19 February 2008

Returns (Diminishing and Otherwise)

A funny thing happens to me every Thursday afternoon on my way to the non-musical part-time day job that I work in order to keep from starving. After two days off, the first of which I usually spend reading and listening, and the second of which I spend teaching music lessons, I'm actually in the mood for some menial labor that has nothing to do with music. When I was unemployed, I developed this strange longing to be a "normal" part of the rest of society. It came to outweigh even the more practical end of supporting myself and being able to move out of my parents' house. I figured that it would wear off quickly, and sometimes it feels like it has, but in truth, it's still there somewhere, and I don't think it's going to go away soon.

I don't know if there are any musicians active today who don't feel unproductive most of the time. It's easy to beat yourself up for not getting enough done when there's so much to do. Nonetheless, I've found that my productivity level seems to be fixed, and doesn't vary much (if at all), no matter what odd curve balls life throws at me. Even during the afore mentioned period of unemployment, when I had enough spare time to work through a library's worth of books and recordings, I just wasn't in the right mindset to work most of the time. Sure, I waste some potentially inspired, productive time at work, but I also am able to translate a great deal of the uninspired, unproductive time into cash. Why not?

The really difficult realization I've made recently is that I'm uninspired most of the time. I've played the part of high school student and college student; full-time employee and part-time employee; freelance musician and umemployed lout; but none of it seems to matter. I have a fixed amount of focused energy to expend on making music, and once that's gone, it's actually better not to force myself to continue working as much of that work becomes not only pointless but actually harmful or regressive.

Perhaps it's merely a front, but the message I get from most of the music world is that the best thing for us is to have as few non-musical obligations as possible so as to allow for the maximum amount of time to work on music. I would probably take it if I could get it, but it may not make a difference in my case. Of course, there is also a school of thought that says that our cumulative life experience is what we put into our artworks, and hence we ought to be more concerned with having lots of cumulative life experience than with practice. Unfortunately, that doesn't cut it either. What is needed is short term impatience (for daily motivation) combined with long term patience (willingness to endure slow, steady progress that may feel like anything but). Where one or both of those things is absent and we can't be productive, is it better to have a job or play video games all day?

Some artists come to hate the world for not allowing them to make a living through their art. I guess I'm becoming ambivalent, not to mention strangely contented with my current situation. If I was independently wealthy or had a massive grant, I can't say for sure whether or not I would accomplish anything more than I would without it. I'll just keep my mouth shut, then, the next time government funding of "The Arts" comes up, since it looks like I embody a good argument against it. I think it is important to also mention the prospect of earning said cash through musical engagements that aren't your first choice. When I am away from music for 5 hours every afternoon, I return home ready to get down to business; conversely, when I awake at 7am and drive across the city to play background music for the grand opening of a new bank building, I return home not wanting anything to do with my horn (or really anything musical) for the rest of the day. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Familiarity breeds contempt. Insert your idiom here; it will probably work, too.

I'm reminded of a story a friend recently relayed to me of a freshman saxophone player who, when asked what his summer plans were, stated that he intended to "get all that technique stuff out of the way" so that he could just focus on music after that. We had a good laugh over that, although I admit to having moments exactly like that at that age, and I'd be surprised if others hadn't also. It's natural to want everything now, but the process of attaining progressively higher levels of musicianship is an inherently slow one, and while some undoubtedly do manage to accelerate it through exceptional work ethic and/or by possessing circus freak levels of innate aptitude, the rest of us simply have to be more patient.

My age is a dangerous age. A lot of 25 year old musicians are nearing the end of their doctoral programs with no realistic music-oriented employment in sight; others who didn't go to graduate school have already let their skills fall into disrepair through a combination of social distractions and economic realities; others have already given up completely. Yet other 25 year olds are already on the downside of their careers: among them are child prodigies who no longer look enough like children (though they may still act like them) to garner attention for the novelty of their age (although with modern medicine, most will live long enough to give that approach another try eventually); then there are sellouts whose best work already lays behind them, the result of the brash creative ferment of adolescence that suddenly becomes inconvenient to maintain into early adulthood not only because it requires continued hard work, but because the alternatives are both less work and more lucrative; finally, there are the local heroes, who developed an unjustified contentedness while growing up as the big fish in an exceedingly small pond and are standing idly by as that rug is pulled out from underneath them.

I can envision plenty of scenarios by which I could have fallen (or could still fall) into one of these traps, among others. My goal, however, is to continue to make slow but consistent progress. At some point, most of us have probably met older musicians who gave up that goal up long ago. It breaks my heart and pisses me off at the same time. It's a phenomenon that has spawned numerous wisecrack cliches about youthful naivete, optimism, and idealism; but if a constant desire to better oneself is an inherently naive proposition unbecoming of an adult, then we have truly fallen a long way.

For someone with a strong aversion to blogs that are "about" their authors, I've spewed an awful lot about myself here. I guess I could have saved everyone the time and just said this: may we all continually aim to play, compose, write, improvise, and live better tomorrow than we did today, whatever that might mean; and when unexpected adverse circumstances arise, may we in the service of the previous admonition always address them in a constructive rather than destructive fashion.


Andrew Durkin... said...

Interesting observations.

In my twenties, I think my music benefited from the fact that I always found myself having to hold down a "day job" that was unrelated to music. Part of that benefit was what you're getting at with the "absence makes the heart grow fonder" idea -- I got much-needed perspective and time to process the music I was exploring. Also, since I have always viewed my own creative efforts as a kind of rebellion (whether they actually were or not), it was helpful to be regularly reminded of the thing I was rebelling against ("normal" life, I guess). Much as I hated it, I realize now that having a "real job" was useful (even beyond the immediate usefulness of earning a paycheck) -- it kept me on edge a little bit, and motivated me in the very difficult task of aesthetic self-definition...

Now that I'm in my thirties, some of this has changed. For better or worse, I feel like I'm no longer struggling to figure out what I want to do in music -- I know what I want, so I don't really need a foil anymore. I do, however, still think that there is great value in periodically "unplugging" from your musical life -- so I tend to think that the idea of total immersion is overrated. I do some of my best work when I'm distracted, taking the dog for a walk, making dinner...

nick z said...

Charles Ives.

That motherfucker wrote a book about Insurance. He also made himself rich by selling insurance. I can't think of a better argument against government funding of "artists" than Charles Ives. He's (In my eyes) in the top 5 of american musicians of all time (there's an interesting (if not pointless) list to contemplate) and he worked 60 hours a week in an insurance office. Makes me feel like a lazy unmotivated asshole.

Your statement about being better tomorrow than today is solid. I'm more interested in that, than in carving out some niche in some "scene." It seems like that's all everyone really cares about is getting their membership card to whatever clique they think is the coolest. thinking about that makes me feel like Patrick Bateman (american psycho). now continual improvement... that's something i can get behind, because i don't need to worry if my shoes look cool enough or if my shirt is ironic enough, or if my hair looks messy enough. and It's harder than it sounds. one would think that one could go abot one's business and strive to improve one's self unimpeded. it's not the case though. I can't help but feel there are many people who are headed in the opposite direction and they are determined to take as many of us with them as they can. Maybe we need to start a union. a new kind of union... an anti-mediocrity union. It would be just like my new comic books where Schoenberg and Zappa and Ives and Dolphy do Battle with the Evil Bob Seager in every episode.