Author’s Note: I do not dance or paint or sing and I do not assume that playing an instrument is the only way to create. Creativity is whatever fills your heart with passion – it just so happens that music is what fills mine. Please feel free to substitute any references to music with whatever terms suit you best.
Music, n.: The art or science of combining vocal or instrumental sounds to produce beauty of form, harmony, melody, rhythm, expressive content, etc.; musical composition, performance, analysis, etc., as a subject of study; the occupation or profession of musicians.
Music, v.: trans. To bring or convey by means of music; (also) to train in music. Obs. rare.
Musicians are taught that accuracy is key. We work towards it for hours every day. If we make a wrong note, we fix it, and train ourselves to play what is written. All we want is to be perfect. I've talking about this: seeking perfection is ridiculous. But here’s the thing about musicians that always gets to me: while we acknowledge to each other that no live performance will ever be perfect, we continue, hypocritically, to spend hours in the practice room seeking it. (Constantly balancing these opposing ideas is confusing and exhausting, let me tell you.)
A great performance shouldn’t be about getting to all pitches at the right time and at the right dynamic. A great performance should - must - have feeling.
This is the pressure musicians put on themselves. You must be accurate, you must feel. And not only do you have to feel, but you have to make others feel, too.
Whenever I feel overwhelmed by this concept – that making music is a purely selfless art, that sharing it is what gives it its power, that accuracy is only the starting point and feeling is key – I comfort myself with the idea that I don’t have to create the feeling myself. It has already been done for me – by the composer:
“It’s not about me, it’s about the composer.”
This is the mantra that I repeat every day as I practice. If I am simply a vessel for the music, then the pressure I put on myself lessens. Instead, making music turns into an act of devotion to the original artist. It turns into an act of self-discovery where I find out what images and stories resonate deep within my bones. It turns into an opportunity for me to explore concepts I’ve never encountered before. As cliché as this may seem, I do not shape the music (someone has already done that): the music is shaping me.
Music – all art – is different for everyone. But one thing that I’ve come to realize is that in order to enjoy the music, to move in harmony with it, you have to let go of all of your preconceived notions about it.
Here is how to play music:
Practice first. Then let go.
Acknowledgments: a huge thank you to my musical mentors, at the College and at home, for teaching me everything I know and helping me grow.
This essay was brought to you while listening to Mahler Symphony 3, mvt. VI.
This article is part of a series on creativity and the creative process.
Definitions of music from the Oxford English Dictionary.