Monday, October 3, 2016

Things I'm Struggling With As A Musician/Human Being

Hello, world.

I wanted to address my audience (all three of you) in a more personal manner this time around. Most of the time I stick with informational, black-and-white objective material on this blog, or I share music that I've created - and let the art speak for itself.

Rarely do I write about beliefs/philosophies/questions/concerns/qualms (but occasionally I do). This post will be some combination of those categories.

I've been thinking a lot about being an artist / creator / human in this modern age. An age in which we're constantly inundated with media, and consumers can hardly keep up with consuming. What does that mean for creators?

And, for an additional layer of context, I'm in that insufferable early-20's age group that's trying to figure out their place in the world. That perspective is certainly at play in the remainder of this post, too. (Bear with me.)

So, without further ado, I've accumulated (a small selection of) my own set of anxieties, questions, and concerns when it comes to being an artist/musician. Here are some of them, along with my own self-prescribed responses (as if I'm having a conversation with myself, which as it turns out, seems to be the primary use of a blog).


MY QUESTIONS/CONCERNS (not all of them, just a handful)

  1. Do people have time for art anymore? With all the world's very real problems - poverty, sickness, genocide, war, global warming, political divisiveness, etc. - what is art's place? Is it relevant?
  2. I feel uneasy about self-promotion. To the outsider looking in, I must look like one helluva self-absorbed guy. 
  3. Sometimes I catch myself falling into the trap of equating my level of musical performance with my self-worth. I realize it when it happens, and I recognize the idea's invalidity, but that doesn't keep the idea away all the time.
  4. Is music my true 'calling'?
  5. I feel stuck, musically. I feel like I'm playing the same things again and again.

MY RESPONSES (this is me, talking as myself, in response to myself...)

1) Do people have time for art anymore? ...  Is it relevant? 

Do people have time for art? Most of the time, no. Is it relevant? I really do think so. I'll keep this response short, because I really want to avoid sounding pretentious and artsy-fartsy (but I'm bound to, if I haven't already, with a post including this subject matter...), BUT: Creating art is uniquely human*. Kurt Vonnegut has a great quote on this matter, and there's also this one. I'll leave it at that, for now.

*Okay, okay. Elephants do it too.

2) I feel uneasy about self-promotion.  To the outsider looking in, I must look like one helluva self-absorbed guy. 

Yeah, sorry about that, world. I really don't mean to spam your Facebook timelines with links of my face and URL's including my name. (When I see those posts myself, I get a queasy feeling in my stomach, but I buck up and continue with the day.)

That said, I think it's a necessary thing to do. How else am I going to get my art out in the world? As much as the internet can be an overwhelming, information-inundated place, I do feel it's also an awesomely powerful tool for spreading ideas. The trick is to spread the GOOD ideas. And from time to time, I think my music falls into that category (not all the time, granted).

So, for those times that I'm proud of my work, or when I think others may get something out of it, or it may improve their day, or it may make them look at the world in a different way, I don't hesitate to share it anymore.

I'm getting better at standing behind my work and 'putting myself out there.' I'll assure you, though, it is definitely NOT in my nature to do so, despite what my social media presence may suggest...

3) Sometimes I catch myself falling into the trap of equating my level of musical performance with my self-worth.

This one is so dangerous. I know it must be a universal problem for *some other* people, too—whether you're a musician, a teacher, a plumber, a world leader, whatever. EDIT: I'm reminded by readers that the tie between career and self is not as strong in other countries as it is in the U.S. So this is coming from a rather U.S.-centric perspective.

Doing something you love as your job is a great joy, and an incredible privilege. But it doesn't come without its downsides. One of which is this: Since your passion is your source of income, your performance level is, to a large degree, tied to that monetary measure of success.

And—ooh, that word: success. That's where it gets dicey. The danger that I mentioned in my #3 worry has to do with your definition of success.

If you consider yourself successful only if you...
  • make a lot of money, or... only if you
  • change the world (and all its problems!), or even only if you
  • perform your job at a proficient level...
...then you're going to run in to some problems! What you need to remember, and which I constantly need to remind myself, is this: your self-worth should not depend on any of those things.

Change your definition of success to include growth-centered ideas, rather than unrealistic, perfectionistic goals. Be proud of yourself for being better than you were yesterday, rather than berating yourself for making a mistake, even though it was one less mistake than you made the last time you tried.

The LARGER point that I want to make is this: we are all HUMANS. Above all, we are humans. As my friend Sarah says, "We are more than what we do." I heartily agree. It's easy to get carried away with labels and titles and calling ourselves "musician" or "CEO" or "head chef."

It's a relief to remember that at the end of the day, we are all the same. We have the same universal tendencies, instincts, hopes, desires. We all want to belong. We all want to love and be loved in return. We're all striving to be better. We all make mistakes. It's refreshing to drop the identities we wear day-to-day, and remember that we are all just people, here on Earth for a relatively short time.

