Anonymous Connection: Battling self-doubt as a college musician


Friday nights are sacred.

There’s something about making it through five days of classes and homework – no matter how much effort you allocated towards them – that earns you an evening of leisure. Some people may reserve Saturdays and/or Sundays as work days, but Fridays are always meant to be enjoyed.

Take a random sample of students at Iowa State and you’re guaranteed to see a wide varieties of Friday night activities. Underclassmen shuffling in-and-out of dorm parties, those heading to Welch Avenue hoping to indulge in some debauchery with a stranger, two soul-mates staying in to relax, going over to a friend’s place to play tabletop games; all these things will most likely have at least one common factor: the tunes scoring the evening.

“I think in college, you have the chance to experience music in a variety of ways,” said Michael Giles, senior lecturer in saxophone and jazz.

Students are consuming music more rapidly, and more pigeonholed than ever. With the rise of streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music, most everyone has seemed to find their own niche through the internet. No longer does someone have to sit through a crappy Imagine Dragons song to get to that awesome new Beck track, you can just skip right to “Colors.”

However, alt-rock is far from the most prominent genre in the world, let alone a college campus. As the idea of streaming becomes more and more commonplace, big personality, low-quality hip-hop artists seem to be benefiting the most. Acts like Lil Pump and 6ix9ine are capitalizing on shock value, increasingly short attention spans and a need to be like everyone else.

“You’re [18] and what you’re trying to do is, a) Figure out how to get around this world of your own devices and b) Be liked,” Giles said. “You want friends, you want affirmation, you want comfort.”

However, trap-rap and soundcloud-rap aren’t typically the preferred genres for those that consider themselves music enthusiasts. Of the people I’ve spoken with involved in campus clubs such as GENRE and KURE, most of these individuals express their greatest admiration for funk, jazz and indie-rock, and the many sub-genres found within.

While musical taste can be developed over the years, there is a definite preference that is established during our early years of music consumption.

“A lot of groups in [those genres] are putting out music … to elicit a feeling, or a memory, or something like that,” said Julia Studer, junior in biology and lead vocalist of Truth Machine, a GENRE club band.

Studer directly cited pop-punk groups such as Mayday Parade and All Time Low as early influences of her’s, the former of which she has seen sixteen times in concert.

“The kind of music that these groups put out definitely connects to people more,” Studer said.

Musicians have long been known to battle mental health, but the issue was brought back into the limelight after the self-inflicted deaths of Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington in 2017.

According to a study conducted by Help Musicians UK (HMUK), the United Kingdom’s leading independent music charity, 71 percent of respondents believed they had suffered from panic attacks and/or high levels of anxiety.

“[Self-doubt], we all have it,” Giles said. “You’re trying to chase down a muse. You’re trying to keep up with your neighbor, pass your neighbor, get in front of the next guy. It’s like working your way through a marathon race.”

A musician’s career is often defined by success that is self-determined. One might determine a musician’s success by how many Top 40 hits they’ve had, but for those pursuing a career in the field, it’s ultimately up to them to decide what “making it” truly is to them.

“Can someone make it? Well, yeah, everyone can make it, but you have to define what ‘making it’ is, and then determine what you’re willing to do,” Giles said.

For Giles, he has already made it. He has a job at a major university teaching multiple classes and instructing one of the university’s jazz ensembles, as well as the music department’s jazz combos. However, even someone with an established gig can find it difficult to manage the relationship between work and play.

“… that’s the job part. The artist part is trying to be a good role model, or be inspiring, or be someone you are glad you’re spending time around, or feeding a certain thing that exists within you abstractly that you can’t really determine what it is,” Giles said. “I care a lot more about [the artist] part.”

The pressure of “making it” can also bleed into a student’s day-to-day routine.

Kyle Kain is a 34-year-old senior in instrumental music education who has two children of his own.

“Some professors expect more from non-traditional students because they think they should be more focused and motivated, and other instructors expect less from non-traditional students because they think, ‘Well, they were a failure earlier in life, so they’re not going to do much now,’” Kain said.

These outside factors can affect an aspiring musician as much as internal conflicts when considering the chances of the public’s perception of “making it.”

“There’s doubt from the outside,” Giles said. “Not from whether ‘they’ know it or not, but just the odds.”

For an average listener, music can often be used as a decompresser. Something used to wind down after a stressful day or to lower anxiety in a tense moment or situation. However, for some people who are dealing with a higher level of anxiety, music therapy has been seen as an effective way to address physical, emotional, cognitive and social needs

Music therapy essentially uses music as a tool to help promote creativity and self-control, among other factors. Whether participants are creating or absorbing, music has been seen as an excellent tool to deal with mental barriers

“I think it’s a great experience for anyone that has an emotional connection to music, which is probably the general public, I’d say,” Studer said

Studer has actively participated in traditional music therapy, and while she isn’t practicing it in the same way, she continues a similar experience in Truth Machine

“There are songs that have specific memories attached to it … but a lot of people have songs that will bring up bad things for them,” Studer said. “[Music therapy is] about finding what about these songs is bringing up those memories or attachments … [and] another part is the ability to create new memories.

Therapy in this form has the potential to resurface negative experiences, but Studer believes that music can be used as incredible tool for those who aren’t as outwardly vocal about their troubles

“Maybe if [someone is] depressed, maybe if they have anxiety, they’ll listen to something they don’t feel comfortable talking to people about. So it’s like this anonymous connection that they are able to have with someone else,” Studer said

And this “anonymous connection” is something that all performers thrive on, and is a driving force in their passion for their careers

“I have people come up to me all the time: ‘That was amazing,’ or ‘God, I wish I could do that,’ … or ‘I should have stuck with it,’” Giles said. “You’re kind of living their dreams.

After pursuing music for over two decades, Giles has developed a real appreciation for the praise he is able to receive due to his passion-turned-occupation

“I just had a plumber come to my house today. He did a great job. Did things I would never be able to do, but I didn’t grab him by the shoulders and tell him, ‘Man, that was something else,’” Giles said

While there are typical “downsides” to a career as a musician when viewed through what is typically defined as “success” – Modest salary, irregular hours, etc. – the highs are more than worth the lows

“How much is that [recognition] worth? [Those people can] keep their high-paying gig and have nobody [praise] you. And I’ll keep my very modest paying gig and pray people say to me,” Giles said with a laugh

Facing self-doubt is a regular part of any artist’s journey, but for those that are able to overcome any outside and internal struggles, there is nothing more gratifying.

“Battling the self-doubt is ongoing,” Giles said. “But if you can manage it and not let it eat you alive, then you have a shot.”