Saturday, July 23, 2016

Some Thoughts on Musical Worthiness

A friend of mine on Facebook, who is a classical style composer, posted a thoughtful question about musical worthiness and self-doubt. I commented from the perspective of a jazz musician, and found what was drawn out by the discussion to be of potential interest to readers of The Jazz Clarinet. Here's an edited version of my response:

The fear of worthiness is crippling and arguably the least useful emotion for any creative artist. Aspiration to excellence is commendable, and even essential, but it should be exercised without the worrisome glance in the mirror, so to speak. The mirror doesn't really matter, and anyhow, the mirror always lies.. 

All creative artists have to trust two very basic things. They have to Trust the Gift, and they have to Trust the Process. Of the two, the process is the bigger challenge. Trusting the gift is pretty obvious, once you accept it: you really have nothing to do with it. You're either capable of being a musician or not. You either have the talent to be able to work hard enough to convincingly play a Mozart Concerto, or a 12 bar blues, or a sing a Puccini aria, or write a fugue, or you don't. If you don't, chances are you're doing something else with your life and not worrying about it. 

Trusting the process is much harder, because everyone's process is different--we have to FIND it first-- and we can get sidelined in life following processes that don't fit us. Trusting the process demands that we sincerely evaluate who we are as musicians and live it honestly, to the best of our ability. So here's the proper use of self-criticism--not the narcissistic glance in the mirror with the worries about worthiness, but the serious look into the musical self; the examination of the musical conscience, so to speak, to see where the true strengths and weaknesses are, accepting them, and putting in place the proper process to bring the best of you out. Oftentimes people need teachers for that...oftentimes, you just need to work with the right people to draw those qualities out. 

It is not necessary or even possible to understand how the "Elysian Spark" you mentioned works. I would suggest it's a theoretical distraction if the actual artist tries to decipher it. It's like this: I believe God created the heavens and the earth. How he did it, I dunno. Worrying about that is some scientist's job. I can be interested in the question, but I can't let it consume me. I've got music to make. Likewise I believe the musical gift was given to me to play this miraculous musical system called jazz...and I believe this mysterious thing called music is out there, is real, is between musicians and an audience and the angels and the stars...but I don't know how it works. We scratch at it with things called chords and scales and meters...but who knows what it really is? Bechet said that the music feeling in us must reach out and join the music outside of ourselves, and that's when it's right. That's about as close as I've ever heard anyone get to it...unless is was Elgar saying that he felt the music was out there, and he was just taking it down. Wynton Marsalis has said some similar things. 

To BE who you ARE. That's the answer. Are you a Beethoven? Not many are. It takes hundreds of Stamitzes and Wagenseil's to make a Haydn, let alone a Beethoven. Satie was a musical cripple, combined with bizarre musical genius. He turned his weaknesses into strengths. He knew who he was. Bruckner patiently outlasted the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune to realize his musical vision...or at least enough of it, despite his crippling self-doubt...Acker Bilk had teeth knocked out on the playground as a kid, and was missing part of his finger, but he wrote his songs and played his own bizarre, powerful, soulful clarinet and touched peoples' lives. 

Play your thing. Sing your song. Find what you do and do it, whether in in rags or tuxedos. Find the true music feeling in you and reach out to the music outside of you and give it away. Peace, friend. You're the real thing as a musician. I've known that since I was kid sitting in Youth Symphony with you conducting us...and at the time I was admittedly more concerned with the pretty blonde girl next to me than Dvorak. Call me a multi-tasker, though, cuz I noticed the real music in you then. Keep Swinging. 

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