What to do when you feel powerless

This is a distressing week.  Humanity has been given a second notice, and I feel powerless to help:


In this post, I aim to tackle a feeling of powerlessness we feel as musicians, as a metaphor or mirror to anyone who feels powerless.

As a musician, we are oftentimes confronted with the duality of our constant efforts to get better at our craft, while being relatively powerless to the market forces and cultural factors that can sway whether the rent gets paid or not.

Many of us spend our childhoods practicing hours a day, studying music theory, listening to recordings, attending concerts, and constantly critiquing ourselves.  For others, this happens later on, but the point is that at some point in our musical development we are instilled with the drive to always believe we are “not enough”, and can always be better, no matter how good we are.

This adherence to an ideal of “practice makes permanent” gives us a feeling of control.  If we practice hard enough, we can control our performance.  If we control our performance, we can succeed in being musical.  If we succeed in being musical, we can succeed at life (eg. making money, having confidence, advancing the field, etc.).

But, this sense of control is illusory.  All we have done by spending countless days in a practice room is to hone a very specific skill or set thereof, and in the end we are not in control of even our performance.  We can never master our performance anxiety, perfect each note, make every audience member pleased, or satisfy our personal artistic standards.  We will never have the sum of all things, or the thing that is greater than the sum, that is the perfect musician: completely in control technically, artistically free, transcending the bonds of normal existence.

It just doesn’t exist.  Not in music, and not in life.  Yes, we can cause things to happen, such as a better performance (or climate change).  But actual control does not exist.

As musicians, our injuries and medical conditions can slow our progress.  Our society’s reverence, or lack thereof, of our craft can make living as a musician very difficult economically.  Our own self-doubts can lead us into addiction to substances and other things.  (Even thinking can be an addiction.)

Yet, we still want a semblance of control.

I have a proposal: exchange a semblance of control for an amount of effort.  A real, concrete amount of effort that you admit may not cause anything, change anything, control anything, do anything at all.  Something with both good intentions and well-thought supportive structures (eg. research, human resources, tested methodologies).  Then, do it.  Don’t do it to make yourself feel better.  Don’t do it to regain a sense of control.  You can’t have control.  I will repeat it: you can’t have control.  Sorry.

With persistence and hope, maybe things will change for the better.  Don’t get wedded to a particular outcome; just do what you can.  Day in and day out.  That is the only way change happens.  And, to the point of distress over not having control, releasing yourself from a need to control is a key way to alleviate that anxiety.  Act, put in effort, but do not expect to control.

As a musician, this can look like:

  1. Practicing every day, with purpose.  Setting realistic goals.  Not envisioning yourself how you want to be, but seeing yourself as who you are, today.  Have goals, but don’t make those goals define your time in the practice room.  Enjoy the process.  Push yourself, but do not let the pushing consume you.
  2. Talking with people about music, even if they do not share similar interests.  If you are in a school or university, have a conversation with someone about music.  Ask them about the music they make or listen to, and share your experience as a musician.  Treat them with kindness and respect.  Perhaps you can invite them to one of your concerts, or listen to their favorite music.
  3. Writing about music.  Start a blog, and write about the purpose of music in today’s society.  Do not rant.  Do not make it all about you.  Start a conversation, and make it approachable and readable.  Use correct spelling and grammar when writing prose.
  4. Talking with young people.  Share the musical world with them.  Show them compassion.  Expand their world in a constructive way.  Do not over- or under-structure the conversation.  Encourage their personal creativity.

The world is really suffering.  There isn’t much one can do as an individual.  And no one really has control.  We cause a lot of bad things to happen, but we don’t have control over good and bad.  The only thing we can do is cause, by putting effort into each person, each relationship we build.

Maybe you are as scared as I am about the link a the top of the article.  Maybe we can both make some effort, not to control, but to contribute.



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