Every few posts on your feed is a live video. In less than a month, online engagement increased exponentially. Now is the time, more than ever, to consider what you can uniquely give.
You might have a nice website, have placed in a competition, accrued some freelance work, networked your heart out at PASIC, had writing published, received recognition for your research…Any combination of accolades, aka the ingredients for success in our little percussive niche. Despite that, something doesn’t seem to reach out the way you’d hope.
So what’s lacking?
In fact, one major function of all music is that it affects others.
The question is what value does it bring and what service does it provide? How is your content edifying to others? Let’s step out of percussion land. Sales only happen for two reasons: something people want and don’t have, or something people want to get rid of (stress, anxiety, weaker non-dominant hand). We live in a capitalist society, which means everything is about sales. But money is not the only currency; our sense of self-worth is a currency, our sense of community is valuable, our sense of meaning is vital. Not to mention time—the nonrenewable resource. Think about what you can offer, and how that is useful, interesting and unique for those that consume it.
So how do we translate our art into a commodity that offers people something? As it turns out, doing something which helps someone else boosts our happiness even more than achieving perfection. The answer for how to sell our ‘product,’ how to increase that self worth, how to create a sense of meaning, and how to manage our time, is to give.
“When we help other people, we feel like effective individuals. Like masters of our own domain, who can accomplish whatever we need to do… if you feel like you don’t have enough time, try giving some of it away” – Elizabeth Dunn
How does your work provide a service to others? Does it make people think differently? Tell a story one could relate to? Offer a new perspective?
Amazing work is being done all over the world by percussionists, people you may or may not have heard of: Thea Rossen in Australia is writing music about climate change. Colleen Bernstein produces concerts to raise funds to help immigrant families, and produces Strength & Sensitivity, a show catalyzing thought towards a more gender-equal society. Clarinetist Zach Manzi creates interactive performances geared towards audience members with no experience with classical music. Maria Finkelmeier and Masary Studios created interactive installations where the participants create the music and the visual structure, connecting strangers through creative expression and music. Blackmill Music creates melodic tracks that inspire the listener to be introspective and emotional, every one of his comment sections on YouTube is full of strangers sharing their feelings and emotions in response to this music, a strange sort of group therapy.
Each of these artists uses their art to create a beneficial effect in the world, and that is service. There is depth and meaning in the work.
When I think back through the things I talk about in my bio and CV, versus the things that brought a true sense of meaning and joy in my career, there’s a disconnect. My favorite things have largely involved collaborating with other people, often just moments: The first 15 seconds of my recital “Waveshape,” playing Michael Laurello’s Spine with three fantastic people and musicians. We were nailing it and it felt great, and guess what? 15 seconds later we were no longer nailing it. But that doesn’t diminish how great those first moments felt.
The project I poured the most of myself in is Minister of Loneliness—my first completed attempt at telling a story as a composer (and the source for this post’s cover photo). We performed all over the UK, and the piece was received so well that Birmingham City University funded a trip to Thailand to get the piece played at PGVIM’s International Symposium. Every time I posted on Facebook or Instagram about the piece, it got likes in the single digits. Less engagement than a selfie, which takes no work in comparison. Now in retrospect, that doesn’t matter one bit, and I am insatiably grateful for having created the work. I got closer to two friends who I hold so dear now: bassist Aisling Reilly and animator Shiyi Li. We completed a twelve minute immersive multimedia work despite loads of factors at play against us, and we told a story that at the very least has resonated with a handful of people (but I bet it’s more than that). The service was the learning opportunity, the sharing with audiences—even when there were more kinks to work out—and the unapologetic, honest sharing of a story about loneliness and depression.
We also shouldn’t take for granted the little things we do. Although I was doing this for myself, I posted a short clip of an improvisation I did as a stream of consciousness, a device for getting out of my own head. We can keep these things to ourselves, worrying about them being “not good enough,” but when we share them, there’s the off chance that someone can really relate that day, that a minute of expression made them feel less isolated in their thoughts, because they were experiencing the same thing. A friend of mine texted me and told me how relatable it was, and that is where I find my own sense of purpose—connecting to others in even the smallest ways.
It is imperative that we stop assigning worth to the projects we love by seeing how many likes they get. Imagine the energy we would have for our art if we imagined everything we created to be valued by the whole world. No guessing if people would like it, just a quiet confidence that our work was interesting, fun, and important. If we knew our creations were that important to people, then we would have no qualms about pushing forward to create more and more.
Now let us posit that your work already is that important. It may be valuable to millions, dozens, one person, or, perhaps, only yourself. If your art is only providing service by improving your own life, then that is an amazing place to start. Create something that you love, for that commitment gives your product an intrinsic value that will win over more and more people.
“If we were a medical school, and you were here as a med student practicing appendectomies, you’d take your work very seriously because you would imagine that some night at two AM someone is going to waltz into your emergency room and you’re going to have to save their life.
Well, my friends, someday at 8 PM someone is going to walk into your concert hall and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that is weary. Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how well you do your craft.” – Karl Paulnack
We should strive to serve using the influence we have. There are moments, unpredictable but inexorable, that we will have the opportunity to give.
photo credit: Shiyi Li