The Exciting / Scary Art of Doing What You Love

Edvard Munch’s ‘The Sun’ (1909)

Depictions of love are so common we barely recognize them. Love, or finding love, is the central theme of musical ballads, novels, short stories, poems, paintings — of almost anything worth our time. We typically see the artist as a hopeless lover, not necessarily focused on a single person, but smitten with some aspect of life, whether music, or dance, or surfing, or anything at all. The artist is pulled along against their will, beaten by the winds of passion, motivated by some puzzling force to generate endless self-expressions, and seemingly never lacking new ideas.

But most of us don’t consider ourselves artists. Even if we do, long ago we obediently extracted passion from our everyday lives. We prefer to pursue love in private moments of artistic inspiration, or brief but intense nights of public debauchery. Emotional investigation as a way of life is reserved for poets and songwriters — not for people with families, with jobs, with responsibilities and goals. In other words, we sacrifice our own infatuations for the sake of being practical.

From Olaus Magnus’s Carta marina (1572 edition)

In college, I studied music — a pursuit of love. Yet, mysteriously (but perhaps also typically), somewhere along the line I lost my passion for life and art. I was concerned mostly with impressing teachers and peers by playing the ‘correct’ notes. Theory, as I’ve written about before, became the foundation of my playing, providing rules for every maneuver. In piano lessons I plunked out what I imagined teachers wanted to hear, nervously awaiting signs of approval. I was an explorer who couldn’t take my eyes off the map.

One evening I attended a master class with jazz vibraphonist Stefon Harris. Somehow I found myself sitting at the piano in a small ensemble, hunched over, trying to act cool, and secretly hoping the tune wouldn’t be too complicated. It was a blues. I fumbled at the keys, reciting licks, showing off, demonstrating the long hours spent in practice rooms. Harris called out for the music to stop. To my dismay, he focused his comments on me. I can barely remember his words as my face flushed with heat, but I do remember his instruction: to sing. Sing while playing. Sing everything from inside yourself, and let it guide your hand. Play from the inside-out, rather than outside-in, and see what happens. Harris counted off the tune again.

At first, I was tentative, scared, uncomfortable with the level of vulnerability. Suddenly I had no safety net. I looked at the bass player in desperation. His playing had changed, as if we both were on a precipice, reaching out into darkness. A pounding thought overcame me: ‘What if I sound like crap?’ There was fear. But quick on its heels was pure excitement. The piano was no longer mechanical, but organic — an extension of myself, a part of my voice. Instead of laboriously quoting others, I explored, finding lightness, quirkily editing lines as I heard them unfold. I ended musical statements with question marks instead of frantic exclamations; I let phrases hang mysteriously, challenging the audience to cope with spiky contradictions. My physical dexterity had improved not at all, but it no longer seemed to matter, as time itself had somehow shifted axes from vertical to horizontal. Who knows how long the piece lasted. Certainly no more than a few minutes, and yet it seemed that everything had been said. I looked around at the band, shocked. We’d witnessed something outside ourselves, something completely removed from ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ notes.

Thelonious Monk album ‘Brilliant Corners’ (1957)

Brilliant pianist, jazz innovator, and musical rapscallion Thelonious Monk famously said that a “genius is the one most like himself.” What does this mean? To me, it means that we are free when we stop caring about what others think and follow our interests to whatever strange places they may lead. How do we do that? I’m not sure we always can. Fortunately, we are occasionally reminded to sing. Do what you love, what you’re naturally curious about, what makes you feel alive, and you will find your obsessions carry you effortlessly.

Hindu mystic Ramakrishna Paramahamsa (1836–1886) is credited with the following parable:

“Once a salt doll went to measure the depth of the ocean. It wanted to tell others how deep the water was. But this it could never do, for no sooner did it get into the water than it melted. Now who was there to report the ocean’s depth?”

We may find something similar happen to us when we sink ever deeper into our own curiosities. I wanted to show everyone how good I was at playing music. But when the music is actually felt, when we tap into the elusive inner flow, there is no longer any ‘one’ to be good at music. There is just music itself. The salt doll is dissolved. When we reappear, we find ourselves in a humbling, exhilarating, mysterious world, and we can never go back.

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