Motivation, Ego, and Progress
In late February, I made a last minute trip up to Minneapolis to see my lifelong friend, Jacob Solawetz. We had a weekend commiting boyish shenanigans interspersed with conversations of transitioning into adulthood, modern financial systems, and most importantly, Game of Thrones. As a tip of the cap to our weekend, we decided to go see the band Beirut at the Palace Theater in Saint Paul. I had been wanting to catch a show at Palace Theater for quite some time and this was the perfect opportunity. Beirut is venerated in the annals of 2000s indie rock, known for their combinations of world music, brass instruments, and jammy pop grooves. The band played from 9:30-11:00, with a brass trio front and center. It was a great concert. I loved the vibes, venue, people, and especially the brass instruments. They had a trumpet, trombone, and even a rotary trumpet.
I also play the trumpet. I graduated college with a degree in classical performance and a minor in jazz studies. I currently work as a musician a on cruise ship and freelance around Iowa when I’m not sailing around the world. Trumpet and music is what I love to do and how I support myself and my endeavours. As a trumpeter, seeing other professionals on stage in front of a thousand other people brewed in me an odd concoction of emotions, most of which I’m not proud of. However, to truly identify these emotions and figure out why I was feeling a certain way, I needed to expand upon and discuss these feelings in long form. This article is not so much a write up on the music of Beirut, but more so, my reactions and thoughts provoked by listening to and seeing their performance.
Maybe that is a commentary in itself?
Motivation is a tricky idea to write about. It seems simple at the tip of the iceberg - what drives us to get from point A to point B? For some things, such as brushing your teeth, eating breakfast, or calling your mom, simple answers are probably best. However, for topics such as career paths and goals in life, things can get exponentially more complex. An obvious answer is that people choose careers and goals based off what they love to do, but we all know that is pure idealism. When I try to soberily analyze this type of motivation in myself, I usually end up at the bottom of the proverbial ocean in a tangled web of maddening and mostly useless introspection. Moments of clarity, then, are few and far between but gladly welcomed when they do appear. One such moment appeared at the Beirut concert in Minnesota.
As 21st century finger scrolling, media consuming persons, it is very easy to get caught up in thoughts of inadequacy. There are always new and amazing videos on the usual social media platforms that remind us of how painfully average we may or may not be. Unfortunately, social media is a necessary evil for 21st century musicians. It is a large part of how musicians market their products and gigs, build an audience, and communicate with fans, venues, and other musicians. Furthermore, success in music is increasingly visual. More flashes and bangs on your product might lead to more likes, retweets, and eventually gigs. Flashes and bangs could take the form of striking album artwork, videography in unique venues, fancy music production, or crazy collaborations.
After we’ve fully consumed our media, the feeling of inadequacy might manifest in thoughts such as, “I need more of this because so and so is posting this, I need to work on this aspect of my life because so and so can do this, getting this thing that so and so has will put on their level” etc, etc. All of us want to be good and constantly improving, but do we want those things for the most wholesome and sustainable reasons? The rabbit hole is deep and dangerous.
Often times as musicians, especially young males transitioning into full adulthood, we determine and find our value in being better or thinking we are better than those around us. Crank it up even higher if that person plays the same instrument or is older than us. Phew. This is partially understandable given our brains are still maturing and being ‘better’ might be an evolutionary advantage. Trending towards the alpha male mentality is great if you’re looking for a mate while hunting and gathering. Unfortunately, we playing music in 2019.
A counterpart in thinking to the ‘value in being better’ mindset is that when we encounter someone who is legitimately more skilled than us we feel wildly insecure. I know I do and it sucks. For me, this manifests in full when I see or hear someone younger than me or a woman who has more skill than me. A few months ago I was scouring Youtube for trumpet videos and came across a high schooler who sounded so much better than me, for 10 minutes, I actually wanted to quit playing. If this kid is doing what I want to do and doing it 10x better than me, what’s the point?
This brings us back the previous discussion of motivation. I’m sure many can relate to the feeling that when we see someone doing something we want to be doing, it pushes us to get in the practice room and take the next step. After I picked my jaw up off the floor from listening to that high schooler, even if it were longer than I would like to admit, I was more driven to get better than I had been before. If he sounds that good, why can’t I?
