An infant hits a drum or bangs the keys on a piano. His eyes open wide in astonishment at the sound. He does the same thing again. The sound is repeated. He can barely believe his ears. All of a sudden, he realises that he is the one responsible for making it happen and he feels a rush of excitement, an excitement born of the knowledge that he is capable of affecting his environment by creating sound.
For musicians, that heady thrill of 'I'm responsible for making this noise' never really goes away. We never get bored of hitting the drum, plucking the string, striking the keys or blowing the horn. We can all remember a time when the playing of music brought us joy, the same pure and unadulterated joy the infant experiences realising he can produce sound at will.
And yet as the years go by and we strive to improve our craft, so many of us find the fundamental pleasure of making music gets pushed to one side as other factors creep into our relationship with sound. It would surprise non-musicians to know that many musicians don't particularly enjoy their performances. Once it was all about the emerging musician and his music; now a host of other considerations have muscled their way into the picture and stand between the sound and the person producing it.
Here are a few reasons why music making may no long be the source of pure joy and excitement that it once was:
You're playing to impress people
The audience, your band mates, other musicians in the room, the jazz critics, hardcore jazz fans, the dead legends you compare yourself to every time you hear a record, the list goes on. Once upon a time you played only for yourself and the love of playing. Now when you play you chase applause in your solos, you want everyone to be impressed and admire your playing and you crave either the respect or adoration of everyone at the gig. Playing for your own pleasure is farthest thing on your mind.
You don't have the courage of your convictions
Everybody agrees that finding your own voice is crucial. You know this; you talk about it all the time. However, the reality is that you’re a stylistic dilettante. You abandon your preferred way of playing if you are simply exposed to something else. For a month you're working on developing a more authentic bebop sound until you hear a Ruben Gonzales record. Now you feel obliged to try and get a more 'authentic' latin sound going. Two weeks later you listen to Coleman Hawkins and realise actually you need to get back to the basics of swinging a line.
You can't truly focus on the one thing that would give you 'your sound' because you don't really believe in your ability to make it work.
On the gig, this feeling of being pulled in all directions translates into you being unable to play your authentic musical self and trying to play like everybody else. Your next solo will be dictated by the last solo played by another musician. You feel obliged to match fire with fire if they play fast or dissonant or 'modern'. You can't seem to settle into your own style and you don't even realise what you're doing until it's too late. You leave the gig feeling frustrated and dissatisfied with your own ability.
You're not playing with the other musicians
You would be horrified if you knew that when you're making music, despite your best intentions, it always ends up being all about you. You live and play in your own head, obsessing over your sound, your solo, your performance. You are listening to and aware of the other musicians only on a superficial level; you pay them the minimum attention that will keep you in time and in tune. The result is that you only have the vaguest concept of the overall band sound and you are playing 'along with' the band rather than playing with them. Your bandmates are no more and no less than a live playalong recording.
The deepest joy in making music can be found in collaboration. The potential for dialogue, for shared experience and expression, for working together to achieve a common musical goal can be the best feeling in the world. Yet go to most jazz gigs and watch the musicians. Much of the time, they're playing in their own little bubble; there is no eye contact, there is no empathy, they express no joy in the musical symbiosis and mutuality.
When it's all about you, you will always be able to find fault and focus on the negatives. It's a never ending and unachievable quest for perfection and a sure path to frustration and feelings of inadequacy.
You define yourself through your music
Now it may be all about you, but it's not all about the music is it? The problem musicians face is that the making of music is first an intensely personal and emotionally naked experience. When you allow other people to hear you play, you are at risk of being judged and criticised. You feel vulnerable and insecure, and it is these feelings that are responsible for all the issues we've covered so far.
It's so easy to do, but allowing your self-worth to become wrapped up in your music-making is a guaranteed recipe for misery. You are not your music. Your value as a person is not dependent on how well you play. Those who love you do not think less of you if you do not play well. Your worth as a human being is not, and never will be dependant on your musical prowess. Your identity is not your music. Your personality is not your music. Your life is not your music. You are not your music.
Music is just something you do, not something you are.
Until next time...