The Life of a Musician is…

You can't even fart on the job. You go deaf from playing for decades among instruments as loud as a jackhammer. You are naked. You fight to control little pieces of wood which last only a few days at their peak. Then you begin again. If you have a bad day, everyone knows. You sit next to the same people all the time, sometimes for 20-30 years. You are all incredibly full of yourselves, otherwise you wouldn't be where you are, yet most of you are also insecure from years of self-deprecating thinking, "It's just not good enough!" "I failed to play perfectly, again!" "And again".

You wake up in the morning after practicing 6 hours the day before, and it feels like you have to start all over from the bottom, pushing up the boulder inch by inch, striving for the top of the mountain whose height disappears beyond the clouds. It seems hopeless sometimes, spending all that time for what? to play 25 or 50 notes perfectly in tune and in rhythm, when thousands of others can already do the same. What the heck are you accomplishing for the needy world by doing that????? Oh yes, you can be proud of your accomplishments, especially to people who ask you "Do you get paid to do that?" Yes, I have really been asked that, more than once.

Yet you know that somewhere up the mountain, beyond the clouds, is some effervescent reward, a glass of champagne without the liquid, a feeling of speaking a language of gods, or at least understanding it deeply and attempting to speak it. If you have any sense, you are in awe of those who make great music, or if you are truly a great musician, you are humbled by your gift. But the striving to reach that reward seems disproportionate to it. It's so ephemeral.

There's the glow of basking in audience appreciation, but that happy bubble is usually popped moments later by the memory of the imperfections of your performance. It's never perfect. Yet we strive and agonize for decades toward it. Perhaps it's ego, proving our greatness, our superiority. But no, I don't think so, at least not for long. Failing so much in the attempt to perfect is quite humbling. It must be the music, when we remember to listen as we play, when we notice Schubert's or Brahms' or Jeanjean's exquisite melodies for the first time after playing them for 20 years. Perhaps that makes it worth it. Perhaps not.

Coming close to the sublime musical language of gods is what we all strive for. Even a small taste is enough to keep one coming back. When we remember this, the discomfort of daily life as a performer is worth it. Until then, it's because, because, because we always have. Obsession has its sporadic rewards.

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9 comments for “The Life of a Musician is…

  1. Mike
    November 12, 2009 at

    David, that is beautifully expressed and it says all the things that have gone through my own mind when playing (even though it's at a much lower level than you). The number of times I've said "Why the hell am I doing this. I'm packing it in," – and then you hear the applause and you know it's because this time you really nailed something – a phrase, a solo – and you think, yeah – that's why.

    • November 12, 2009 at

      Very nicely put!! Thanks so much for the response. It's nice to know I'm connecting with people!


  2. November 10, 2009 at

    One of the advantages of calling our organization a "multilevel intergenerational teaching orchestra" is that we all have permission to be imperfect, but striving. Seems to be a common gap between "musicians" and "music educators."

    • November 10, 2009 at

      Hello Elaine. I am impressed with the idea of multi-level inter-generational in music. It does indeed encourage the idea of direction and \”striving\” over set compulsory standards. You have done a great thing to begin to break down this difficult barrier.

  3. October 4, 2009 at

    Realistic and wonderful narrative! I played for about 18 months in a community orchestra (a fairly large one) and found some (not all) of the musicicans to be self-centered and thoughtless to a degree I hadn't experienced since grade school. Yet I miss being part of that music-making.

    What a great statement about practicing! Powerful essay, DT.

    • October 4, 2009 at

      Indeed, it's a double edge. I solve many problems by wearing earplugs conspicuously, so no one bothers me! It also saves my hearing.

  4. October 15, 2006 at

    We suffer in the HELL (with flames and brimstone 🙁 )of never achieving perfection. Then we go and drink a lot and have a blast and forget all about it. Then we start all over the next day.

    If you choose to accept it, your assignment is this: Practice long tones for six hours. Then get back to me.

    Tighten up, Bud! Good to see you.

  5. whatever you say, Dave
    October 14, 2006 at

    How cruel the life of a professional musician is! I had no idea you guys suffered so much! Most people have wonderful 9-5 jobs in Cubesville, but you, you musicians are forced to toil for as much as SIX HOURS A DAY practicing music for concerts! Do you need a hug?

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