My Music Should Be an Expression of Who I Am
It’s not always true for all musicians. Not everyone believes that our music should express who we are. I know schooled musicians who think music is supposed to sound the way music is SUPPOSED to sound. It has been played a certain way for hundreds of years and that is how everyone should do it, or they are doing it wrong. Then I’ve known players who go to the opposite extreme. They think that the music you play should be so original that no one could possibly recognize it as being music. When music becomes a sincere expression of our own personalities and our own lives, we find ourselves somewhere between the two extremes.
For me, personal expression has always been the one thing I’ve found most appealing about performing music. I like the idea of saying something meaningful through my music. I like that it can be just as meaningful to others but for reasons completely unrelated to why it is meaningful to me. Music is funny that way. What it means to us as musicians is never what it means to the audience.
Distractions from Expression
There are many things that can distract us from genuine expression in our music.
Our musical standards can distract us from expressing ourselves. A lot of musicians don’t get that. Not the schooled ones anyway. I guess it’s due to the way we are raised in the public school music programs. We have “standards” to live up to and rules to follow. We are constantly judged by those standards and some musicians spend their entire lives chasing those standards as their sole musical objective.
But personal musical expression transcends those standards. When we are truly expressive, we pull out of the rat race and create new standards, a new language and later a new audience.
Some people are distracted by originality, mistakenly thinking of it as the ultimate goal in music. They only value that which has never been done before and in their efforts to manifest this lofty ideal, they dive deeper and deeper into the depths of weirdness and irrelevance. The end result of their efforts is a music that is so insincere that the musicians often cannot even recognize their own work.
Trying to stay up with what’s popular can also distract us from being more expressive. The problem with the popularity angle is that of expressing someone else’s feelings and not our own. There are a lot of musicians who play music that doesn’t truly appeal to them, but they do it because it’s the music that is popular at the time.
Money, as a distraction, is simply an extension of the popularity distraction. The main reason why most people are distracted by popularity is because it pays. I recently hung out with a musician who is originally from Houston but now lives and works in L.A. He admitted that the reason he plays so much “smooth jazz” is because it pays so well and that he is actually getting tired of it. He greatly desires to do something more meaningful, more expressive, but he feels trapped because he has to make a living.
None of these distractions automatically rob us of being expressive in our musical performances. They are distractions from what I believe should be the primary objective of any performance, genuine expression. But we can continue to be expressive even when we are “making a living”, performing original works or performing music that is hundreds of years old. These things are only a problem when we let them push sincere expression out of the performance.
Distractions and Performance Anxiety
When we are distracted from personal expression by the things listed above, we because more susceptible to stage fright. Part of it has to do with the way the brain works. It is said that we can only think of one thing at a time, in our conscious minds. As a trumpet player, I have learned the hard way that I cannot think about my sound, my embouchure, my sight reading, my phrasing and my articulations all at the same time. In performance, when we think about expressive things, single conscious thoughts help to guide our subconscious minds to control all of the mini-tasks involved in producing a great performance. For those of us who have never thought about musical expression in a performance, for those of us who have had to think of all of the little things at once, performances can be nightmarish.
God has blessed me with an extremely varied performance career. I have performed the music that requires high standards. I have performed the music that is so original that it’s barely recognizable as music. I have performed the music that is popular. And I have also made money, sometimes only a little, sometimes a lot. Playing the music isn’t the problem. The problem exists when we place those things above our self expression.
This opens a whole new can of worms when you look into why people will sacrifice self expression for standards, originality, popularity and money. We don’t have room here for a full discussion on the topic, but I do believe that it is a matter of selfishness, believe it or not. On the surface it would seem that the person who puts self expression at the top of the list is the selfish one. Not so. Any time a musician places any of the distracters above self expression, it is their way of saying “leave me alone, I don’t want to talk to you.”
It is entirely possible to perform through each of the distractions listed above and still express yourself through the music. When I perform classical music, I put every effort into expressing myself musically. When I perform jazz, my main objective is self expression. When I’m playing Motown or R&B at parties and wedding receptions, my greatest efforts go into expression.
When we are distracted from being expressive in our music, what we do then becomes insincere. I think musical insincerity is actually the industry standard today and that most people in the audience may not recognize the difference anymore. But that doesn’t mean we should all give up on personal musical expression.
Music should be an expression of who we are and what we are feeling. There are many distractions that tempt us away from the sincerity of our music and we should guard against that if we are to avoid performance anxiety.
Questions for you to consider:
1) What do you express in your music? Are you trying to be more original? Are you trying to live up to a standard? Are you simply playing what you play to make money?
2) Is your music sincere? Is the way you perform consistent with your feelings and beliefs?
3) Do you hate the music you perform? Does it make you angry or impatient? Are you dissatisfied with what you express as a player?