Recently, one of my professors shared this article by Tanya Kalmanovitch, a Juilliard graduate. The title, “How Quitting Music Made Me an Artist” sounds like clickbait with the promise of some revolutionary way of looking at a tradition that’s ages old.
Yet, I keep coming back to it, and I find something new to take away from it every time.
I’ve got my own story of quitting (and coming back), full of doubt and disillusionment with the music world. But we’re here for Kalmanovitch’s story.
I’m not going to sum it up here, so go read it; I’ll wait.
Now then, onto the takeaways.
Quitting is not talked about enough in the music world. Most musicians I’ve met who went to school specifically for music have played almost their entire lives. By the time they’re either about to go to college through when they’re coming out of it, they might want to see what else life has to offer.
Putting that to the side for a time to experience new things is not a bad thing. But “quitting is bad” and can feel awful, even if you’re doing it for the right reason.
Some of the masters (well a lot of them actually, but we’ll only mention a few by name here) are quoted as saying that experiencing life is the most important, and art comes after.
Music is your own experience, your own thoughts, your wisdom. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn. They teach you there’s a boundary line to music. But, man, there’s no boundary line to art.
Charlie Parker, as quoted in The Legend Of Charlie Parker by Robert George Reisner, 1977.
There’s a couple ideas to pull from this: experience and “no boundary line to art.” Here he implies that music is a living entity that is birthed of our experience, and there isn’t some invisible line dividing it from “real life.”
Musicians aren’t some mystical gurus who stand apart from the world. Sure, we spend a lot of time playing, but at the end of the day, we’re people who struggle with school, money, relationships, and purpose. And we shouldn’t pretend that we’re not.
Music is the language of the soul.
Although this particular quotation is attributed to multiple people across the internet, I found a couple publications (including a lengthy footnote by Liszt) that trace it back to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, a German philosopher.
In any case, it’s short and memorable, which is why it’s plastered across the internet.
Define soul how you will in your mind. For the purposes of this post, “soul” refers to the core being of a person. Relating back to Parker, the experience that makes you who you are can only truly be expressed in the soul’s own language, music.
But what does it mean for your soul, your being, to truly live?
The living soul demands life, the living soul will not submit to mechanism, the living soul must be regarded with suspicion, the living soul is reactionary!
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment, Norton Critical Edition, 3rd ed., 217.
Reactionary. Living can be viewed as a reaction to the experiences we face. If we hide ourselves away in the practice room, there are less ideas, events, obstacles, to react to. But to have a true experience, we must react to something or someone.
That’s why it’s important to go meet new people, expose yourself to new ideas, see new lands, immerse yourself in other cultures. You’ll have more things to react to.
Make no mistake, practicing is critical to being a high-caliber musician, but the performance will probably fall flat if there’s nothing behind it to hold it up.
Aesthetes may favor Wilde’s idea that “All art is quite useless,” but there are enough voices on the other side, that I fall on the side of living.
And for this, I have a book recommendation.
Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process is a collection of essays culminated and edited by Joe Fassler that provides a way into the lives of authors who’ve already “made it.” It may be specific to writers, but the ideas are universal. I recommend it to any creator or anyone who needs a dose of inspiration.
Neil Gaiman has the last spot in the book. His closing remark can serve as a mantra when doubt comes creeping around again.
Even though it’s easy to get caught up in perfection and the self hatred that comes with “quitting,” but remember that we’re here to live. And we can’t create something beautiful if we’re not alive.
Focus on living, and if music is for you, it will be even better because of your experiences.
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Happy musicking (and living)!