When The Plan Falls Apart: A Musician's Guide to Navigating the Unexpected

Are you a planner? I know I am.

To give you an idea, let me tell you a story.

I’d always known I wanted to be a musician. I was the girl who had a 30-year plan drawn out at age 8. I knew my goals and every step to get me there. And there were no ‘back-ups’. Following ‘The Plan’ was the only way to be successful & happy. And I knew exactly how I was going to get there. I would attend college, followed by graduate school in a Top-30 university, then serve a 20-year career with the military bands, teach & perform in local ensembles as well, eventually earn a college teaching job, & ride off into the sunset. It was going to be perfect.

It’s a nice picture isn’t it? Well, what really happened was what we call Life. And we all know in Life, things rarely go according to plan. I did go to college, grad school, & join the military bands. I did regularly perform and had a thriving studio. Things were going [essentially] as I’d planned. Then, in 2015, I got sick. And everything changed.

Fast-forward 4 years. I’d been diagnosed with 2 chronic illnesses. I spent what seemed to be more time in the doctor’s office than the practice room. My calendar filled up faster with lesson make-ups from sick days than new students. And my poor health was about to end my planned 20-year Army career after just 6 years. The Plan had fallen apart.

"Life is what happens when you're busy making plans" -- John Lennon

“What now?”, I asked. The Plan was the only road to success and happiness (or so I thought). I felt lost and confused. How could The Plan not have worked? I’d followed it exactly, step-by-step. Something must be wrong! The truth is, nothing was wrong. The unexpected is inevitable. It’s one of the facts of life. So, what do you do when the unexpected happens and The Plan falls apart?

Here are some tools I’ve learned along the way that you can use to center yourself during those times of change and be better prepared to navigate the unexpected.

1. Accept the Change

Dealing with the unexpected is a process. And accepting the change it brings is an essential step. For that to happen, it’s important to recognize you’ve suffered a loss. Whatever The Plan was, it most certainly involved something you valued and cared about dearly. When Life steers us away from our plans, there is going to be something left behind; something lost. It’s important to take the time to grieve those losses. My family lived by the “24-Hour Rule”. When something happened that was upsetting, we were allowed 24-hours to be absolutely devastated. I mean the full on lying on the couch crying, surrounded by junk food, watching sappy movies kind. After that, the focus shifted toward acceptance, and the real work began. Now, the 24-Hour Rule may sound harsh. But it’s more of a guiding principle than a rule. We all know it’s virtually impossible to only be reeling from unexpected change for a single 24-hour period. What the 24-Hour Rule is there to remind us is 2-fold: Acknowledging and grieving what’s lost after change is important. And accepting our new circumstances grants us the power to reap its benefits.

2. Perspective

Remember the one thing you loved enough to make The Plan in the first place? The thing that gives you purpose and joy? Yeah, that. It’s so easy to focus so much on planning how to make a career or life centered around it that we forget why we’re even planning. We lose perspective of what matters most, and often make ourselves unhappy in the process. For me, it happened during my last 2 years in the Army. I was so dead-set on following my plan that I refused to acknowledge that I was in constant pain & therefore rarely making the music I loved, & I was miserable. It wasn’t until I stopped fighting the inevitable changes, accepted my new reality, & shifted my perspective to prioritize my passions rather than The Plan that things improved.

3. Rethink ‘Back-ups’

Let’s get one thing straight: Having back-up plans is NOT weak or giving up. And using them is NOT failure! I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say “Well, I could do ____, but it’s just a back-up” or “Back-up plans are just in case you fail” as if having any alternative options to The Plan is an utter disappointment. The Plan is not the Holy Grail (your passions & happiness are). And putting it on that kind of pedestal closes you off to a world of literally endless possibilities. Had my Plan not fallen apart, I never would have discovered a way to combine my passions for performing & helping others! I never would have found a way to transform the lives of fellow veterans through music. And I never would have felt as fulfilled as I do now. Finding multiple routes to loving what you do and living your best life is one of the best things you can do.

4. Be creative

Once you’ve shifted focus to your passions and you’ve figured out that back-up plans are not to be feared, you can start to see the possibilities all around you. And it’s easier than you might think to find them. They’re in the people you meet through friends, the conversations you strike up at a party, in the advice from old professors, or even online. With access to just about any information we could possibly want at our fingertips, you’re bound to come across a host of outlets for your skills. Networking and searches not delivering? Forge your own path. I guarantee someone out there needs exactly what you have to offer.

5. Practice Self-Care

I saved this for last for one simple reason: you are most important! Your personal well-being is key. The previous tools are useful for navigating the unexpected only if you are taking care of yourself along the way. Dealing with change is quite an undertaking. It can be uncomfortable, stressful, frustrating, exciting, & motivating, all at the same time. It means a full & sometimes overwhelming plate. Take care of yourself, mind, body, & soul. You might spend time with friends, go to the gym, watch a favorite movie, attend church, meditate, or travel; whatever brings you peace & joy. Reach out to others. Have a go-to family member, friend, or colleague to talk to. Or if you can/want, find a therapist [best decision I ever made]. Whatever you choose, I recommend setting a specific time every day to do something fun that gets your mind off the change you’re navigating. It’ll give you the refresh you need to continue forward towards reaching your goals and living more happily.

Using these tools myself, I worked my way through a time filled with change and challenge. It became a period of great discovery too. I recognized I had a unique ability to connect with others facing challenges and use music for healing. Through my own experiences with physical limitations, a mission to advocate for others living with disabilities grew. And from these, new and amazing opportunities came into my life. I’m the veteran’s programs director for an arts group in St. Louis. This year I’m leading the development of a music therapy initiative. I teach flute sectionals for local school bands and manage a private studio. And I sub regularly for area ensembles. Although I’ve largely traded concert halls & a college classroom for hospitals, small venues, public schools, & non-profits, I still get to perform & teach every day. The Plan may have fallen apart, but what I got instead was an equally rewarding path. And it’s been filled with music all along.

So even when things don’t go as you’d hoped, it’s not the end. And, often the unexpected leads to more happiness, success, & fulfillment than The Plan ever could!


Katherine is an active performer and clinician throughout the United States. She is principal flutist for the Heartland Opera Company and has served as a substitute flutist for the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra, Illinois Symphony, Scottsdale Symphony, and the Ozark Festival Orchestra. She is the owner of The Musician Chronicles, a blog and site dedicated to the education, support, and empowerment of musicians living with disabilities, and music-lovers everywhere. Katherine has presented arts advocacy lectures and masterclasses at universities and public schools across the U.S. in Missouri, Kansas, Arizona, and Alaska, sharing her experiences as a disabled performer. Katherine is the Membership Director for the Arizona Flute Society and is an active writer for the Flute Examiner, an online flute newsletter dedicated to the education and enrichment of flutists at all levels. Locally, Katherine enjoys an active private flute studio and works with the veterans' music therapy initiative Creative Forces. She is a member of NFA, Arizona Flute Society, the Flute Society of Washington, MTNA, and SAI music service fraternity. Katherine is a retired U.S. Army veteran, where she served in the Bands as piccolo and associate principal flutist. Katherine earned her B.A. from Arkansas Tech University and her M.A. at Colorado State University.

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