Most of us discover our love of creativity in childhood. When I was a kid, my family was financially challenged, so we were not given all the best and latest toys. Nevertheless, we always had things to do. Mom came home from work with thick tablets of scrap paper – so we always had something to draw and color on. We had a big box of zillions of well worn crayons, water colors, and pencils to use. Mom would make us clay out of some kind of weird salt, flour, and food coloring recipe (a substitute for Play-Doh) – it was fun to make little people and put them in a cardboard house, but they would eventually melt into a messy puddle. Oh well. We had an old treadle sewing machine and I managed to design and sew clothes for my Barbie out of scraps of fabric the neighbors gave me because Barbie’s store bought dresses were too expensive. And we had a player piano. We’d all stand around and sing together, reading the words on the rolls while one person in the family would work the pedals. Most of the time, there was music on the record player, and we all loved to sing to it. I remember my parents on Friday nights sitting around the hi-fi with their friends singing along with Tom Lehrer and the Kingston Trio. And I loved to fool around on the piano, reading through the lesson books, but then trying to play songs from the radio by ear, and eventually making up my own songs. All of it was in the realm of play.
Something happened when I got older and began to follow the path of a professional musician. I started to be afraid. Working in the world of serious instrumentalists who were extremely competitive and driven to succeed, my relationship with music changed. I began to feel that terrible insecurity that undermines the freedom of creative expression. I heard so much brutally harsh criticism by musicians about other musicians. There was such a hungry need to be working in the field of music, to stand out and be noticed, to measure up, that it became all important to me to find out what other people expected of me, and try to make myself fit those expectations. This process continued for many years. I did have a professional career in music, but in the end, what I was doing began to feel anti-musical. It wasn’t fun. Every time I went out to a gig it was like going to take a test where my worth as a human being was going to be judged. I evaluated my own abilities and assets through the eyes and ears of others, fearing criticism, scared of not getting the gigs. This was no longer play – it was music hell. The innocent creative play of childhood was in serious danger of being snuffed out entirely.
It took me a long time to start treating my musical life as a precious gift that I had to protect and nurture. When I began to present my own version of what I thought was beautiful and musical, it felt like a huge risk. I took tiny little steps in the direction of bringing my music into the world. Fortunately, I found musicians who seemed to hear and appreciate my personal musical vision. Eventually, with support from people I respected, I was able to design an artistic life that was not in conflict with my true self. And most importantly, I have been able to return, to a large degree, to my love affair with the process of creativity that is not outcome driven. There is nothing more delicious to me than being in the process of writing a song or an arrangement – even if it is never performed. And I have learned to trust what I feel is true: I am the judge of what is beautiful and meaningful in my art. I know what I like – and I work hard to measure up to my own standards. No one else can tell me that my work is invalid if I have honestly given it my all – because the process itself is so satisfying. And what about outcomes? I don’t work in restaurants and nightclubs anymore. I don’t sing at wedding receptions. I don’t try to imitate Chaka Kahn or Ella Fitzgerald. I never did hit the big time – and yet my musical life continues to thrive.
Why am I writing this? It’s because as a music teacher, I see younger aspiring musicians who hold themselves back from new experiences because they are afraid to fail. It’s now my mission to encourage my students to try new things purely for the experience of doing them. When someone asks me how a particular musical activity will help them down the road, my response is that the benefit is not down the road – it’s in the doing of it in present time. What are the consequences if any musical activity doesn’t play out as a stellar success that furthers your career? You will have had a creative experience, and that alone is worth the effort. When you are offered an opportunity to try something new – you must realistically expect that you will be a beginner, not a master. But once you start, the momentum begins and the possibilities are vast. Failure is not an option, because there is no such thing in art. Art is a way of life, a way of being in the world, a way of translating that which the senses perceive into doing and making things, a way to allow imagination and feeling to take flight in vessels of our own design. An artist knows that for every successful work of art that makes it to the light of day, there are many more attempts that were destined to be nothing more than present time artistic experiences. But through these experiences, the real treasures begin to emerge. We find out what works and what doesn’t. We find out what makes us feel like taking it to the finish line, and what makes us decide to let go of the work and start fresh with something new. If we never allow ourselves the time to just fool around in the artistic playground, we will never find the real stuff that art comes from. We can spend a lifetime going for the prize by imitating what others have proven to be commercially successful, attempting to please our teachers, our peers, our fans – and never really know what’s there inside waiting to be expressed. Or we can just have the courage and the desire to jump in and give it a try, take the opportunity to have fun doing something new. And if we ultimately discover that what we have to say as an artist does not bring fame and fortune, here’s the thing: We have lived an artistic life, which needs no other justification. There is nothing to fear, there are no negative consequences. There is only the joy of doing something creative that belongs entirely to you.