4) Is music my true 'calling'?

Maybe, maybe not.

I think about this one a lot because, for the most part, I haven't really explored many alternatives to the 'musical path' (whatever that path actually is—if anyone knows, let me know). Unless you count that semester of A.P. biology I took in high school as an earnest, full-fledged consideration of a career in biology (which I don't).

The thing that brings me back to my 'center,' though, after asking myself this question of vocation, is that I really do experience joy while making music. Granted, maybe not all the time. I'm not in a constant state of bliss. But I can, every once in a while, lose myself in the music—be that composing or performing.

(But who's to say I can't also fall into a blissful flow-state while eating an entire sleeve of Girl Scout Cookies... Wait, is 'Cookie Quality Assurance Tester' a viable career option? Oy, now I'm having career questions again...)

5) I feel stuck, musically. I feel like I'm playing the same things again and again.

You're playing the same things? Well, that's not all bad. For one, that means you have mastered something, and it is a part of your artistic voice. You're developing your musical vocabulary! That's good.

But, I understand what you're saying, self. The solution? Stop playing the same things. Force yourself to play something new. If you feel your habits kicking in, acknowledge it, and then counteract it. It will feel uncomfortable and foreign, but it will lead to new ideas.

For example: Have the urge to play that Oscar Peterson lick you always play? Don't do it. That lick uses ascending notes, and uses lots of enclosures. Don't do that. Instead, use descending notes, and don't enclose those notes. Boom: there, you've done it. Something new.

Granted, you will want to do most of this exploration in the practice room (not on the bandstand), because it's not going to sound very good at first. After all, that's what practice rooms are for: to sound bad in. (Right?)

CONCLUSION (inconclusive)

I better wrap this up. As you've read, you can see that I don't have it all figured out. None of us do. If I want anything to come of this post, it's to show you that having doubts / questions / problems is normal, and okay (right?). It means you're on the way toward growth.

Maybe this resonated with some of you musicians out there. Or even with non-musician, fellow humans out there. I'd love to hear your thoughts on any of the questions I brought up in #1-5, or any of your own questions/struggles that you've confronted in your own lives. Comment below, and feel free to share this post with other humans.

- - - 

P.S. After re-reading this, I thought of a #3.5: Comparing myself to others.

Don't make the mistake of looking up piano prodigies on YouTube, and then wallowing in despair because you'll never be as technically proficient as them. The solution? Applaud their talent, enjoy their artistic offering, and let it inspire you.

Musically yours,


  1. Hey brother! I wrote my response as a post here:

    Also, my friend Cathleen says "I read Luke’s post, I very much enjoyed it, you both have a great capacity to honestly look at life, and your lives, and try to honestly analyze what it means, what is important, what you want, basically you have great capacities to ponder what life is about. Please let him know I very much enjoyed it, and that I think his pondering and evaluations are far advanced of that of the average guy in that 'insufferable early 20’s age group.'"

  2. Thank you Rebe (and Cathleen)!

    1. if you can make a living doing music, then do music. Better that than to suffer a life without it. B/c it is difficult to attain a level of mastery year after year if you've consumed your optimal hours at a different drudge job.

  3. Luke this is Dave Hill. That was a great piece of writing. Thoughtful, inspiring. I want to comment on just a couple of things:

    1. The world NEEDS art of all kinds. Life isn't just about food, clothing, and shelter. We have need to express ourselves too. You're a true artist, and I'm glad you are.

    2. Never feel uneasy about self-promotion. If you got it, well my God, flaunt it!! If you've accomplished something worthwhile, you have a reason enough to be proud of it just on its own merits artistically, But in addition to that, any good musician truly NEEDS people to listen to your music. Not to justify yourself, but because if you made music just for yourself, you'd be sort of selfish. Be grateful that people enjoy what you do. You're creating your art for the world as well. Let them know you're around. I believe the greatest artists appreciate and love their audiences too.

    3. "Equating level of musical performance with self-worth"..... well, what's wrong with that? I mean, just being real here. When you do something, you want to do it WELL, and that's probably more true of the performing arts as anything else. "Playing the same thing again and again"--- well I here ya on that one. I tend to do that also. You always have to try to think outside the box. There have been some great artists who, once they made their "creation", played it for the rest of their lives and never moved beyond it) (Mae West being a perfect example. Once she figured out "Mae West", she played that character until the day she died.) That actually does work for some people, but only if their "creation" is REALLY something spectacular. For most of us lesser beings, we gotta keep on thinking outside that box.

