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“Why Be a Musician?” - by Kim LaCoste
Why would anyone on Earth want to become part of a field where there are times when a fair playing ground is nonexistent? It’s not like sports, where you learn what camaraderie/teamwork means. Well, you do learn it to a point, but personally and I’m talking about you as an individual – why do you allow yourself to undergo the physical and mental strains? It’s because you can’t help it… No matter how hard the road is for some of us, we just can’t stop… Giving up on music is like a slow death. What kills me is that when you’re a kid, adults tell you how “nice” it is to play an instrument. They don’t inform you about all of the crap that you’re going to endure later. I guess they figure that you’ll find out soon enough, so why tell you about the pitfalls?
I’ve talked about how one’s life relates to music; how you shouldn’t allow yourself to be around people who would rather see you lie to yourself than learn; how the wrong significant other can really do a job to your head, et cetera. But it’s that inner desire, that connection to an art form that is like blood to you, that you wouldn’t be able to let go of if you tried. Hmm…maybe I should change that. Of course, you could just say, “Oh the hell with it!” and stop playing music, but in the end, you’re going to regret it. But doesn’t this field of the arts drive you nuts at times? Some of you reading this article may have put many years into it and you still haven’t found the infamous rainbow. I understand how you feel all too well. You sacrifice and spend money on everything from instruments to amplifiers; you pay for expensive electronic keyboards, music lessons, music software, manuscript paper, whatever, all in the interest of your art, hoping that someone will appreciate it. You play gigs where you have a great audience and other times you may’ve played gigs where you might as well been furniture in the room because no one was listening. Musicians go through a lot of humiliation and it’s almost sadistic what we’ll put ourselves through for our music. To reiterate, why would you want to be a musician? You have to go through all kinds of ups and downs. Some people think that we’re crazy to put ourselves through what can be defined as a hard life. But, when you love your instrument and your music, it’s an addiction. You can’t discard it as if it were something you could just toss in the trash. On the other hand, I’ve seen some people resign from their music and never look back. They have no regrets. They have no time for back-stabbing folks, people who’ll steal your musical ideas, club owners who won’t pay you what you deserve. It’s just a matter of how much your music means to you. If music means a great deal to you, you’ll never leave it, in spite of all the negative situations you may encounter every now and then. That is because there is an element of yourself and your music that transcends all of the negativity.

I believe it was Duke Ellington who said that “Music is a jealous mistress” and boy, is she ever! Not only is the structured part of music (such as music theory) a pain a times, your instruments will “turn on you” if you neglect them! One week, I didn’t get a chance to practice much on my acoustic-bass. By the time of my gig that weekend, my instrument was so recalcitrant! It kicked my butt for most of the night. The tension of the strings seemed tougher to deal with, as if my bass was saying, “I’ll teach you to ignore me!” The bass and I should have had boxing gloves on and trading punches, with me losing! So, I’ve done my best not to let that happen again. Sometimes when people see me walking in a club with my acoustic-bass, they’ll remark, “That thing is bigger than you are!” Whenever I hear that, I’ll think, “Yeah, it’s bigger than me physically but not bigger than me mentally.” It’s something how you have to be loyal to an instrument. What other way could you be?

There are gigs where you have a great time and then some gigs are so horrible, it’s like going through torture. I had a job earlier this summer where I had to work with a substitute drummer and pianist. The night was terrible. The drummer was “all cymbals” and the pianist was stubborn. There were tunes where the pianist was messing up the form and I was trying to play certain notes to show the pianist what the chord changes were, but the person was so stubborn, it was like playing with a brick wall. She wouldn’t even try to hear where I was within the form of the song and all that I could think about was leaving! I almost did that after the first set, but that would’ve been unprofessional, so I endured the rest of the night for the sake of the singer. Instead of leaving the gig, I went outside for some air and swore for a few minutes! So you see? We musicians must be nuts! We deal with everything from good singers/musicians to bad ones, some we’d even like to drop-kick into another state in the country! But do we give up? No! We just keep chugging along, composing our music, playing our gigs, hoping that something will come from all those years of hard work.

There is so much for us musicians to learn… In fact, wise and open-minded musicians never stop learning. There’s too much out there to absorb. I love classical works and jazz to death, but sometimes when I get ready for a gig, I play music on my stereo system by a rock band. I like the energy in rock bands, so I “fuel” myself with some of their energy before I go to play music, even though the music that I’m going to be playing is totally different in character. There is no way that I’ll ever reach the point where I’ll be saying, “Okay, I’ve learned everything. I don’t need to learn anything else.” That would be the most stupid thing that I could ever do. I love to pick brains and if someone has something to teach me, I’m not going to reject it.

Oh yeah: then there are the physical sacrifices made. That’s why you have to do your best to keep yourself in shape. I can’t sit and play, so I keep my weight well-proportioned to my height. I’m not skinny, but I’m not fat, either. For me personally, I learned that in order to play the electric or acoustic-bass, I needed a certain amount of strong muscle mass. And before you folks even think it, I don’t look like a wrestler, so no wisecracks! I’ve found this muscle mass idea to be the case with some drummers as well. However, I also learned that in order to keep yourself physically strong, you have to think like an athlete. I’m not talking about using steroids. There are muscle pain relievers that don’t have a scent when you rub it on your arms, shoulders or legs (esp. on the calves). The muscle balms keep you loose so that you don’t get stiff. If you’ve had some back problems or whatever, take care of your body before you go to play so that you don’t put it under unnecessary strain. Exercising on the day of your performances helps greatly, too. Think about all the years you’ve used your fingers, your eyes, and your back. This is especially true in the case of drummers, bassist and guitarists, who have to carry heavy equipment all the time. I suppose I shouldn’t forget about tuba players in marching bands, walking around with those instruments, wearing their shoulders out. In some cases, your hearing is affected from all the years of playing at venues where the sound systems were loud. I also shouldn’t disregard singers. If they don’t take care to sing in their natural range(s) that are suitable to their style(s), they can cause great damage, sometimes to the point of losing their ability to sing. I read an article once that stated playing a trumpet can affect your heart. I don’t see players of that instrument ceasing to play it. Therefore, not only is there mental pressure on a person to endure music, the pressure is physical as well.

One last point I’d like to make is the communication between you and your instrument. I’ve talked about how music can touch you in ways that nothing else can in previous articles. Well, the instrument you play is your other self; it’s just you in a different form, right? If you don’t play your instrument, it’s self-abuse. You need that communication. Your instrument helps you to vent your frustrations as well as give you great joy. Why am I a musician? A sister of mine told me something once: she said that she and my mother were talking about me one day and she told my sister that I was “born to be a musician.” My mother was right; I was… I love music very much and it has been a lifetime friend to me through my instruments and my compositions. I know that there will always be obstacles in this business, but things could always be worse…

BY Kim Michele LaCoste

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