Naturally, a certain amount of competition is healthy. You can work in tandem with a colleague or coworker and push each other and grow in healthy and non-toxic ways. However, when competition descends into harmful headspaces such comparing, judging, and justifying, more malevolent and deep seeded underpinnings are probably afoot. It is easy musicians to get unknowingly drawn into this world, given that our playing is so personal to us. Hearing some who’s more skilled than you can lead one to believe that what you’re playing just isn’t valuable or good enough. We feel insecure about the thing we love to do; we justify why we aren’t that good, compare meaningless details, and nitpick what might be an excellent performance.
Cut back to our Beirut concert. I’m 25 feet away from a wonderful performance of a band I have listened to for years with one of my best friends on the planet, but all I can think about is I wasn’t up there myself.
Some example thoughts:
“ He sounds better than me in the upper register, oh damn, I don’t play very well up there”
“ Well he’s not playing super difficult stuff, so how hard could it be to sound like that?”
“Ha! He goofed up!”
Never trust a thought.
I was so obsessed with myself and my own opinions that I couldn’t fully experience the beautiful music right in front of me. I missed out because I was in licking my egotistical wounds, trying to make myself feel better about where I wasn’t. It’s equally concerning that I couldn’t bring myself to feel happy for those men on stage, pouring their hearts out through their instruments, exposing something so personal and deep for 1,000 people to see. I almost resented these anonymous trumpet players. Why is it so difficult for me to be happy for someone else doing something I find value in and joyful myself?
The contradiction is stark - The competitive, self aware, and egotistical nature of our minds can be a major factor, if not thee determining factor in why we want to progress in our field of study. If unrealized and unchecked, however, that same nature carries baggage of both personal and interpersonal toxicity which is heightened and amplified in our 21st century technosphere. There is nothing wrong with wanting to progress in your field. However, when progress comes as detriment to our mental well-being and our something as fundamental as for example, a musician listening to a concert, something has to change.
I believe that for music, the solution to this problem goes back to when we are first introduced to our instruments in grade school. As children, we are given an amazing gift in the form of instrument and almost instantly thrown into the world of chair placements, honor bands, solo and ensemble contest, etc. A child might think that the point of playing the instrument is to do well in these various endeavors. I understand that competitions, especially as students mature into high school and possibly college, are historically relevant and provide a concrete measure of success for both the music and non-music communities. However, this author believes that fledging musicians are trained to place more value in competing, being better, and finishing in 1st place, than a genuine love of playing music.
Since I graduated college, I have had to re-fall in love with music. The daily grind of rehearsals, practicing, and lessons, coupled with the challenges of graduating from a liberal arts college had more effect on my psyche than I previously realized. It took a trip to Europe and time away from the instrument and school to realize I was too far down the rabbit hole. Musicians of all kinds start and continue playing for a variety of reasons, but love of music, in some form, is the common denominator. However, those reasons can tainted, morphed, and hidden away while insidious motivations take root and fester. If we are to realize where we really are, we need to step back and identify what ideas need weeding out and those that need careful and consistent cultivation.
Learning to genuinely love your playing with all of its imperfections, baggage, ups and down, etc, is a challenge many could benefit from. Learn to be okay with where you’re at and be okay with that you will most likely never be the absolute best. What you can’t do right now doesn’t mean your a failure or a bad person - it’s just means you’re a person. Grow your skills and career because you love it, not because you’re scared of being thought of as bad or that you won’t ‘win the game’. Practice, write, read, code, whatever it is you do, out of joy; that deep seeded and robust passion for the activities and ideas which light your inner fire.
I’m sitting here in a coffee shop, finishing the draft for this article and part of me feels bad about how many flaws I just identified in myself. However, the more ‘woke’ (lol) side of me knows that recognition and identification is the first step to improving anything in our lives. I know I’m further down my path now, at the end of this article, than I was before and that is beautiful in itself.
If you have thoughts on this article, please comment below. Meaningful dialogue and exchange of ideas is why we are here in the first place. Thanks for reading!