    As far as wondering if music is your "calling"?? Does it really matter? You enjoy doing it, and people enjoy listening to it, so just go with that. No need to self-ponder things. Some performers do what they do because they never figured out how to do anything else. (I might be one of them--- a scary thought). If you have other options, well that's groovy too, but--- if playing music is what you LIKE to do, then what's wrong with focusing just on that? I am not a philosophical person at all. I just go with what makes 'ya feel good, mixed in with a little common sense. You're cool. I love what you do. Cheers, and peace! :)

  4. I sent this to Luke personally a few days back, and he asked me to share it here. It's a little discombobulated, maybe, but hopefully helps some who have struggled with these questions as I have.

    -Jim Piela

    1. I agree with you that art is uniquely human. Or rather (on your point about elephant art) human art is uniquely human. Art, or specifically human art, is our attempt to better describe the human experience at a higher conscience than just that of basic communication – and not everyone is going to be on the same “wavelength” as you.
    Some people will never understand your art, because it takes an increasing effort by the audience member to understand increasingly complex work, and many people either want to spend their time understanding some other thing (we all must necessarily be ignorant of a large portion of our world), or don’t want to spend the time at all. This is not your fault, or your work’s fault, or even the audience member’s fault, but that of our finite time in the universe. It’s part of what makes art special in the first place.
    Art is also a form of entertainment, and depending on the scope of your view, you may not see your entertainment fitting into the large picture of desirable work. As jazz musicians, we cope with a shrinking audience for our specific type of entertainment. This in no way reflects the relevancy of what we do, only the reception, and those are two totally separate things with two different scales of success. As I say in 3, judging your work biased on its popularity is highly dubious.
    Art it like a good innuendo – if everyone gets it you’re doing it wrong.

    2. I agree with you wholeheartedly. The only way I’ve come to terms with promoting myself is if I really believe in the thing I’m putting out there.

    3. I think another relevant point on the subject is so often we think of ourselves this way because we hold other people to that standard. I don’t think about how good of a cook Charlie Parker was or whether Coltrane enjoyed morning hikes – we often times judges these people on their musical merit alone. It’s helped me over the years to remind myself that my idols are necessarily human – they are important because of their ideas, yes, but also because they, as a human being, had those ideas.
    And on the idea of success – success is what you make it, and those we see as traditionally successful are in the position they are in at least in some part because of sheer randomness. Imagine this scenario – two musicians, equally talented, equally driven; but one rises to the top to be more recognized, and one does not. Which is more successful? We, because we’re witnessing the scenario from the outside, would imagine the one that rose to acclaim to be more successful. It’s part of our human DNA but also our country’s DNA, if you will. This is the “American dream” – that if you work hard and you play by the book good things will come.
    But that’s not always the case. I know people that fit into that category – of being as good (or better) but not seeing the acclaim. Part of it may be personal – some people would rather focus on the work and leave the spotlight to others – and some is random chance – who you know/what sound is popular/if you have the right look/walking into the right jam at the right time.
    Building your self worth on this random chance is extremely dangerous. On the other hand, if you have a positive view of yourself and your playing, it can be a part of your identity without causing harm.

    4. I don’t accept the question. What is a true calling? I feel like you’re comparing yourself to your perfect version of your idol with perfect hindsight of their entire life. It’s a version of the “dead composers syndrome:” only after someone dies can we completely categorize his/her work and really appreciate what they did. It’s bullshit.
    You are you and today is today. Live and create. Do things that fulfill you. Leave the questions of your historical significance to the scholars.

    (Continued in next post)

  5. 5. Feeling stuck is a natural flow and ebb of learning. I feel like I plateau all the time, then, I’ll shoot up at a very rapid rate, to another possibly plateau. For me, I must work this angle from many fronts; among many specific things that have helped – change of pace, change of scenery, ear training, speaking to other artist about their specific problems, transcribing piano players, categorizing chord/mode colors, grouping notes, listening to my favorite records from ten years ago, writing choruses, ect.
    I don’t know if “not playing lick X” is the right answer. Doing something different, maybe, but correcting your playing as you play has been self-destructive for me. Only when I have something else I would rather play can I circumnavigate that lick or line. Also, keep in mind that people have made careers out of sounding the same for 50/60+ years.

    Suggested reading:
    Free Play – Stephen Nachmanovitch
    The Drunkard’s walk – Leonard Mlodinow
    The Tao of Pooh – Benjamin Hoff
    The Inner Game of Music – Barry Green

  6. Thank you, Dave for your thoughtful comment, and once again Jim for your very helpful response. I think my general response to things I've heard back is this: First off, thank you for joining me in the discussion. Second, you thoughtful musical folks are reminding me what I've always known deep down: keep doing things you love and believe in, and you're probably on the right path.

    Thirdly, in re-reading what I wrote, I'm reminding myself that I am in general an over-thinker and have a tendency to worry (over nothing!). I realize that, and I need to keep that at bay. Writing out these ideas and hearing back from you has been helpful in that regard.

    So I'm glad I wrote them out, and grateful to you readers who took the time to comment! You're great. :)

  7. Thank for the good topic,Thanks for your sharing.



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