There is No Stagnation

My young piano student was rightly feeling a proud sense of accomplishment for finishing his first lesson book. Eager to start the next one, he told me in his seven-year-old understanding of the world that he had thought piano lessons were going to be over at the end of the book. He was happy they were continuing. I told him there is always more to learn in music, and that I am still learning music. He looked at me with amazement. “Are there pieces you don’t know how to play?” he asked. “Oh, yes,” I told him, “there are so many pieces I couldn’t live long enough to learn them all!”

The vastness of music is one of the things that draws me to it. It is a bottomless well. Even if I could learn to play all the piano pieces written during the last few hundred years, that only begins to scratch the surface of what there is to know. I told my student I don’t just learn new pieces to play. I also read books – lots of them. I read books on music theory, books on orchestration and the development of instruments and ensembles, biographies of composers, and history books that give insight into the cultural conditions of the time which influenced the development and spread of music. I listen to music, old and new. I study scores. I compose.

With all this studying, along with practicing and composing and rehearsing and teaching, I could easily spend 10-12 hours a day doing music-related work and still not even begin exploring it all. It is a bit overwhelming, really. Where to begin? What to look at next? Sometimes I wish I was still in school so I could have someone tell me what to do. But I know whatever I do or whatever I read, it is going to add to my experience and knowledge, ferment in my mind, and inform who I am as a person and a musician who is constantly developing.

Back when I was in high school and decided that I wanted a career in music, I began delving into everything I could possibly learn. I realized that my involvement in music is much like a relationship; I am either tending to it, or I am not. I am becoming more intimately acquainted with my instrument and increasing my general musical understanding, or I am beginning the slide toward atrophy. There is no such thing as stagnation, in music or in relationships. A continual lack of attention eventually leads to its end.

This expanse of knowledge is common to many fields of work, but being a professional musician doesn’t necessarily require one to continue developing. In order to renew licensing a nurse or teacher, for example, must continue to earn professional development credits. This is not so for musicians. In many settings, a musician could do only the minimum of practicing to learn a piece of music without doing anything further to grow in their understanding. A musician could continue to play the same pieces or the same genre and listen to the same music over and over again, satisfied with “arriving” at a certain point and going no further. Musicians can learn only the music for hire without stretching themselves to do anything more challenging. (Often those pieces repeat! In my years of professional collaborative piano work, I’ve played several pieces multiple times and rarely need to play them more than once through in practice.) Musicians don’t have to read books; they don’t have to take lessons from another professional they admire.

A musician’s growth is mainly self-directed. That doesn’t mean we all have control over the career path we are on, but outside of the tasks that earn money, there is plenty of room for expanding one’s understanding of the field. It is mostly a matter of choice, though I know for some individuals their circumstances are more limiting. Some may be lucky enough to have so much work they can’t possibly do anything more than stay on top of their responsibilities. But I venture to guess that most of us have extra time to expand our skill and knowledge, to put in some extra practicing, read a biography, learn composition, explore a different notation systems, listen to or learn new music, or research and write on an aspect of music. Just like members of any other professional field, we always have more to learn.

I have heard stories about professional orchestral musicians counting down the days until they retire; I’ve had a conversation with one such horn player myself. I just don’t see the point. Music is too hard of a career to maintain to be worth it if one doesn’t love it. How can musicians engage the audience if they don’t love what they do? Some musicians who landed a stable consistent gig might say the money is worth staying in a job they don’t like, but I have to wonder if the music they play is as lifeless as a lesson taught by a burned-out teacher. And now, that money is largely gone.

This time of pandemic is horrible for musicians. All my performances are cancelled; I don’t know when rehearsals and concerts will start up again. Only half my students opted to continue lessons online. Even so, musicians who depend on performing as their sole or primary income are in much worse shape than me, especially as social distancing guidelines have cancelled festivals of all sorts through at least July. I imagine this could kill more than a few careers. Many musicians may have to resort to finding other non-music work to make ends meet; some of those may not return to music. Others may be able to get by until musical events start up again in full swing.

But, either way, all of us musicians have more time on our hands. What we do with our extra time will reveal our true desires. Will we keep at practicing, even if it is after working at a store during the day, preparing for a return to a musical career? Will we take extra time to learn a new skill like composition or music production? Will we create original work? Will we dust off the books? Will we decide that now we have time to work on solo repertoire and prepare a recital, even if it must be live-streamed? Or will we let music slide and our love for it grow cold? The decision is completely ours.

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