversial, in retrospect. The fact was his career was doing so poorly, no one was paying attention. But during the times of apartheid, and there were some boycotts going on, and there is a bigger political discussion about the album. However, he worked with these musicians and brought them to London and he worked on something that no one would have conceived of him doing, creating this album of South African pop music. And yet the resulting album was the largest selling of his career. It won buckets of Grammy’s and it really is a great piece of art that would not have existed, I’m convinced, if his previous movie and album hadn’t bombed. He needed the failure.

He needed the struggle to change his direction, and so the obstacle became the way. If you are dealing with something in your singing, something in your career, your songwriting, whatever it is, that is the world telling you there’s a lesson you need to learn. There’s something you need to fix. There is another way. The struggle is not there arbitrarily, and actually if you reframe this, if you can think of it in a different way, the struggle is this unique gift that the universe has given you, and your struggle, even though you may share a similar struggle with many others, this particular struggle is yours alone and the solution is yours alone. And if you embrace the struggle and you embrace the lessons that the struggle is handing you, and you learn them and you conquer them, there are great things on the other side, and there are things on the other side that you are not even comprehending right now.

There is an album possibly like your Graceland. There’s your own Graceland on the other side of this struggle. I will tell you myself, I’ve mentioned before I started off as a drummer and I make jokes about trying to keep that a secret, but when I was a young man, I remember going to college and if you’ve ever seen the movie Whiplash, this wasn’t exactly Whiplash in that things were thrown at us but this jazz band director was so intense that it felt like it. And I never forgot in high school, I was a bit of a hot shot. I played in the jazz band, I had a big drum solo and everybody told me how amazing I was and of course I’m strutting around thinking I’m amazing. How could all these people be wrong? And I go in and I sit down and I’m gonna play, and of course this jazz band director is going to go “John, you’re just, you’re wonderful. I want to put you in the number one band.”

That is not what happened. I actually got– he stopped the music and he pointed at me and said, get off the drum set. And that was a dark, dark moment. And then the next person got on who was just a maybe a year or two older than me, but had been playing under this director, and just proceeded to blow my playing away. And I really felt crushed and really small. And in that moment I could have quit. But as I sat there I just said, “Oh no, this is not happening. I am going to be in this number one band. I’m going to do whatever it takes.” And I went out and I researched and I found an amazing drum teacher.

And long story short, I got in the number one band. This was about a year and a half later, and maybe two years later. And at the end of the year there would always be a concert and he would hand out these awards to most improved, etc. and there was one award which went to the most valuable member of the band and as he was giving out the awards, I remember thinking like, “Oh, I guess I’m not getting an award. Well, that’s cool. I’m alright with that”. Because there was only one award left, which was the most valuable, and then there was no way I was getting that. Well, I got that award. And I just remember the feeling of overcoming all of those obstacles and I actually had gotten to, within those couple of years, had gotten quite good on the drums. I improved so much because of that obstacle, because of that struggle, because of being knocked down and the pain of that made me push back harder than I thought I had within me.

And that’s what you have got to find. I remember I’d been teaching for a little while and there was a– I went to this teacher training and they– all of a sudden the person leading it pointed at me and said, “John, come up and work with this student.” And I was really nervous and as I was working with them, I missed something in the voice. And what I missed, I started changing exercises and actually what I should’ve done is adjust the vowel. And a teacher called me out on that. And again, I felt absolutely crushed. I felt stupid. I felt embarrassed in front of all of these teachers and I walked away and said, “You know what? That person was right. I’m going to learn a lot about vowels” And it really started to drive me into understanding voice science and really helped me becoming much better teacher because of that struggle.

