People I meet ask me "What do you do?". When I tell them I am a musician, they smile and invariably say "Really? I used to be really good at playing piano/guitar/bagpipes when I was young, but I gave it up. I wish I hadn't because I could have been a professional and it must be so exciting to be a musician.". I stretch my lips over my teeth in a parody of an answering smile and agree. Then I search for someone I know so I can tell the enthusiastic person I am talking to that I promised to give that friend over there my recipe for stewed emu and apricots. Shameless, I know. I can't speak for anyone else, but I find it difficult to chat to people about how wonderful it is to be a professional musician. Probably because I remember my mother teaching me that lying is something you just don't do.
I didn't always feel like this. I remember in school how being one of the "music group" was fun and suitably satisfying to the ego. All the younger students looked up to us because we were the "best musicians in the school". We would wax poetic on all sorts of musical issues, practise three or four hours a day (homework didn't matter) and we all agreed that this was the life for us. The togetherness, the feeling of "family" was the highlight. We were people who had a common interest, and that was a passion for playing. Nowhere else have I felt the same feeling of oneness with other people, all through the medium of music. We were drunk on it. We all agreed that nothing in our lives would be more important than this. We would give up everything for our music, for that electrifying feeling of passion and total absorption as we created our own little paradise with our hands, voices, mind and soul. Nothing existed while we played, nothing but the music itself. We told ourselves that we wanted to be performers so that we could bring a piece of our private paradise to those who could not create it themselves. We had the interests of humanity at heart.
I went to a well known institution to further my studies in music. We were all told how wonderful we were. We had beaten five hundred other would-be musicians to get our positions. We were right to feel proud of our accomplishments, indeed we were expected to feel proud. But we weren't just proud, we were arrogant. Cliques formed, as they will, based not on personality, but on ability and on which instrument you played. Those who were seen to be the best of the best were encouraged by their instructors to be egotistical and condescending. I hated the place, but then I was not one of the "darlings". For the first time I realised that there was more to the music world than my earlier perception. I hoped that once I had finished my study that I would find the professional world more like the experiences of my school days. I was wrong.
It took me five years to realise it, but my "joy in music" was dead. It died a slow death, caused by the bickering and the politics of the real music world. I was finally where I wanted to be, a professional musician, but I hated it. I had to force myself to play where before it had been as natural as breathing. I struggled, wondering where the old passion had gone, but I came up with no solutions. So I quit. Only a few people understood, most were shocked and disbelieving. Others who played my instrument were ecstatic. Less competition for them plus the added bonus of another position open. I didn't care, all I wanted was out so that I could start living the "normal" life I had always scorned.
I've started learning a new instrument. I'm very bad at it, but it is fun to go back to the basics. I am also rediscovering my love of music. It wasn't dead after all, just in hibernation. I will never make the mistakes I made earlier, I will stay an amateur for the rest of my life. It is worth it for the pure selfishness of that love. Someone once told me that you should never make your hobby your career, but I didn't see music as a hobby, I saw it as a way of life. I realised too late that all the things I loved about music I loved because it wasn't a career. I can't speak for other musicians, but I was unable to ignore the politics and egos that exist in that world, so my music suffered. I am proud to be an amateur.