Passion Makes Perfect

Playing and practicing music can be a real grind. Just like anything that requires discipline and hard work, it’s easy to lose track of why we even do it. We often lose touch with what is really important to us or we never find it in the first place. We simply follow a path that has been well worn by teaching methods, peers or mentors.

This week I was reminded of what it looks like to be emotionally engaged in the music-making process. It was a very inspirational and informative moment for me.

Bjork Up Close

Bjork up Close

I’ve been teaching some professional musicians and teachers who live far away from me over the internet. There was a student who started three weeks ago. She is a top-tier classical pianist/teacher and asked if I could help her learn to play jazz so that she could help her students become more creative and possibly play some gigs.

During the first lesson we got our bearings and developed a plan. Lesson two included checking in on the prior assignments and working in some new concepts. A few days after the second lesson I started receiving emails with links links to mp3’s between 2am and 5am each night. These were new pieces she was writing/producing on her laptop. Lesson three almost didn’t happen. The day of the lesson she emailed saying she didn’t think we should have a lesson because she hadn’t prepared any of the jazz material we worked on during the first two lessons. We ended up having the lesson to go through all the material she had sent during the week.

She was forgetting to eat and sleep after finding so much joy in what she was creating.  Needless to say, I wasn’t too concerned about the lack of progress on the jazz assignments. It was really exciting for me to hear her new music and the enthusiasm in her voice during the third lesson.

As a teacher and someone who creates new music, these windows of passion are what I find most inspiring. Countless times over the years I’ve taught students who were just going along doing their work – sometimes really well, sometimes not-so-well. They were great students but didn’t have a fire behind what they were doing. The easiest path for them was just to keep doing whatever was assigned while improving each week – even if it required a lot of practice. It’s the easiest path because it’s safe. It doesn’t require them to step out of their comfort zone and have their individuality exposed. I can’t say I blame them. It’s an intimidating place to go.

Once a student has the basics down on their instrument, the most common theme in my lessons as a teacher is constantly reminding them that they need to “find their fire”. I bring it up so often, they eventually realize that I’m not playing around when I say this. It’s a requirement to have a sense of urgency about this.

Whether we’re professional musicians, teachers or students, we need to find our fire again and again.

Here are a couple of things that seem to get us and our students there:

  • Seek recordings and artists who inspire us to make music with passion and energy. When I heard Sketches of Spain by Miles Davis as a teenager, I decided immediately I was going to be a musician. My practice time increased exponentially. This isn’t just my experience, but almost everyone I know who makes music on a high level has a similar story. I’ve seen it happen time and time again with my students over the years. We must always and urgently be seeking new inspiration from artists in all genres contributing relevant art to our culture. The more inspiration we find, the more passionate we become about contributing our own art into the mix.
  • Forget about working on what we’re supposed to do. Start making what we’re supposed to do serve what we need to say with our music. I call this aligning our motivations. If your assignments are driving your art, it’s going to boring art. If your fire is driving your “assignments”, your art will be original, performed at a high level and inspiring to the community you share it with.

The student I discussed earlier had a perfect combination of each of these two things happen this week. Before the first lesson she had sent me some really rough samples of things she had made on the computer for a production class in college. Even though they had some major issues, I heard something there worth pursuing. I asked her to listen to the Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross soundtrack for “The Network” because it reminded me of the rough demo she had sent me. She seemed intrigued because she listened to Nine Inch Nails when she was younger. “The Network” soundtrack resonated with her. She was inspired to fire up her free copy of Garageband and start making tracks. You know the rest of the story… Except one interesting thing. I’ve known this student’s music for a while. I had never heard her music sound so fresh and inventive. She felt the same way. She said it had been years since she felt this excited and inspired about anything music related.

Finding our fire and aligning our motivations can be a really special feeling. I hope everyone gets a taste and it leads to them making cool music – for themselves and for the rest of us.