Playing music has a bright side and a dark side. Like so many things in life, it can be used to build us up or tear us down. As an educator and violinist, I have seen both, in my personal journey as a musicians and in others. Music can be one of the most deeply enriching and rewarding of experiences when we employ it to engage and communicate our deepest selves. It can also be very harmful when we use that communication to criticize and judge either ourselves or others. All to often, music is used as nothing more than a way for some people to put themselves above others. Let me tell you, it gets awfully lonely up there! So that’s not the way to be happy. After over 26 years of playing violin, here are some things I’ve noticed that make a happy musician (and person):
It may not always be popular to talk about, but having a spiritual component to one’s musical life is essential to being a happy musician. It gives life meaning and purpose. Without it, the musician can very easily fall into pursuing ego. Being conscious of one’s motivation is essential to one’s happiness and direction in the pursuit of music. The faith that we are created on purpose by a Creator and to praise this One is the rock which can stand during all the trials that come and go in the life of the artist. To praise the Creator is the wellspring of love and purpose.
Humility is the correct acknowledgment of one’s own strengths and weaknesses. It brings joy and peace. The humble person knows that he or she has many valuable gifts and acquired skills that can be employed for good. He or she also knows that there will always be more to learn. People who are more advanced don’t bother the humble person. Rather, they are sources of inspiration and further knowledge.
My personal experience of this comes from my having dyslexia. My particular dyslexia makes processing incoming information require effort and time. I will never be able to sightread with facility or accuracy, even though I have trained for it and practiced it for years and years. It just doesn’t come as naturally for me as it does for some others. However, I can play the violin, write a symphony, and lead an orchestra.
Humility allows us to enjoy what we do well and employ it for good while and at the same time acknowledging the gifts and skills of others. It also allows us to grow in positive ways. It allows us to let in new ideas from others while loving and acknowledging ourselves.
I think a lot of anxiety comes to musicians because they attribute their self worth to how well they’re playing at the moment. This is a very precarious existence because making mistakes is not only part of being an artist, it is also essential to the growth process. I see it all the time in different aspects of life, people basing self worth and the worth of others based on intelligence, ability, or other exterior factors. The happy musician loves and values him or herself not based on musical ability, but based on unconditional love. This unconditional love for self translates into music and into one’s outlook of and interaction with others.
We’ve probably all seen that quote by Einstein, that “Imagination is more important than knowledge”. He was so right! Imagination opens up the world to us. It unlocks the secrets of life and invigorates our spirit to make discoveries. The joy of life doesn’t come from facts but from the engagement of the life of the spirit. We communicate through stories, through shared experiences down through the ages. Music and its creation is an exercising of the imagination. It’s a place where we retain the ability to “play” like children. Imagination gives us the ability to create.
Integrity in my view is the ability to act from within, to engage the freewill. We often have so much information coming at us in the form of education, advertisement, politics, etc. that it’s very easy to just go through the motions. The happy musician is able to hold everything at a proper distance, decide what to focus on, and then respond thoughtfully according to his or her sincere inner self. Music should be taught and studied in such a way that hands the ability to the individual to think and act for his or herself, to thoughtfully interpret what a composer is saying with consciousness and with still keeping a sense of self. And, like imagination, integrity also gives us the ability to create.
The happy musician is able to share all this inner being with others and to engage in an exchange of life. Music requires a lot of time alone, of introspection and of solitude during daily practice. But then, the happy musician goes out and shares what he or she has discovered with others and also learns from them. Solitude gives the musician time to gain knowledge and skills. Community gives the musician the ability to bless others, to teach them, and to learn from them, thus enriching the times of solitude. It’s a cycle.
Music is a way we talk about what goes on for real. When we are truly human with our music, it becomes something that feeds our soul. We feel things, love, anger, sadness, hope, etc. and we can express our experiences in music. Music is worth something because it allows us to connect with and share the life of the human spirit. That’s why it’s good to have a life outside of music too, because experiences in life give depth to our art. And remember, having humor and a positive attitude allow us to be resilient and to enjoy living the life of a musician. When we remember to sometime stop with all the progress and to celebrate where we’re at, we begin to see the great gift of our human life as expressed through music.