From the valley

I am in a tough spot these days because you don't always get to pick who you make music with. It's made me think about how much I value the artists and musicians who are mature, and how soul-killing it is to work with the ones who aren't. Of course, the behaviors I complain about are familiar to me because I may have invented them. There isn't a single dumb, vain, mean, angry, sloppy, arrogant, or un-loving thing in the artists' hall of shame that I have not done. I look back on whole decades of my life as a performer and cringe. But, cringe is good, right? It means I have perspective.

In my symphony choir thing that I do, there is a woman behind me who is so busy commenting on others' mistakes I don't know how she has time to sing at all. If there is a bad note she chuckles. If the conductor makes a mistake she either yells out the correct answer or mutters it under her breath. At one point we were working on a song where the conductor really needed us to watch because he was shaping every measure, and a lot of folks weren't watching, and he stopped in disgust because of it. The woman behind me wasn't watching; she didn't know we had stopped and she didn't know why. She said, loudly, "what happened?" I so wanted to turn around and say "You. You happened." But that doesn't help.

It is so easy to love the person with limited gifts who struggles and blushes and feels miserable when she feels she's failed, and lights up everyone around her with honesty and effort. Doesn't your heart just go out to someone like that? But the person who criticizes and limits and belittles anyone within range makes a tainted music, even with much greater ability.

The mythology about artists is that the good ones are arrogant and that we can't blame them for that. You know what? It's not true. This woman should keep in mind that we in front can hear her, and she's not nearly good enough to be judging everyone else. And the more I am privileged to meet and work with really talented, successful, fully realized artists, the more I notice how lovely they are.

They have to be. 1) Successful means people want to hire you, and if you're a jerk, people don't want to hire you. At some point, talent on one side of the scale isn't heavy enough to balance a big steaming pile of jerkiness, and the phone stops ringing. 2) Most people who are talented realize at some point that talent just happened to them, and they can't take credit for it. When they do take credit, see #1. Many people who are talented and lovely also know that talent is about joy. It's for joy. It's not for impressing people, or for getting rich, or for making up for all of our deep emotional deficiencies. When it is about those things, see #1.

Talent is a joyful thing to experience. To have the ball roll off your fingers and seek its target eagerly, to throw your body into the exclamation your heart is feeling, to savor the note in your mouth until everyone else can taste its sweetness - those are things that the body was made to do, and when we finally grow into our talent we try not to miss the joy of it. Talent is physical for the artist, before it is ever emotional for anyone. God made talent and he put it into our bodies, and he made it to feel good.

3) The artists who are successful both commercially and artistically have worked hard. This is a cliche but you'd be amazed. A lot of people don't work hard. There is another mythology that idolizes talent, as though it elevates us to a nobility or upper-class life. If you're talented you don't have to work hard, is what the myth says, and talent is some kind of "yes" that is tattooed on our foreheads. Yes, you get to sing, and you don't; you have a ticket for the grand adventure, and you don't. Obviously many who lack talent don't have a ticket, but those who do are not living a life of leisure. Talented people might not have to sweat the basics, but they have to work incredibly hard. Sometimes talent means you can't ever be satisfied. Talent can be an ear for the language of music, but that means we can't speak our hearts in that language until we are fluent, and we may never feel fluent enough.

And we may not ever be happy with any other language. So we work.

You also can't tell, when someone is so good at what they do, what was effortless and what took agonizing years to master. You just can't tell, but artists in love with their art will do anything to win it completely, and they never forget how heartbreaking it was to suck at the thing we wanted more than anything.

4) The best artists value people. They see the art in everything. They value the ticket taker for his patience and humility. They understand how hard it is to be a stage manager, and they see that busy little woman all in black as a person who has talents that we singers may never even grasp. They are good listeners, not just to music, but to people, because they can't get joy from their talent unless everyone else does. Art is a shared thing, a moment we all breathe in together; some kinds of art have a time delay between the making and the receiving, but music is a union of performer and hearer that is intimate when it's right. And it's not right if we don't listen.

5) Mature artists see and respect the accomplishments of others. Beware the musician who pooh-poohs every successful musician you mention. "He's a hack." "They're so dated now." "You should see how much they have to tweak her voice in the studio." In the ongoing conversation between musicians and their audience, most of the successful ones are doing something right. They're saying something that touches hearts, or they have a vocal quality or a physical presence that can't be denied. I might think Britney Spears is tacky, but she's an amazing performer. I might not enjoy opera but I can't be anything but awed by the virtuosity and athleticism of that kind of singing. It reminds me of Solomon and the two women who claimed the same baby - the woman who couldn't bear to see the baby hurt, whether it was her child or not, is the woman I relate to. Music is my love, and if someone is creating it, I can see something good in it. Criticizing so quickly is like demeaning music itself, and it makes you wonder too ... is it so bad that someone else is more successful than we?

6) I think mature artists understand abundance. Because we have a connection to God, and there is always enough in God's economy. That may mean that we don't end up on TV, or on a yacht in the Mediterranean, because the wealth takes a different form. But if I trust in God's abundance, and that He gave me talent for a reason, then I might be able to keep my eyes open for where I am supposed to end up, and I might be able to maintain hope that there will be enough of whatever it is. Criticizing other artists makes us like hyenas fighting over a scrap of meat, and sometimes we end up taking from someone else just because we can. The habit of feeling cheated just roots in our hearts and we end up taking - turning our mikes up too loud, maligning other musicians behind their backs, taking credit for something we did not write or make, using power when we have it, as though we could store up for the lean times.

I have mentioned before that I had a mentor who refused to let me criticize other singers and always reminded me that there is room for everyone - because if there is room for everyone, there is room for me.

There actually is not room for me now, in the unpleasant environment I'm in, with musicians who have not traveled enough of the road. All I can do is remember the times when I was just like them, and wonder who I hurt as much as they now try to hurt me. It all comes back around, the hurts and the eventual wisdom. And soon, I hope, the forgiveness.


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