Every day I ask myself: does what I’m doing with my life have any significance in the grand scheme of things? Does anyone on this planet or anything in this universe care at all if I keep creating art? Of all the things I could be doing with my time, why is it music that I come back to over and over again? Why did I choose to make what the IRS calls a “hobby” into what I call a “career”?
For most artists out there the answer is simple: “I do what I do because I love it.” To some extent I can say the same. I love what I do. Nothing makes me happy quite like playing and writing music, especially when you enjoy it. But let me tell you…that’s not even the half of why I do it.
One of my favorite university experiences thus far has been the opportunity to hear David Cutler give his talk on the inward vs outward artist. In short, he comes to the conclusion that successful artists are those who focus on serving other people—especially their audiences—more than they focus on benefiting their own personal or musical desires. (For further understanding of Cutler’s ideals, follow this link.)
As is the case with dedicated musicians, I assume that most farmers, doctors, and lawyers absolutely love the work that they do, too,—including the pay, benefits, lifestyle, etc.—but to me it is clear that, regardless of their own selfish intentions, these types of professionals are directly contributing to society, improving the lives of all those they work for, and truly serving humanity. On the other hand, the ugly truth about selfish artistry is that the resulting product,—that “wowww so neat”, “hmmm interesting”, and “art for the sake of art” stuff—well, it doesn’t help anybody! I hear music like this all the time, and it’s not that I don’t think it’s beautiful or impressive, it just makes me wonder: what’s the point of music anyways?
When these thoughts plague my mind my creative momentum comes tumbling to a halt. I find myself mentally tangled, and I descend into one of my many dark philosophical episodes with which my close friends are all too familiar. I get super self-conscious about what I’m doing with my life, and I often regret choosing the path that I did. I avidly search for answers to my questions, hoping to rediscover the purpose of music in my own life and ultimately find a way to bring purpose into the lives of others through the music that I produce.
It helps when I start from the beginning…
I remember being too young to speak yet bouncing up and down on the couch while my dad blasted the music of Stevie Wonder, who, to this day, remains my all-time favorite artist; his music has brought hope and joy into my life like none other. I remember sitting at the piano before my legs could touch the pedals, endlessly enthralled, teaching myself to play any and every melody I knew by ear, learning hundreds of songs before I even took my first piano lesson. I remember hearing for the first time my cousin playing the trumpet, and I wanted one so badly that I bought a plastic trumpet from a toy shop to satisfy my desire until I was allowed a real one. I remember when I first started writing music (before I even knew which way the note stems go) how everyone would tell me “oh cool, I’ve heard that song before”, which would make me so mad; I just kept writing until it was something nobody had heard. I remember growing up singing and playing hymns every week at church, as I still do, immersed in the origins, traditions, and rich history of western harmony. I distinctly remember falling in love with the music of Glenn Miller, Michael Jackson, Queen, Paul Simon, and Earth Wind & Fire as my parents showed us kids all of their favorite music, and I can’t discount discovering my love for the music of Count Basie, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Jamie Cullum, and Wynton Marsalis as my musician friends eventually pushed me to pursue the study of jazz. I remember fairly recently listening to Kendrick Lamar’s album “To Pimp a Butterfly” all the way through for the first time and how its colorful stories and raw emotions spoke to me and continue to speak to me more clearly and effectively than any other music I’ve heard. I remember so vividly all of the incredible experiences I have had in these past several years as a professional performer and composer, and now as I think about my “career” in music that has really only just begun, I can’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of deep gratitude for what music has done for me, for the person it has helped me become, for the lessons it has taught me, for the trials it has helped me overcome.
It is when I step back to marvel at how music has nurtured my heart and soul that I regain my confidence as an artist. Music has both given me life and saved my life. Music is a priceless gift. I don’t do what I do just because I love it; I do it in hopes that I might inspire people as I’ve been inspired, that they might enjoy life and everything that comes with it, good and bad.
Music is perhaps the most hopeful thing our world has to offer right now. Don’t quit listening, and don’t you dare quit creating.
~ JazzArts Oregon Ensemble ~