If that embarrassment hadn’t happened, I would have just been going along thinking I was– and I was doing okay– but I wouldn’t have improved in the way that I did. So if you are struggling with something, whatever it is, I want you to really look at it and analyze it. Why is it you are struggling? Are you unable to sing through your vocal break? Does your voice keep cracking? Well then you need to stop and go, okay, what am I doing in order to fix this? Am I trying to teach myself? Am I working with a good teacher? Is the teacher I’m working with the right teacher for me? Am I trying to sing the wrong material? Is my practice routine optimal? All of these things can be examined if you’re having vocal issues in terms of vocal health. What are you doing? Why is this happening? What do you need to learn about yourself? What is going on, again, with your health routine, your eating, your sleeping, how much you’re practicing? Are you overusing your voice? How is your speaking voice? Are you speaking in an optimal pitch? All of these things, this struggle that has been presented to you needs to be cleared up before you become a successful singer because you are just going to go further down that hole much deeper and you may end up in a vocal crisis. So if you’re having issues now, embrace them, learn from them, fix them. These are gifts to you. If people aren’t liking your songs– okay I’m not talking about trolls– I mean as you go out, as you– don’t just play your recorded music for your friends and family. You have to start putting it out there and seeing what’s getting reactions.

If it’s not getting the reactions that you want, something’s wrong. There’s something missing or your hook is strong enough. Do you know enough about song structure? Okay, what about your lyrics? Are they grabbing people? Are they speaking to people? Are your recording skills up to snuff? If not, what do you need to do? Do you need to learn to become better at recording yourself or do you need to spend some money to have somebody record you? And that’s another thing. If these struggles are coming up, sometimes you need to invest in yourself. Invest in your career. Invest in your education. If you’re looking to do this for a living, you’re talking about starting a small, which is ultimately going to become a very large business. You are a business. This is a business. Businesses require capital. If you don’t have the capital, what do you need to do to go and get it?

To get a job, to save, to invest wisely. If you don’t have the money for one-on-one voice lessons, is there a singing program that you can buy? Is there just somebody that you can follow on YouTube? Is there a friend that can help you until you can get the money to work with a really good teacher, to work with a really good songwriting coach? All of this is things that need to be taken care of. And if you have struggles, they’re not going to go away. If you ignore them, then you’re just going to live with those weaknesses. And your job is to start finding your weaknesses and eliminating your weaknesses, and struggles are the guidepost to your weaknesses. They are the spotlight. They will illuminate things for you. So don’t resist the struggle. I know. Listen, I don’t enjoy struggles half the time.

And, even today to do this podcast, I’ve actually got this sandwiched up between teaching. I’ve got slides I have to finish for a major presentation and the clock’s kind of hammering on me. But you know what, I actually dashed home, I turned on this computer, and I just had something to say. And the clock ticking on me is getting me to finish this podcast, which is then going to get me teaching those lessons and then it’s going to get me to finish my presentation and then I have to finish sketching out a course. It never stops. The problems don’t stop. The pressures don’t stop. Once they stopped, the game was over. Do you want the game to be over? I don’t. I still have some games in me. So embrace these struggles. Welcome them and learn from them.

Alright here endeth the lecture. Hey, if you want to know more about me, possibly studying with me, etc., more podcast episodes, go to johnhenny.com. If you are interested in learning to be a voice teacher, go to johnhenny.com and up at the top, just click on teacher training in the upper menu. My Contemporary Voice Teacher Academy, the doors are now open. And what I’ve done is I’ve created two tiers now, and there’s an advanced tier, where I work with people one-on-one, coaching to help them grow their teaching business. You can also submit lessons to be analyzed by me, etc. 

That is ultimately going to be a higher paid tier, quite a bit higher. I haven’t decided how much, but as I’m just kind of testing it and beta testing it, launching it, you’re going to get that extra level for your regular price of $59 a month, and that also gives you the entire course certification, everything. So if that interests you, if you want to get better at teaching contemporary singing, or even just get started teaching, you’re a singer that’s looking into teaching, well, of course I highly recommend it. I put a whole lot of time into it, but I’m getting really good feedback and results from it. So again, just go to johnhenny.com and click on the teacher training and I’d love to meet you there inside the course. Hey, thank you again for listening. And until next time, to better singing. Bye bye.