To musick or not to musick

I used to be a music snob. Hell, I’m still a music snob – I’m just in recovery. I’m not sure when I started praying at that altar of self-righteousness, but when I did it became an unhealthy preoccupation. I burdened myself with the hypercritical snootiness of an artistic crusader blessed and cursed with the holy call to cleanse the masses of narrow, commercial tastes so that they may embrace artistic music that did not have to sound good in order to be great…and so on and so forth. I’m only being moderately hyperbolic.

Of course, I was not alone in the aforementioned crusade, and in my various circles of friends this elitism was encouraged and even fostered. The rules were never explicitly stated or codified but they were nontheless known, and any infraction was met with firm rebuke. Each rule was complex with various qualifiers and conditions that helped us determine difficult questions of status such as (a) what constituted popular music and (b) when, how, and with whom we were allowed to listen to it to ensure that the music remained cool but not so cool that it would be known by others and become, in turn, uncool.

Looking back on it, I can see it for what it was: bullying. I had a lot of knowledge about music and I wielded it like Obi-Wan Kenobi with a lightsaber. The best way to make a bully is to bully him, and I was a byproduct of that tried and true equation.

This ideology became borderline pathological by the time I went off to college. I entered a conservatory environment that fed on and propagated this ideology, and I spiraled. Whereas before I merely dabbled, by immersing myself in a cutthroat environment predicated on perfection (as deemed by others) and execution (as evaluated by others) I was fully indoctrinated and became the grand poobah of music shaming.

We are an American Idol generation living in a golden age of music shaming that allows us to call in votes that have tangible results we condemn or condone the following week. The byproduct of that power was to internalize a baseline of what is “good” and “bad” when making music, and we are quick to vote ourselves off the show if we don’t meet that standard in our day to day musicking. So now we voraciously consume music seemingly in effort to find the perfect creative expression to function as a proxy for our own lost music.

In losing my own creative expression, I lost a foothold in the aesthetics of listening, creating, and sharing in music. Each of those means of “being” in music became distorted. Instead of actively listening to the music to hear the intent of the art and the expression of the artist, I listened to the reactions of others around and to the music so that I could best determine the “good” from the “bad”. Instead of creating with the intent to move myself and others, I created to impress and fill a scorecard that was written and operated by everybody but me. Instead of sharing in a meaningful creative experience with others, I claimed my experience as paramount and attempted to deprive others of their own if it was not consistent with mine.

These were harsh truths to face about myself as I transferred out of the conservatory environment and began my schooling in music therapy. As part of my training I was forced to confront my epistemological foundations of music, which meant tackling questions as fundamental and vexing as: What is music? How do I know music? If I know music, how do I know what is not music? These questions shined a spotlight on my damaged interactions and relationship with music. Thankfully, these important questions did not require meaningful answers at the time, just a meaningful process in search of answers. Integral to that process, though I was not aware of this at the time, was distinguishing between engaging with music and playing music.

To play music is to “do” music. It is the claiming of ownership over an artistic process and the subsequent artistic product. The “player” interprets and performs as dictated by his or her artistic understanding, which in turn is tempered by the mission and expectation of the conductor, ensemble, funding organization or any other external source of power with direct influence. When music is played, it is usually played at somebody else; those not directly involved in the playing of the music are not involved in its creation, and they are granted limited latitude in their interpretation or critical response.

Engaging with music is a form of “being” in and with music. There is no ownership over process or product. The process is co-constructed and the product is co-owned. To be present and mindful in the presence of music is to share in its creation. Breathing, body posture, eye movement, affective state…these inherent features of humanity, plus innumerable more, contribute to the music experience as much as a string being plucked or key being pressed.

Many of my colleagues will disagree with this statement, but playing music, even when our role is to perform, is not a feature or function of music therapy. Anybody can play music at somebody because it requires minimal nuance. That’s not to take away the difficulties of performance anxiety or the intense practice of a performer. All things being equal, though, playing music and giving it to others is limited in its challenge because it does not require deep, sustained, and empathic engagement with anybody other than yourself.

Engagement with music, however, is the skill we struggle with for all those years in class, practicum, and internship. How can I make music with another person in a way that we are collaborators and partners? How can we make music so that they are assured that our time is about their music and not my own, even if they never had formal or informal training in music? Most importantly, how can my clients be empowered in the act of creating? I am not an expert on anybody’s illness or disease, nor do I hold keys to doors that open up insight or retain prescriptions that equate behavior with music. Each person is the expert on themselves. What I am an expert in is structuring individualized music experiences with others that facilitates a wellness meeting their needs, not my own.

In gaining this understanding of music and musicking, my music snobbery moved into recovery. This judgment and faux outrage at the breaking of arbitrary rules of musical coolness that a group of hipsters once unofficially designated never followed me into the therapy session, and neither did the performance anxiety that dogged me as I sought an unreachable perfection I projected onto others. Recognizing that I never, even as a student, became nervous sharing in music with clients keyed me into the fact that I was learning to approach music as a personal aesthetic constructed around subjective meaning and value. What right did I have to challenge a client in a moment of expression, or deprive a client of an opportunity to actualize wellness and change because I find Barbara Streisand to be over the top or Roy Orbinson’s vocal inflections annoying?

Recently, a review of Coldplay’s Ghost Stories has made the rounds, embodying a cynicism that I once found amusing. Reading it, one almost gets the sense the reviewer is finding greater joy in deeming the music awful than he would if he found the music enlightening. It’s fine that he doesn’t like the album, or even that he finds its inspiration disingenuous. This isn’t a plea for everybody to simply unilaterally love all music for the mere sake of it being art. We can, however, choose to respect why an artist chose to create and the responses it evokes in those engaged with it.

As part of my recovery, I stopped shaming myself for my guilty pleasures. And because of that, I can tell you with pride that I like Supertramp. They’re quirky and coax out a totally unique sound that always vividly reminds me of the house I spent the most time in as a child. And for every run, I’m listening to the Paramore station on Spotify. That power punk princess bubblegum genre of music is catchy as hell and keeps my feet light and legs pumping like pistons. And when my daughter gets older for sure I’ll introduce her to Radiohead, but only in a mix that also includes Styx and Justin Timberlake. And no, I’m not impressed with your library catalog of obscure bands and albums that only a few people are allowed to know because more than 100 downloads on iTunes would make it instantly uncool.

As I’ve been able to forgive myself these trespasses on humanity, I’ve stopped shaming others as well. I don’t internally mock the crowds at Britney Spears concerts anymore, nor do I make up witty retorts to Facebook shout-outs for One Direction. To be sure, those thoughts and reactions still emerge rather organically, but I’m usually able to fight them down and re-channel that judgment into a curiosity about why and how that music is connecting with them. Regardless of whether I find that music personally appealing or not, it holds meaning for that individual. Whether that meaning is little and frivolous or big and earth-shattering is of no matter; one is not qualitatively “better” or “worse” than another, and it will never be my job to make that assessment.

As a music therapist I feel tasked to work with people to achieve optimal wellness as best they understand and desire it, and the first step in that thousand mile journey is to bear witness and honor the privilege of having that meaning shared with me.

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