Saturday, November 29, 2014

Music, Money and Meaning

When I was a young, struggling musician, I was very self-conscious about how little money I made. Perhaps because our culture is so money oriented, I felt the need to judge my success based on my yearly income. As you can imagine, this was a depressing endeavor. Each year, when Parade Magazine published their list of peoples’ incomes based on occupation, I would peruse the job descriptions, look at the yearly salaries, and feel inadequate.
I also questioned my perseverance and work ethic. I knew some people who used “I’m an artist” as an excuse to not get a job, and it was hard not to wonder if I was just one of those lazy people. I worried that maybe I wasn’t working hard enough. In fact, I was working hard: practicing to hone my craft, hunting for gigs so I could perform, teaching lessons, plus holding down two non-music-related part time jobs to pay my bills. Even then, somehow it felt like I was being lazy if I took time to practice the piano instead of working extra hours at a job I didn’t like, since my piano playing wasn’t generating any income.
As I got older and began to develop a local reputation as a musician, I began to enjoy my work more and more, and I was less hard on myself. But on some level, I still did not feel like I was successful unless I was bringing in lots of money. I kept teaching, performing, and writing, and I wasn’t getting rich. I learned to be savvy about how I managed my finances as a self-employed person, but I never hit the “financial success” bar that I had set for myself.

Then one year I had an interesting experience with a couple of anesthesiologists. They were starting a barbershop quartet with some fellow workers and wanted me to coach them, since none of them were professional musicians. One day I made a disparaging remark about how little money I made in comparison to them, and how I envied their financial freedom. At the time they were probably each making six times the yearly salary I was. Both of them immediately hurried to say, “Oh, no, we totally envy you! You are your own boss. We have to jump through all these institutional hoops where we work. We’d give anything to have your job – a working freelance musician!” I was taken aback. How could they envy me? That, and other similar incidents, started to make me think differently about the money.

Somewhere in my forties, I began to realize that if I had really wanted the money, I would’ve found a way to make it. Although I hadn’t realized it at the time, I had always been more interested in the work I was doing, and the quality of the work, than in the size of my paycheck. And I suspect that if the anesthesiologists had really wanted to be musicians instead of doctors, they probably would have been.

I finally realized that I am content to pay my bills and be joyful in my work. That is success. So many people can’t say that. I have the privilege of making a living doing what I love. I get to share the joy of music with people every day. Not only do I get to perform all kinds of music I love for people who appreciate it, but I get to help other people learn to play beautiful music and develop their own musical skills. It is a very cool way to live. And after all these years and all the hard work, it still feels like a gift.

We should pay attention to the things that we want to do, are highly motivated to do, and that we actually do. These are the things we should devote our lives to, and what will give them meaning. Sometimes we choose the right path without realizing it.

Peace and good harmony,

Thursday, January 9, 2014

New Year's Resolutions - a Different Perspective

At this time of year, many people resolve to change their lives for the better. They make resolutions about how they are going to act, think, and, of course, eat better. And they are so consistently unsuccessful that it has become a joke. Yet we still do it every year. Why? Because we believe that we can be better people, accomplish more, and be all the things we hope to be. That’s surely a good thing. But our traditional way can be frustrating, so I propose something completely different. Bear with me for the next few paragraphs, and I will explain what I mean.
Imagine yourself at piano lessons: Each week you play your assignments for your teacher. When you finally perfect those pieces, your teacher assigns new ones. Generally the new ones are a little harder or incorporate new techniques and styles, so that you will continue to grow as a pianist. But from your perspective, when you try to evaluate how you are doing or what you have achieved, it seems like you have made no progress to the next level because each new assignment is just as hard as the last one.
During lessons, I always try to point out to my students where they have done well, and which new techniques they are mastering successfully. But even with that encouragement, some of them still feel like they’re not getting any better. When this happens, I encourage them to go back and review some pieces they worked on a year ago. Because they have, in fact, improved, those pieces are now easier for them. They usually come back to me and say, “Oh, my gosh, I remember thinking I’d never get through this piece, and now it seems so easy!”

Then when I say, “Yes, look how far you’ve come,” they believe me. They need to be reminded how they felt a year ago in order to have the proper perspective on the present and see that they have been growing and improving.

Life is like piano lessons: each time we learn something new, it opens up possibilities for us to move and grow further, but we always have to work the same amount to keep growing. One of the reasons we fail to recognize our own achievements is that we don’t stop and take the perspective I suggest to my students.
For example, in 1992, I was not a full-time musician, nor had I recorded any CDs. I felt like I was unsuccessful, so I was unhappy with myself because I hadn’t achieved these things. I thought: If I were a full-time musician, plus had a CD already recorded, I would be happy and successful.
Some years later, I had the occasion to remember that thought. It was 2002, ten years later, and I was a full-time musician and I had two CDs recorded. And you know what? I still didn’t feel happy or successful. I felt just as unhappy and unsuccessful as I had in 1992. The problem wasn’t what I was doing or what I had or hadn’t achieved. The problem wasn’t even how I defined “success;” the problem was how I perceived myself and my progress. I had thought the achievements would make me feel better about myself, but they didn’t.
We carry certain beliefs about ourselves, like “I don’t practice enough,” or “I’ve always been lazy.” We evaluate our progress based on these beliefs and perceptions. They often stay with us over the years, no matter what we have done or learned, and subsequently we don’t notice our own improvements. Often, too, like the experience of my students, each new achievement is just as hard as the last, and so it appears as though nothing is changing.
So how do we learn to evaluate our achievements, and ourselves, in a healthy manner?  One way is to get into the habit of periodically looking over the last year, like I counsel my students to do. That perspective can help us to see the reality of our own growth.
So instead of New Year’s resolutions, I propose a different exercise: At the end of the year, make a list of all the things that you accomplished over the past year; how you’ve grown, the good things you have done. Then look back over the last five or ten years. I guarantee it will make you feel better about yourself, and perhaps inspire you to continue to progress in the next year.

Review your past to honor your present and inspire your future.