The Tortured Artist Syndrome
“The healthy man does not torture others. Generally, it is the tortured who turn into torturers.”
There is a cult of artistic suffering in our field. We revel in our martyrdom and bask in the glow of overwork and exhaustion because we think it makes us look important. This kind of thinking does not elevate our art. It is disturbing and destructive. All it does is burn people out and cause a myriad of physical and mental health problems.
Music is a paradox in that it is both deeply meaningful and completely meaningless. We have the luxury of being in a profession that is not necessary for the survival of the world. It would make the world less enjoyable if there were no music, but technically, it is not a necessity. Therefore, we need to remember that our primary function is to uplift the human spirit, not detract from it. Every time we harm ourselves or others via aggression and overwork, it takes us out of alignment with our noble profession.
Author Elizabeth Gilbert, in her novel Big Magic, states, “The days of the tortured artist are done. Get into therapy. Stop using your art as an excuse to lash out at other people. To allow self-destructive patterns of stress, anxiety, alcoholism, and other self-destructive behavior.”
It’s a bit harsh, but thought-provoking none-the-less. We need peace in our lives to maintain a sustainable career. If music does not bring you peace, find something else to do. That doesn’t mean give up on music, but have something else to turn to when your mind needs a break. This can be a spiritual practice, reading a good book, going out in nature, meditation, dance, painting…anything that brings you a sense of calm.
We have to get outside the minutia of our own minds. In the grand scheme of the cosmos, we are infinitesimally small beings, yet we feel like our problems are the weight of the world. When we look at a problem from the grand scope of our life, we realize it is a mere blip of time; a single wave in the ocean of life.
In our musical life, we tend to freak out… a lot. Can’t hit the high note? I’ll never be hired. One of the songs for the concert isn’t quite ready? I am a failure and should cancel the entire concert. When you pull back and observe the situation from the grand scope of a musical career, you realize the ridiculousness of being upset over such a tiny detail. Yes, try to fix it. Yes, continue to work with dedication and persistence to elevate the craft, but remember that music is about joy and it is just as important to give yourself compassion as it is to strive for excellence.
Not everything has to be perfect in order to be beautiful. Why do we seek perfection in the first place? Because it makes us feel successful and worthy, but we can feel that worthiness through the simple act of making music. Perfection is the joy we find in the present moment.
Perfection is the appreciation, not the product.
Wrestling with the Ego
“I have never seen a greater monster or miracle than myself.” Michel de Montaigne
“I don’t want to lower my standards.” I have often heard this phrase and said it myself for years. It begs the question though: Why does everyone need to fit your standards?
In our effort to impress others, we can create an unrealistic and unhealthy relationship with our ego. Directors berate musicians for hitting wrong notes and completely ruin the bond with an ensemble because the director thinks they will be perceived as a poor musician. We berate ourselves for the same ego-driven reason. If we broaden our perspective, we realize it doesn’t really matter if a chord is out of tune or someone needs to miss rehearsal to visit the doctor. The world will not end, I promise. Our obsession with control makes us lash out at these minor issues, and the best thing to do when frustration rises is to zoom out and look at the big picture.
Why do we make music? It’s a simple question. And, at its core, has a simple answer. We make music because we love it. We remember the bliss of going to class and making music with friends and the thrill of receiving applause from an audience. Music makes us feel appreciated and important.
When we focus too much on what is ‘missing,’ we rob ourselves and others of that appreciation. We let our ego strangle thoughts of compassion and replace them with fear, worrying how we will be judged if the music is not perfect. However, freedom is found in staying grounded in our original love of music. When we tap into that love, we radiate an energy that naturally attracts people to us. Musicians want to come to rehearsal and work hard for the performance. We want to sit down with our instrument and practice. Spend time every day tapping into that original joy and watch how quickly the ego subsides.
Jaclyn’s book can be ordered here.