Life as a Musician?

So, it turns out I’m not dead. How about that?

I have dropped out of school, and am busking for a living. It is tiring (especially when I forget to drink enough water), sometimes discouraging (when I play things to no response whatsoever or make $5 in an hour), but mostly great. My job is making music! And more importantly, my job is making my music, or music I am in love with — although certain pieces tend to attract more tippers than others, so it’s not truly free (what is?).

My grandmother contacted me telling me about a startup mixer so I could find a job. I don’t think she really understands my decision. I can understand that — she wants me to get a stable, well-paying job, have kids and a family, and go to church. The usual narrative. The other day I was idly contemplating being a father. Not now, of course. But I can see the draw; I can see that being a pretty special thing. The question is whether it is worth it to me. Sacrifice is part of love. But do I sacrifice for my child, or do I sacrifice a child (umm! — sacrifice having a child) for my other loves? That is not a question I am remotely prepared to answer.

I used to think — perhaps I still do — that big questions like those aren’t really worth answering, at least not rationally. I suppose this “used to” is fairly recent, as I had spent a long time on them prior, and they led me nowhere but in circles of unfulfilled dustkicking. My self-image can be so limited at times, and the rational mind is a slave to its images. What I can really do, what I’m really made of, I perhaps thought, won’t be small enough to be so easily decided — it must be eased into, made part of myself through exploration and long, gradual growth. But the liberation I feel from this new occupation of mine has shown me that perhaps at points along this process such a life decision is valuable, that it can be a beacon that reminds me that I chose this because it was important to me — more important than anything else at one time — and so gives me something to hold onto in times of uncertainty or suffering. It sounds very compelling, doesn’t it? But I am still in the honeymoon phase of my relationship with my life as a musician, so the only thing I can be sure of is that my thoughts about it are distorted.

And am I really good enough to make this a living? Maybe Boulder is the only place people appreciate public performances of amateur classical music. Maybe when I migrate for the winter I will be met with indifference or contempt, and I will be stuck in a new city with no job. Maybe when I improvise or play my originals people only tip me because I have brought the piano out, not because the music speaks to them in any deep way — I know that is not true, my second piano sonata is almost always met by applause, but it has been 10 years since I wrote that; do I still have it? A teenager passes by and plays most of the pieces I do — not as well, but not badly — and he will surpass me by my age. Will I ever have the guts to sing out there?

A thousand fears and doubts dance their rite around my dream — all I can do is to go out there every day and hope it goes well. I think it’s proof that I’m alive. I pose this question to myself: would I rather be wildly successful in a software company, or wildly successful as a musician? The latter, by any metric. “Wildly” need not even appear. Standing on a plank and singing to the jury, my heart beating a thousand times a minute, with the conviction of a soldier — this outshines any vision of a successful software idea.

I’m not leaving software. But my most exciting software ideas aren’t the kinds of things one can easily make a living on. I’m working on a browser-based programming environment which explores a new way of designing and organizing code. I don’t want to say too much about it because as I code the idea continues to develop in my mind, and I don’t want to nail it down yet (maybe ever). But anyway, to make money with that would sacrifice its beauty; this tool is not for productivity, at least not at first: it is exploring a way of thinking. It is easier to make a living making the music I love than the software I love. If my life is to overflow with love and happiness, music is the breadwinner.

Again — only a month in. But I think this is the way to do it, for me. I’m not setting myself up for a comfortable life, but comfort is a trap anyway. It is the contrast that feels so good, and without that contrast comfort is just normal. Without discomfort to prepare the contrast, comfort is dull and boring. Anyway, that’s how I see it. Funny coming from a hedonist like me. I guess I’m having a stint of long-term hedonism at the expense of short-term.

Maybe someday I won’t even feel the need to justify my choice anymore. That’s when I’ll really be in it.

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3 thoughts on “Life as a Musician?

  1. Best of luck to you! I’m sure you’ll do fine. Seems to me that it’s often most important to make the decisions and then try to do a reasonable job with them — that’s often more important than the specific choice. I dropped out of college too while studying electrical engineering for fulfillment reasons, so I can relate to what you’re going through. After traveling and working for three exciting, experience-rich years, I came to a clear understanding of what I wanted to do career-wise. Ten years later, I definitely don’t regret any of those decisions, so hoping for the same for you.

  2. i love you Luke! You rock the casbah, and i want (at some point) to find you wherever you are and play a lot more music with you! Maybe without the big plans i’ve had for a larger-than-life career in music, and a greater appreciation of the wonders of the Moment (so to speak!) ;-)

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