In the Music Zone

There’s an old joke in the music biz: Q: “How do you make a musician complain?” A: “Give him a job.” That is as succinct an assessment as I can imagine about this rather subversive business of making art. Even though we love to play, we are constantly struggling with the practicalities of making a living doing this. Just a few of the inconvenient truths are: the unpredictability of a freelance income, dealing with incompetent and/or arrogant colleagues, living on the road, competing for gigs with other players of one’s instrument, and so on.

And so the question must be asked: Why do we do it?

There’s a form of “addiction” that holds the lives of many musicians in its thrall. I put quotation marks around the word because the “whatever it is that keeps us coming back” isn’t a physical or psychological addiction in the AA sense. I think that it’s more of an emotional glue that binds us to the experience of making music. I will try to explain this more fully, though it is difficult to put into words.

Performing artists spend inordinate amounts of time, energy and sustained effort to become proficient at our crafts. The investments we make involve the kind of personal commitment that only exist outside of the arts in the most rarefied professions, such as education, health care and politics. The level of psychic, spiritual and emotional effort required goes way beyond the requirements of most other “jobs”.

Most musicians, actors, dancers and other performing artists gave little or no thought to the “business” part of being a performer when they started studying, practicing and becoming addicted to expressing themselves in these ways. I did not, for example, learn how to play all the modes, triads, seventh chords, pentatonics and so on in all twelve keys so that I could play Louie Louie at weddings. I gave no thought to the commercial or practical aspects of playing music when I was playing original compositions and tunes by the likes of Wayne Shorter, Charles Mingus and Chick Corea in tiny jazz dives in the late 1970’s. I did it because I loved the music and the way it felt to create a literal and figurative groove with my band mates. I worked hard because I wanted to do it well and to (as Mingus would put it) “get it in my soul.”

It is indeed rare to see a highly skilled musician walk away from this world voluntarily and permanently. The harsh economic realities and the other stressors associated with a musician’s life usually have little sway when it come to separating a player from his horn. So, it’s partially this commitment that keeps most of us in the game, but there’s more to it than that.

So what exactly are we “addicted” to? Performing for other people is important. We like connecting with an audience, getting that feedback in the form of applause or, for the most part in my niche of the biz, the occasional positive comment like “It probably doesn’t seem like we were listening, but you guys were great”. Comedian Lenny Bruce summed up the motivation for performing by equating it with the psychological need for attention: “Everything we do is: Look at me, ma!” But I’m more “addicted” to the feeling I alluded to a moment ago. For lack of a better term I’ll appropriate one from sports: it is this being in “the zone” that keeps me playing and practicing.

The “music zone” is the feeling of being wholly in the present moment, of being connected viscerally to the other players, of being subsumed as an individual into the temporary collective mind, of being outside of chronological time and free of bodily sensation. It looks really kooky on paper, but this is where the analytical/rational/linear part of the human mind fails to serve. For a few moments at a time (and it may not last long) I can re-connect with that feeling of living only in the present, without concern for the mundane, for what happened five minutes ago or for what will happen five minutes hence. None of that counts for a hill of beans when I’m in the “zone”.

I recently learned that the scientific term for what I’m describing here is “flow”.

Rather than give that up, many of us diversify. The field of music encompasses not only the act of performing but other potentially remunerative endeavors as well. We can compose or arrange or copy music. We can become conductors, music directors or band leaders. We can go into music history, music theory, music therapy, arts administration. We can teach privately and at every academic level from kindergarten to graduate school.

All of these ancillary fields can serve as ways to augment our performance income or as primary careers. If you are skilled and lucky enough to have a job in a major orchestra or as a member of a major rock or pop act then you probably don’t need a second job. But many of us blue collar musicians have to have multiple income streams to satisfy the performing jones.

There is no substitute for the experience of performing in the “zone”, which is why I continue to do this crazy thing.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *