At the risk of sounding like a hippie, I’d say the best part about being a musician is the experience of pure generosity, and of realizing connection to people through this generosity.
It’s generous because the universe has given me music and I’m giving it right back. There’s no thought of “should” involved. I should be more generous! I should be grateful for my health! I should write lists of these things each morning! I do write the lists, though I don’t always believe what they say. I feel like I should be further along in my music career by now, or that I don’t pay enough attention to the business side of things, or that I need to practice more, or that I need to collaborate more, or that I should try harder, or that I’m trying too hard…
Sometimes when giving a fiddle lesson the connection is so strong it feels like telepathy. The line between teacher and student is blurry because I seem to be learning just as much as the other person. The music has been flowing for thousands of years and this other person and I are floating along with it for a short time.
Or there comes a moment at a show when I feel completely connected to the audience and the universe. When the music is so amazing it doesn’t feel like I’m even doing anything; it feels like I’m just witnessing it happen. Like I’ve tuned the radio from static to a clear signal. In moments like this I suspect the band is being manipulated by a higher power (or aliens). Put another way: Everybody’s having fun.
A feeling arises that becomes an understanding: “You are doing exactly what you should be doing.” This becomes a feeling of simple gratitude. Like generosity, it happens naturally and spontaneously. In these moments I think, “I’m capable of living a fully enlightened life. How can I continue to be like this in each remaining moment of my time on earth? It should be possible!”
And then the house music comes on and it’s time to load out the gear. (I promise to whine more about this subject when I answer the question “What is the WORST part about being a musician?”)
I’ve had to work hard at being generous in other aspects of life. I’m a total hoarder when it comes to my own time.
My mom seems to only call when I’m in the very thick of a project. I’ll feel irritated by her complete lack of empathy, calling me at this very critical point in the day’s work! Then, of course, I feel guilty for not answering, then mad at her for making me feel guilty. It gets complicated.
In fact, if I’m working hard on something, it even seems like an imposition when my body insists that I take a shit. I know how wonderful taking a shit can be, and I recognize that this bodily function is a wonderful gateway to the present moment. Yet if I’m trying to finish something, it just seems unfair that I have to stop. It’s not generous (or kind) toward the body or myself.
But then I hear a voice in my head that says, “Hold on there a second Mr. k’Leinberg! What’s with all this highfalutin talk of generosity? You now EARN MONEY for what you do. How can you sit there and wax philosophical when you’re charging people for lessons? What are you doing on that high horse? When you and your bandmates play in clubs you are basically glorified beer salesmen, doing a little song and dance to keep people drinking in the venue.”
It’s hard to balance the various critical voices. And it’s taken me a long time to cultivate a good attitude. When I was younger I had a lot of hangups about making money from music. It didn’t seem pure if I made money. I saw music as food for the soul that would spoil if I put a price on it. Or I thought it wouldn’t be fun anymore if I had to depend on earnings from music to pay the rent. Why ruin such a good thing?
Then I joined Diego’s Umbrella. The guys in the band taught me that not only is it ok to make money doing music, but that if you do make money, you can make more music. You can create more and ultimately give more.
I still believe that you are a musician if you love it enough to do it every day. That’s the simplest and clearest definition of a musician. How you do it is personal. Giving lessons in person and online as well as playing with the band has worked out great for me, but I think a person could have an amazing music career and life while working a day job.
The thing that ultimately makes it generous is that you can give everything you’ve got to make the music good and your connections with people real (including the connection to yourself). And when you give in this way, you receive great joy and a feeling of freedom. This is what allows me to continue making music, in spite of the worst parts of being a musician and the worst parts of being a human being.
(By the way, this was written as part of my application to a masterclass called the Gonservatory. Please take a moment and watch this fun application video I made for the class).