The pain of music.

24 06 2013


“Sometimes, making music is painful.  Sometimes, that’s the point.”

I typed these words on Facebook just a few minutes ago, in response to my own status.  Piano time, it said; I had mentioned that kleenexes might be necessary for this go ’round with my 88-keyed lover.

Why is it painful to be a musician?  Why do so many of us carry the perpetual undercurrent of ennui?  We have a gift!  We’re blessed! Legions would love nothing more than to possess our talent!  Yes, we’ve all heard it, and we’ve learned to smile with gratitude and accept the compliment,  But inside, something gnaws at us.

To be a musician is to possess a different perspective of the world.  We have a heightened awareness of nuances, detail, layers.  Our emotions generally run at a fever pitch; some of us learn to contain the overflow, others, not so well.  At one point during my twenties, I likened my existence to “the hoards of commonplace on ecstasy.”  Yes, it is a beautiful thing that we do, for music is one of the few art forms that must be experienced in the passage of time, and cannot be contained in the realm of space.  To make music, to listen to music, is to feel, to live.  The act of performing opens oneself to criticism, to laud, to any and all range of reactions from people, from others who may or may not “get it.”  Thus, a musician must deliberately be vulnerable.

This is where the pain comes in.

Couple raised perception with necessary vulnerability, and more often than not, the immensely talented performer on your side of the stage has often been driven to near madness by the perpetual quest for self-acceptance, let alone perfection.  There will always, always be someone better than us, someone more proficient, someone with a more fluid technique, a higher range, faster fingers, better breath control.

This is true in every art, every sport,  many if not most jobs.  Yet one often does not find an accountant drinking himself into a stupor because numbers were not crunched quickly enough.  Nary a pharmacist weeps in the night because her coworker knows more about drug interaction than she.  So, why us?  Why the purveyors of exquisite sound?  Why are so many of us crippled with self-doubt?

Because music is meaningless without the passion of its creator.  And passion is born from pain.

Wind chimes are pretty.  Elevator dings and musical jewelry boxes are pleasing to the ear.  Do we sit around and listen to recordings of them?  No.  Do we attend recitals of whippoorwills and doorbells?   Nope.

There’s no PASSION in those things.

It’s simply not possible to be a great musician without being passionate.  Sure, a robot can recreate a dictated series of notes perfectly and without flaw, but there will always be an element missing.  Would any sane person buy a ticket to a performance of Beethoven’s 5th piano concerto performed by a player piano? Absolutely not.  Musicians…  we are consumed.  We’re insane, on a level.  We’re willing to open our hearts, to shine a light on own tightly-guarded inner worlds when we walk onto that stage, because we SEEK that pain.   The thrill of walking that precarious tightrope between the ultimate expression of passion and the prospect of utter failure and humiliation is our lifeblood.  It’s a drug.  Creating something of incredible beauty from a bunch of black dots on a page…  Making something new, that no one has ever heard nor will ever hear again…  Translating emotion into sound…  it is the most exquisite pain.  And we musicians are absolute junkies for it.

So why would I ever want to do this to myself?  Why would I deliberately place myself in a situation that was almost certain to induce tears?  Because pain doesn’t always remain pain.  With time, and care, and nurturing, pain heals.  And the best thing I can do for my pain is smother it with my voice, pound it out with my hands onto these 88 keys.  No one but me may ever hear my pain made into sound, but it cannot remain static.  It must go somewhere, do something, become something else.

It must transform into passion.

That is why I do it.


The Wreckers

9 10 2008

There’s a CD I turn to when I need my home, and my family, and the people I love.  There’s one CD that truly plows into my heart and reminds me where I come from.  It’s on now, as it has been for the better part of two weeks.  A few years ago, Michelle Branch formed a country duo with her backup singer, Jessica Harp: The Wreckers took over the country music scene as one of the most promising acts in years.  They released one album, Stand Still, Look Pretty, before they disbanded some 18 months ago. Some of you may scoff at this seemingly odd choice, especially those of you who know my musical background, and I dare say that you’d be right to assume I’d gone absolutely batty.  But seriously, this disc is excellent.  These two women have nearly identical voices, which make for some spine-chilling harmonies.  Paired with damn good, tell-it-like-it-is songwriting and a phenomenal band, it’s simply infectious.

