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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.

Heart

It is part of growing up, I keep telling myself — doing what I know — for some definition of know — is right, despite the advice of my family and almost everyone (but my best friend who is my only beacon in this whole mess). I have a good family — supportive, have my best interest in mind, certainly not the image of the disapproving father so pervasive — and partially I haven’t been completely honest with them, because it’s scary. Nonetheless, I feel a lot of pressure from their attempting-to-be-neutral positions, and I know what I want — what I need to do, but when the time comes to say it I can’t, condemning myself to this purgatory.

I’m not going to finish college. I am very close, only a few credits away, but it is not going to happen at the end of this semester, and everyone is like “but it’s just one more and it’s important for the future” — not so different from my reasoning for returning to college in the first place — I have been at this decision point before, and did convince myself with the assistance of my family that it was the right thing to do. Maybe it was once, and although I did not achieve the goals I set for it, it isn’t right anymore.

Here’s the really hard part, and I have to speak this with less certainty than the other, because different parts of my mind and body are fighting over it. I don’t think I’m going to finish this semester. Try as I might (whatever that means) I cannot commit myself to something that I don’t truly believe is serving me, and right now that is school. I don’t have that kind of control over myself. My grades are really slipping; each moment here feels like trying to run in a dream, suspended in the air. I know, what’s another month? It really doesn’t matter either way. It would matter if I wanted to go to grad school, but years of getting to know myself and being friends with grad students, I don’t think it is the place for me. I am too disorganized, my intellectual exploration is founded in too much curiosity and not enough desire to contribute. Suddenly a pursuit will become uninteresting and another will take me by surprise, but you can’t just switch like that in school.

But you can just switch like that in life. Why would I arbitrarily obligate myself to someone else when I am exploring what I love? Out there in the cruel, forgiving, free world, I can pursue whatever I like whenever and however I like to. Yes, I need to make money, but that’s not such a huge deal. I don’t really get why people make their way of earning money the centerpiece of their lives. Insert canonical white-picket-fence rant.

I don’t have a good phrase to describe who I want to be or what I’m going for. I think of such phrases as potentially guiding, locally, but ultimately limiting. To define myself with words is to forget every moment the words do not account for — when would someone include the Pepsi they had for breakfast in their self-definition? — but that bottle of salt and sugar is part of me, negative or however you want to judge it. Of course, not having such a phrase makes it difficult to assess the value of a difficult easy decision like this, and without a mechanism for assessing value I have no choice but to be human and follow my hearts — there’s nothing else that I can say with my vocabulary that doesn’t sound like a waste of my life.

I have long valued every moment of my time. A year of my life spent unhappy in order to support the remainder of my life never seemed worthwhile to me — I know that sounds irrational — but that seems to be the way I relate to time. A month spent in school, a month not making my living by sharing my musical heart, a month depressed and careless, a month of missed opportunity.

And yet, it is only a month. But why would I stay? I can’t articulate any convincing reason. It will make it less work should I ever decide to come back and finish — but that is actually false. One class is just as many as four, if not more.

I have had my struggles, but at important times I have always listened to the guidance of my family, I think I have always made what they saw as the best choice. This time, I think, their poor choice is the right one — if only symbolically, if only to remind myself whose life I am living.

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