When I first began taking percussion lessons, I was blessed to be a part of the Percussion Scholarship Program. This group was unlike anything I had ever done or seen as a child, and I was excited to begin and to learn as much as I could. There was a price however, not with dollar signs, but with other things. I remember seeing, on the application, the question, "What are your favorite television shows?" And right after that read, "Which one are you willing to give up to practice?" I can't remember the shows that were on during that year, but I know that cartoons were a big deal for me. As I live out my life there is always a new concession, or choice, or even just a question of balance that pops up, and I know a lot of us have either gone through, or are going through that. Do I buy new jeans, or that pair of mallets I need for this excerpt? Do I use this check for my gold head joint, or do I use my credit card? Do I save this money, or go to this audition? Do I eat lunch, or practice (always a question for me)?
Unfortunately, some of the choices we face aren't so "trivial." I remember when I was, I think 12, I couldn't really hang out with my grandfather, who I had not seen in years, when he came to visit us, because I had to practice and go to my lessons. It was a choice that I made, but I also regarded my work as that important. Important enough to sacrifice something that I really wanted or cared about, in hopes of something better for my future. In hopes of something that would make all of the work worth it, like we all hope for. These days, the choices and concessions are way harder, because "adult life," but that doesn't make our goals, or the variables we choose from any less important or demeans them. We also need to accept those choices and not regret them, even if they did not have to outcomes we wanted. I know most of us have experienced the guilt of not practicing, but honestly, we have to stop practicing at some point, and do other things. It doesn't make us any less of a musician or an artist, dare I say a person, if we take the time to handle some business.
Combine that with the stress that can come from certain choices we have to make in life, and you have a bad situation. It's easier to say no to something, knowing that your work will be good and productive, than if you feel like you'll never get anywhere if you practice. I think it's a matter of continual self reassurance, reminding yourself of both the progress you have made, and the sacrifices you made to make that progress. For most of us, the cost of continuing is worth paying, but each of us have a different price to pay. We all have to find the balance for ourselves, whether it's money management, time management, or anything else that pertains to you as a person and you as a musician. And with that balance, we have to not look to the outcomes for payback, but the process itself.
Any artist has pretty much signed up for a life of rejections, disappointments, long hours practicing, self doubt, and any other of the "artistic woes." But coupled with every negative, and also exceeding their numbers, are the joys of creating, of reaching people, of teaching, of learning, of connecting with others, of the challenge of a new piece, of figuring out new techniques, of talking to people about what you love, of doing what you love. The amount of joy we produce every time we pick up the instrument is totally worth the sacrifices we make in the end, otherwise I know I wouldn't still be here.
In most cultures there is a set of social standards, a sort of "status quo," that is established for that community. Even more specific, and noticeable, is the idea of what defines a male and a female, aside from their biological make up. When I was first learning about what made me a "man," it had nothing to do with biology, but with characteristics given and shown to me through media, peers, authority figures, etc. Presently, this way of characterizing anything has become obsolete, because of the huge spectrum that has both been developed and realized, or expressed, within communities. An example of this is, it's more "acceptable" today, even encouraged, for men to cry, and for women to have strong personalities or to be in positions of power. Sadly though, the original labels that would define who we are as people, what we do or believe, etc, are still being perpetuated today, and seeing people diverge from these is still awkward for the majority, even threatening at some level. Nevertheless, if what defines me as person is different than the norm, in order to live a fulfilled and honest life, I must be and express myself as that, regardless.
As artists we are tasked with showing people what it means to be human, and in order to do this, we first must find out what it means to be ourselves, and then fully realize and express that. One person may be naturally authoritative, another may have a knack for giving of themselves to others. Whatever the incarnation, each individual has an expression that someone else can't do because of how their lives differ, what their personalities are like, etc. And yet, every person can, on some level, relate to everyone else. We all feel pain, so when we use our artistry to demonstrate pain, it must come from, "How do I feel when I am in pain?" When the audience sees us put ourselves through that, they hopefully will feel more comfortable with expressing it themselves; We show them that it is ok to feel these emotions. The barrier we have to break through in order to do this is that "status quo." What do I have to do, what do I have to be, in order to express to a man that, it's ok to cry, it's ok to feel vulnerable, it's ok to feel weak, and have them not judge themselves negatively for having those feelings? Of course we can't make people feel, but we have to do our best to express the art in hopes that it encourages people to follow suit.
Again, this realization that, "it's ok to feel, it's ok to be 'me'" has to start with us as human beings, not as artists. Unless we allow ourselves the freedom to just be who we are, despite the social norms or what we are labeled as, we will never reach our full potential as human beings, as ourselves, and then as artists. Stereotypes are everywhere, and we all are affected by them whether we know it or not. Being more conscious of how we think or act, and whether they are of our own volition or not, will help with weeding out these "trained or manufactured" thoughts. This way, WE will define ourselves, not someone or something else. Only then can we actually create honest and pure art. If I took what certain people say about African Americans as a definition of myself, I probably would be very apprehensive in playing music, but because I do not subscribe to that, I am still creating music the way I want to. Or, if Serena Williams accepted that people thought women were weak or frail, she may not have trained as hard as she did, and then not have won so many tennis championships. Accepting anything that doesn't constructively add to your being is bad.
Being a creator of any kind, we constantly put ourselves out there. Our product has our fingerprint on it, whether we like it or not, whether it's "good or bad." It's awkward and scary, why else do we get nervous? We wonder if people will like it, or "get it," and that fear of rejection imposes inhibitions on our expression. Letting go of whether or not people will accept us or our art, and just going for being yourself regardless of that, is the key to freedom from that fear and the gateway to uninhibited expression. It's by no means easy to do, though. We all have years of social constructs, labeling, and defined characters to sift through in order to even get to even the surface of who we are. Then we have to figure out a way to channel that into and through our art, while still exploring and learning about parts of ourselves in the process. After all of that, hopefully we can reach the audience and entice them to do the same, at least in those moments of performance, or observing a painting, or watching a dance production, or viewing a movie or play. We have to create the avenues, the audience will choose the ones they walk on, but we all end up at the same place, meeting ourselves.