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Music & Life: The Art of Letting Go

Written for SelfMade's Unseen Zine, Feb 2018

“I’d thought I knew what the music should mean. So I held on to the notes instead of releasing them, trying to control them after they’d sounded, to shape how the audience heard me. As a consequence, however, instead of performing, instead of creating something living, what I held was still-born.” - Glenn Kurtz, Practising: A Musician's Return to Music

What are the biggest challenges facing a musician today? Some say it's earning a crust. Being expected to work for little or nothing. Trying to juggle a music career with a day job. For me the greatest test has been, and will continue to be, learning to let go.

One of the differences between music and visual art is that as musicians we are constantly creating something fleeting. With the exception of recorded work, what you manifest doesn't exist in any tangible way, at least not for long. You open your mouth, engage your breath, muscles in your body cause your vocal folds to vibrate and you throw something out into the atmosphere. Or you pick up an instrument, never fully certain of what exactly will happen when your hands connect with it, and you hang your choice of notes out in the world. You poise yourself to make a sound, and every detail of your life up to now flows into that moment; not only your musical practice but every thought and experience that has led to your current state of mind. And then it's gone. Despite this uncertainty, we choose to put ourselves out there, in front of our fellow humans, to share something of our nature. It's a risk, yet we we take it time and time again.

A natural introvert, my desire to put myself on the line like this was a constant source of bafflement to me for years. I would regularly find myself standing on a stage, lost in a song, when all of a sudden I'd become acutely aware of countless pairs of eyes on me and think “What the HELL am I doing? WHY?!” I often joked awkwardly about it at gigs. But the beauty of music, its power to liberate us, lies precisely in this fear. When you're in the midst of that, you can choose to take yourself seriously and try to control how people see you, or you can just get out of the way and move with it. The second you strike a note, it's gone. Out of your control. A thing of the past before it even reaches your own ears. Already away on its journey, in unseen waves that people will process and interpret in their own way. You've moved onto the next note, and the next, and the next. If you're hung up on a note you've already played, how can you possibly make the note you're playing right now count? And for me that's been music's most valuable lesson, because that's how life is - you just have to join the dance (to steal a phrase from Alan Watts).

A couple of years ago I stumbled upon the concept of Wabi Sabi, a Japanese philosophy based on an appreciation of the beauty to be found in the imperfect and the impermanent. Something about the idea gave me a sense of freedom, and I no longer wear obsessive perfectionism as a badge of honour as is so common in the world around me. I asked myself: what is it that I'm trying to do here? Is it my job to produce something 'perfect', something that will please and impress people? Or is it in fact my job to do the exact opposite – to express vulnerability, confusion, life in all its blemished glory? The sound you make may not bring you fame and fortune (in fact I feel like it's a great tragedy to correlate the innate wonder of music with either of those things), but being willing to embrace your own nitty gritty humanness might just bring you to a place where you can resonate with your own tribe.

I can't speak for everyone, but I would hazard a guess that the vast majority of us fear our own impermanence, and the transience of everything around us. It's why we buy fake flowers instead of real ones, why we share pictures on Instagram, why we worry about our legacies. It's probably part of the reason why I'm writing this article, or why anyone writes anything at all. But learning to let go of the notes, the doubts, the notion that I can control how anyone perceieves me or the music that I make, is slowly teaching me that I might as well loosen my grip on everything else in life as well.

The writer and ethnomusicologist John Blacking said that “the value of music is, I believe, to be found in terms of the human experiences involved in its creation.” I'm inclined to agree. The joy is in the doing, and after that you let it go. Or at least that's the idea.


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