When discussing my artistic motivations, I’m forced to come to terms with a variety of things, many—in fact most—of which I still have yet to fully understand. I’m by no means done with even the initiation of my learning, and consequently, so many of these things are in flux, the unhealthy transforming (hopefully!) into the healthy, and the healthy strengthening into even stronger foundations.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve always had a passion for learning and growing myself. When I get fascinated by a subject, I want to delve into it, completely immersing myself in it until I can grasp not only every fact I’m capable of understanding, but also their implications and subtleties. This is certainly far from the case in all of my academic pursuits (I simply can’t work up a passion for many of the more hard-line logical and mathematical disciplines such as chemistry, physics, calculus, computer science, etc…) but for the most part, I revel in the chance to learn. Though for most of my life this has manifested itself most clearly in my enthusiastic study of more philosophical, abstract, and humanitarian/“liberal arts”- type subjects (literature, languages, ethics, history, etc.), since my discovery of my musical calling, I’ve easily applied it here as well. I love to learn and grow, to expand my mind and better my soul through study and practice, both intellectual and musical. I’ve said it many times before: my practice room is my church. It’s where I take my problems, my aspirations and hopes, my goals, and my drive and determination. It’s where I confront my demons and shape myself. With progress and understanding comes growth, and with growth comes the insatiable hunger for more progress and understanding.
On the other hand, I’ve also always been extremely competitive and, quite honestly, impatient. I inherently want to ‘win’, be it at whatever endeavor. I want to prove myself to my mentors, my peers, and ultimately myself. I get easily frustrated with slow progress, resulting from when my ambition outweighs my patience. Growing up in a public school culture that endorses and feeds such competitiveness in academics and extracurricular activities did me no favors, as (especially musically) I always felt pushed by competitions like the All-State Band audition process to ‘get better than everyone else, FASTER than everyone else’, regardless of the consequences. This led to shortcuts unintentionally taken and ultimately distorted my view of HOW to approach my inherent passion for a very long time. Because I was so passionate and driven, I was willing to do anything to get better, which, coupled with the impressed mentality that the best progress is fast, flawless, unyielding progress, led me to seek all of the answers, solutions, and ‘AHA! Quick-fixes’ that I could come across. I learned that mistakes are bad, and that ‘good playing’, no matter how unhealthily produced, is good.
It was a road to Hell paved with the good intention of a genuine desire to improve artistically.
During my junior year of high school, I was forced to finally confront how destructive this mentality is. I found myself faced with severe self-confidence issues caused by the manifestation of my genetic predisposition to anxiety problems amidst the development of what became the most significant hurdle of my musical career to date. I became outright fearful at even the thought of practicing due to the constant difficulty I was having with my instrument. There were many days I had to simply force myself to practice for as long as I could bear to hear myself play. I came away from nearly every practice session in either a blind rage at myself or with tears of frustration nearly streaming down my face. I was deriving almost no joy from what I had previously felt to be my calling in life. It was devastating and extremely difficult to say the least. The aforementioned mindset that mistakes are ‘bad’ wreaked havoc on me, leading me to believe that I was incompetent and destined to musical failure.
In the heart’s deep core, however, the same flame that had always fueled my true passions continued to burn. I wanted it. I wanted to be better. Not to make my parents proud or to win the best job or get into the best school, or even to win against all of my competitors. I wanted it for ME. I wanted to fulfill my potential because without the quest, the journey, the growth, the connection to life and the collective human soul brought to me by music I did not feel whole. The negative aspects of my ambition, corrupted by impatience and fear, may have covered my true motivations, but they did not – could not – smother them or snuff them out.
The two moments that began to erode the destructive prison I had built for myself both occurred in Chicago.
The first was my lesson in April of 2011 with Michael Mulcahy, professor of trombone at Northwestern University and 2nd trombone in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Without going into extreme detail, I left the lesson with my conceptions of ‘success’ and ‘progress’ significantly challenged by a simple philosophy he impressed to me. Summed up (but not verbatim), it is as follows:
“Progress is a SLOW and SIGNIFICANT process that comes from the daily devotion to the building of excellent habits. Mistakes and difficulty are to be expected, it’s how you learn from them that counts.”
For the first time, I began to understand that it was okay to not seek instant performance perfection, that mistakes are only mistakes if we allow them to control us.
The second moment came several months later, when I had returned to Chicago to take a weeklong masterclass, again taught by Professor Mulcahy. Work, practice, and progress were still painful 99% of the time, but they had become easier to bear. The burden of my own mind had begun to lift. This was my first real musical experience outside of a Texas high school environment (as mentioned above for its competitive culture). Here were fantastic musicians from around the world, performing in a way that blew my mind, most of whom I had never heard of. While walking to Navy Pier during an off-day from the class, a feeling, an epiphany washed over me, struck me so deeply and profoundly that I simply stood, momentarily shocked to stillness. If I ever performed at anywhere NEAR the level of any of the other participants in the class, so long as I knew that I was fulfilling my potential and being honest with myself about my goals, abilities, strengths, and weaknesses, I would be happy. It wouldn’t matter what orchestra I performed in or what school I went to. Artistic fulfillment transcends those things.
That was the climax (so far) of my struggle with ‘bad’, self-destructive motivation. The path began to move slowly and steadily more positively after that day. It’s been far from easy; many days still felt like two steps back for every one forward, but slowly, so subtly as to be almost imperceptible, things began to shift. To improve. I still panicked occasionally (especially around college audition season) and still struggled for many days, but beneath it all laid a newfound security in not only the knowledge, but the UNDERSTANDING that the road to true success and fulfillment is long, narrow, and never any semblance of straight. Even though I still occasionally find difficulty battling my own fear-based and negative motivation, I’m so much closer to fully understanding and harnessing my positive ambition, that same self-fueling passion that’s always driven me in the pursuits I love.
It’s a difficult thing to do, extricating the good motivation from beneath the bad, but it’s an important step in every artist’s journey, a step that I’m still working on, but that I love every second of. I owe a great deal of thanks in this to my teachers, past and present, and they’ll be the subjects of a post very soon.
I am motivated – truly, positively motivated – by the desire to improve myself, to grow, to learn, to understand, to fulfill my artistic potential and my soul, and above all, to share my heart and my passion to connect with my audience. Performers are, above all, conduits for the human experience. The more complete the conduit, the more profound the experience for performer and for audience.