I fall back to this disc when I can’t say what I want to say, which has been precisely my position for the past few weeks.  I know what’s getting to me, I know exactly what brought it on, but due to a completely undeserved promise of loyalty, I can’t discuss it.  So I put this disc on, I sing at the absolute top of my lungs (which is somewhere near Mount Fuji, I’m guessing) and I shell pistachios for the biscotti I’m making for my Mocha Man.  I remember the long, windy drives through the mountains of Eastern Kentucky with my best friend when we played this disc on repeat and gave The Wreckers a run for their vocal money.  I remember sitting in my sister’s bathroom when I lived with her for a few months, watching her put on her makeup and singing along to this disc with her.  I remember driving back and forth to Louisville, nursing a broken heart and letting my rage seep out with the song “Cigarettes” on repeat.

So here I am again, with The Wreckers on repeat, wondering when I’ll quit being pissed about all this.

Not anytime soon, I’m guessing, since I’ve almost drained the juice in my ipod.

Blues Before Sunrise

16 12 2007

First and foremost, I’d like to thank my good buddies at the Guinness distillery in Dublin for supplying me with the mental lube for this particular blog entry.

With that said…

I am a musician. I am smart enough to be a doctor or a rocket scientist or whatever, but I am a musician. In regard to proficiency, I am a singer. I would normally never spout this, but as Guinness is the All-Seeing Elixer of Truth, my humility will be temporarily tossed aside and I will say that I am a goddamned good singer. I am Janis Joplin cross-bred with Renee Fleming, Robert Plant, Aretha Franklin, and Etta James. And maybe a little Chrisses Cornell and Robinson, just for good measure. I will melt your face off, or sing you to sleep, depending on the moment’s requirement. I will make you cry at your own wedding. I will lure you in with my siren song, just because I can.

But the funny thing is this: I am a pianist at heart. My favorite composer is Chopin, who wrote something like three pieces for voice, all of which basically sucked ass. I feel that instrument like nothing else. I love the percussiveness of fingers against keys against strings which in turn produce such bell-like clarity as to boggle one’s mind. I love grasping at the notes I seek, pulling them to me with something so measured and earned that only the perfect touch will do. I make love to this instrument. I earn its trust. I try to speak its language, to seduce it with dulcit words and the most clever of flourishes from my fingers. I LOVE this instrument. It is a challenge. It is partner to my own desires. It resides in a dimension altogether different from singing. Singers will tell you that true singing is the most sublime mastery of craft, a merging of one’s self with one’s instrument; I, as a singer, will tell you that placing one’s trust and passion in a creature so much greater than one’s own resonated soprano is a fervor like no other. It’s an addiction that heroin might someday revere.

I approached this great beast, this lacquered baby grand with lid closed and dust spattered thereabout, with respect. Out of practice for many a moon, I sought nothing from this encounter other than a reminder, a glimpse of what I’d left behind. Some pianos are female, some male, its gender immediately distinguishable with a little intuition and sensitivity; this one was definitely male. Steinway and Son, his lid proclaimed, as if it needed to be said. As if one couldn’t discern this from a furtive glance. Steinway and Son. Very, very good, but not the best I’ve ever played.

He was warm, cordial, as a glass of wine shared over lunch with a past lover. He was kind, forgiving, patient with my somewhat trepid fingers as they struggled to find Beethoven, stumbled over Chopin. But at last, when my fingers settled on the chords of E Major, he smiled as The Black Crowes came out of me. I breathed that unspeakably deep singer’s breath, and unleashed the smoke of my voice on that slow, blues-fueled progression. Descending, indeed. This was my love. This was the blues. This was what I’d been missing.

I know Puccini. I know Mozart, Bach, Handel, Verdi, and the like. I love them, with all the passion in my brain.

But my heart knows the blues. My soul knows the earth and the rain, and the dirty stench that is the guts of music. My passion lies there.

I’ve forgotten Beethoven.  I’ve forgotten Chopin. I’ve forgotten Bach.  But maybe that’s good, because my fingers have something else to say now. They’ve been chatting with my voice, and they think that maybe, just maybe, I’m ready to say my own piece.

Maybe I’ve filled in all the gaps, and mended the broken fences.

Maybe it’s time for me to take a honeymoon with my dusty piano, and see what we have to say to each other.