The Small Joys

I have been lucky enough throughout my life as a musician to experience a few very brief moments where I understood the wonder and the interconnectedness of the music that I was performing. If you are very, very lucky, you may get a handful of these moments in your lifetime and you don’t always have to perform music in order to achieve them. I call the experience understanding beauty but it is called many things – in the zone, nirvana, sartori, seeing God, a mystical experience, transcendence. Whatever you want to call the experience, it doesn’t happen often to a person, if at all.

We are creatures of pleasure so seeking out the experience of understanding beauty is a worthwhile pursuit. The moment of joy gives you an incredible sense of wellbeing; it’s a wonderful rush and performers often spend their lives chasing that high. Those moments can sustain us through great adversity.

What happens when we constantly seek out those rare, brief moments? We find ourselves constantly disappointed and underwhelmed and many of us give up performing. For every moment of transcendent joy there are a hundred minor disappointments. That phrase wasn’t properly executed, the tuning wasn’t quite right, I forgot the words – the banal list goes on. Moments of understanding beauty are so rare and we have to bring a great many personal resources into the performance before we can even hope to achieve musical sartori. These moments don’t just happen; we have to bring all of our mental and emotional resources along with our skills and training in order to facilitate that one brief moment of transcendent joy. We can’t just expect the moment to happen; we must bring something to the table in exchange.

At present, I don’t think I have the mental or the emotional resources to exchange for a moment of true musical bliss. Is it burn out, raising a family in the modern world, having a severely disabled child, occasional depression and anxiety or the physical and mental weariness that comes with middle age? Maybe and probably to all of the above but this is not the format in which I want to address any of that. Instead, I want to acknowledge that perhaps we cannot and should not expect nor even seek out transcendent experiences.

If you cannot understand beauty through music or other art forms for whatever reasons, the chemical path to some but that path is not available to me. I have to earn a living to feed my family, I have two children who depend on me and I cannot afford a day or two of being out of my head on magic mushrooms, LSD, ayahuasca or any hallucinogen. Those things are for the young and/or those without any real responsibilities. That’s not where I’m at right now but anyone who can do those things is welcome to them. Have a good time.

I am unlikely to have a religious experience any time soon. As I have stated on previous blogs, I’m an infidel not an atheist. Religious belief doesn’t work for me because I can’t get my head away from the contradictions in the scriptures. I have not had any religious experience that sufficiently supports my adoption of a particular faith. I’m very happy for anyone who can find purpose in meaning in religion and even have the spiritual experience of understanding beauty. It’s another way of expressing one’s humanity.

Many years ago, on my second album, I wrote a song called Angel In The House. One verse of the song has the lines, “She has no will of her own. Duty brings desire to its knees” – pretty harsh, I know. I was childless at the time and I was referring to how children blunt a woman’s desire for any other life. I was not entirely wrong even then and I confess that I still like that line, even more so now that I have two children. Now though, I appreciate the line more because it’s true. Duty does bring desire to its knees because it has to. You can’t just do whatever you want and have whatever spiritual experiences you want if you have people who depend on you. You can’t have everything.

If we can’t have the occasional moment of understanding beauty, what can we have instead? Perhaps, as performers, we should seek out the small joys such as a well-tuned phrase, a stirring melody or a pretty chord progression in one or two bars, even if those moments only happen once in a piece. We should not just focus on the performance but the rehearsal process too. Shifting our pursuit of transcendent joy to gentle appreciation of the minutiae may help us avoid the toxic perfectionism that bars us from really enjoying ourselves as performers. We don’t know how the music that we perform, redolent with flaws, affects the individual audience members. The audience brings their own joys and sorrows of their lives to a performance and it is possible for them to have the experience of understanding beauty because of what we do even if we have not shared the same transcendent joy simultaneously. Perhaps focusing on the small joys along the journey can sustain us when musical sartori is out of reach for the foreseeable future.