I'm dying to be a musician

Must one be born with musical talent? I yearn to express myself but have no training.

Published March 26, 2007 11:02AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I want to be a musician but I am afraid that I don't have it in me. I want to play an instrument and sing and create music and perform it. I don't really care about fame. I want to admire myself for being a more realized person, and I want to enjoy the company of artists, and until I am one I would be nothing but a fake, or worse yet, labeled a groupie. I am plagued with the existential anxiety that my life has been pointless thus far, and I see music as a way to create meaning and connection with my own humanity.

But when I listen to interviews with musicians, or hear their music, I am struck with the sense that they were born for it, that creating music runs in their veins, and that it's a way of life for them as much as eating or sleeping. Can someone become an artist after many, many years of not being musical, indeed after a life spent idling in conformity? Is a love for it and a dedication to working toward being musical every day really enough? Could someone like me really join the ranks of artists?

I Dream of My Ideal Self, in Vancouver

Dear Dreamer of the Ideal Self,

Absolutely you can join the ranks of artists.

Let me quote for you something from a book I am reading with great interest, called "Writing Alone and With Others," by Pat Schneider. These are the five principles on which Schneider has based the writing workshops and the associated movement known as Amherst Writers and Artists.

1. Everyone has a strong, unique voice.
2. Everyone is born with creative genius.

3. Writing as an art form belongs to all people, regardless of economic class or educational level.

4. The teaching of craft can be done without damage to a writer's original voice or artistic self-esteem.

5. A writer is someone who writes.

Apply these same principles to music. Music is an art form that belongs to all people, regardless of economic class or education. A musician is someone who makes music. If you write you are a writer. If you make music you are a musician. And if you make music, you are not required to know the quality or the meaning of what you do, because you are giving voice to something full of surprise and mystery. You are not required nor even able to judge what you do because you are not in control of what you do. You proceed knowing only that you are giving voice to something that deserves to have a voice. And why does it deserve to have a voice? Because it is there in your body yearning to be born, trying desperately to become.

You become the body of the violin played by unseen hands.

OK, so that is a bit dramatic. But is it any more dramatic or unbelievable than the naked facts -- that we humans will bang on things, blow into things, strike things and build things to make music of such complexity, order, symmetry and power that we cannot even adequately describe or analyze what we ourselves have done? Is what I am saying any more startling than the naked facts?

All I can conclude is that we are not in complete control of what we create.

It is by thinking about it in such a way that you find the courage to do it -- indeed, that you find the necessity of doing it. You become as it were the handmaiden of your own desires.

For what is music? Music is banging on a can. Music is screeching pain. Music is silence, as has been demonstrated by eminent musicians celebrated by the wealthy and the fabulous. Music is a frame placed around sound. Music is the decision to listen. Music is a gathering.

And am I talking highbrow? Decidedly not. I am talking punk.

Punk was a revolutionary phenomenon in which many people who did not know each other personally came to the same conclusion at the same time: If we say we are musicians we are musicians. If we go onstage and perform we are performers.

That was the genius of the punk explosion: You do not need permission. Because no one owns music. A person may own a club, or a record company, or a stage or venue or concert promotion corporation. But no one owns music. And no one needs permission. And yet I am giving you permission. Why do I need to give you permission even though I say you need no permission? Because punk is apparently not operating in a vital and visible way in your area of Vancouver. You need the culture to say, Yes, come on, do it! If the culture is not around you, visible, exploding out of the bare brick walls of clubs, then people who ought to be punks look around and say, Where is my gathering? Where are my people? What do I do with this deafening sound in my head?

You go and play.

To play an instrument you need an instrument and you need hands. You put your hands on the instrument and make sounds come out. You listen to the sounds and make more of the sounds you like and less of the sounds you don't like. You let it speak. It may speak in an angry voice, or a frightened voice; it may speak first in a disorganized way; it may be hard to understand what it is saying. But you let it speak. You put your hands on the instrument and you let the sounds guide you to the voice. The voice will increase. It will say things that surprise you. It will thank you for allowing it to speak. It may also say things that you don't like. It may say things others don't like.

Soon you will find there are things the voice wants to say that you don't know how to make the instrument do. So you will seek instruction. But seek it on your terms. Say, This is what I want to express; how do I make this instrument make these sounds? You might say, This is what I want to say! and in demonstrating what you want to say you must leap around like a frog, flapping your arms like a chicken, or lying dead in a ditch, or flying. You say: This is what must come out of the instrument! How do I find this in the instrument? Where is it hidden? You might pay for this instruction or you might find it by forming principled relationships with other people who make sounds come out of instruments. If you like the sounds they make, then find out how they are made.

Some sounds are pure machine, stark and godlike. For instance, a Fender Stratocaster is a musical machine that makes a certain sound. A Marshall stack is also a musical machine. If a Stratocaster is leaned up against a Marshall stack and both the Stratocaster and the Marshall stack are set to maximum volume, a certain sound will emerge. This is the sound of the machines. It is terrifying and overwhelming and glorious, like a thunderstorm. You stand back a certain distance and watch it rain. Then you step in and begin to manipulate the sound these machines are making; you become a respectful intermediary between the machines. The sound belongs to the machines. You serve to shape their anarchic, joyful interaction.

On the other hand, you can bang on a can.

Punk allowed people who had the spirit and the intense desire to express themselves to express themselves in a way that did not require formal practice and training. Punk created a language and a method, and thus encouraged those who otherwise would have been discouraged. I was lucky enough to observe punk in the mid- to late 1970s and early 1980s, and to participate as a musician and later as a journalist in the eclectic avant-garde or new wave that surrounded it and in a sense followed it, took courage in its advances.

We repurposed what we could scavenge from the culture in order to create for ourselves a world of glamor and danger that reflected back to us our visions, sometimes dark and surreal, sometimes silly, always essentially private in origin and thus mysterious and full of danger. It was an amazing time, to see a small, disenfranchised group of people expose their private nightmares on the public stage and find recognition: Yes, we all feel mostly mad, yes, we are all going insane with frustration and anger, yes, we all feel impotent to change the government. It had much in common with other spontaneous and intoxicating artistic movements. One is very lucky to have been there for it. It is one of those things one takes to the grave, clutching to the chest with gratitude.

So you need a rehearsal space and you need a culture. If you begin to do it, people will recognize what you are doing and they will come around, curious, tentative, like cats. Like cats, they may act dismissive. But they will be watching, and listening through the walls.

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