I was listening to “A Prairie Home Companion” today and Nellie McKay was on to talk about her new NYC show about Barbara Graham, the 3rd woman to be put to death by a California gas chamber. It was not so much the subject matter of the musical as the spirit McKay was giving her character that caught my attention. “I want to Live!” is the title of the show, and Graham’s outlook on her short life. I have been thinking about what it means to actually live a lot these days (ahhh, the joys of being a masters candidate). Think of this as a prelude to my final paper for this semester.
It is generally agreed (at least amongst educators) that people are their most creative when they are children, and then the educational establishment beats the creativity out of them. It is really hard to be creative in a system that stresses right answers (thank you SATs and APs) over process based learning (art classes come to mind). Many of the best private schools stress the latter as a more holistic approach to education. Tellingly, those schools often have robust arts programs in addition to rigorous academics.
I have seen evidence of this in my own life as well. I spent my childhood playing with Legos and building forts out of couch cushions and blankets. Many Saturday afternoons found me taking apart the couch and taking all the dining room chairs into the living room, draping everything with all the extra blankets I could find, and then hiding from trolls and dragons (or at least my little sister). Through trial and error I learned how to build the best forts!
My early approach to music was similar. I learned to play by ear, and didn’t care about what the notes were. I had a blast! It wasn’t until I started playing with other people, around 5th grade, that I realized there was a lot that I didn’t know. I started taking lessons, and the next 20 years saw me delving into classical music and jazz. You might know that both of these genres are full of rules. So, the majority of my musical learning during this time focused on worrying about the rules and trying to get them right. Remember my early days of joyful paying by ear? I certainly drifted away from that.
Then I got to college, and Naz, my piano teacher, had me read “Effortless Mastery” by Kenny Werner. Not only was this book incredibly “new-agey,” its basic premise was ‘if you believe in what you are playing, you can play ANYTHING.’ I certainly wasn’t mature enough to fully internalize it, or its focus on meditation. It has taken me 11 years to come to terms with that one simple premise. Literally every master musician and teacher espouses some version of that truth. So I decided there must be something to it.
My glib answer these days is that I don’t care about what I am doing when I am playing any more. The deeper answer, which I hopefully outlined above, is that though I am deeply concerned with getting it “right,” I am choosing to focus on the act of joy playing represents for me. I find it incredibly rewarding to take risks in pursuit of an artistic vision, rather than to stress about the correctness of my playing. Case in point: I had a great rehearsal today! Though we already had our concert (or perhaps because of this fact) we met one more time to document our progress this semester. The band sounded great…relaxed, free wheeling, engaged with the music…it was one of my musical highlights for the semester!
I am going to try to only play from a place of joy from now on. Yes, I still need to practice. Yes, I want to get the notes right. However, I finally believe what everyone has been saying all along. If I am engaged and enjoying what I am playing, it doesn’t matter what happens. It might even create something incredible I wasn’t expecting!