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,

1 comment:

  1. Roger Wilkinson sent me this very nice email, and gave me permission to post it here in comments. He wrote:

    Julie while it is easy to fall into the trap of I am only as successful as what I earn I am glad that you have gotten past that. I posed this question to a boss I had about 30 years ago when he was talking about another sales rep that worked for him and how this rep's wife made more money then the rep did. I asked him who would be the more successful of this couple the wife who is a well paid doctor but not an extraordinary doctor or the husband who is a high school teacher that earns way less but was just named teacher of the year?
    Julie when you play music you are bringing joy to the people that are listening to you. I have seen people listening to you so I do know that of which I speak. Being able to do that is a success regardless of what it pays.
    I wanted to relate a story to you of one of my earliest guitar playing experiences. I took up the guitar when I was 15 which was just about the time the Civil War was coming to and end , just kidding. A couple of months after I started to learn to play I was talking to an older girl that lived down the street from me and she asked me how my playing was coming. She said go get your guitar and we can play. So I did and we started to play. Then her neighbor came out and asks If I could chord. I said I knew some chords . He went into his house and got his guitar and harmonica and the three of us started to play songs like Red River Valley and he sang. A little while latter her mother who was a music teacher came home and she got her accordion and joined in with us. I remember thinking that beautiful Sunday afternoon almost fifty years ago wow I am playing music, I am part of this sound that we are making. It was one of the most magical experiences of my life.
    Being able to play music or teach others how to play music is a wonderful gift that has great value.
    Be well and keep playing music