The (all-too) Human-side of Music

1 04 2008

If the recent slew of geek-oriented posts has been disheartening, well, here’s a bit of fresh air – an entry about Music.

…and that’s about as fresh as this post is going to get, because this calls for some serious introspection on my part – to stand at the edge and look down into the dark abyss…and realize I’m looking into my own heart.Be warned: I’m going to try and be as honest as possible in this post – this might require me to say things the ordinary Filipino mind usually considers offensive. Caveat Lexor – Let the Reader Beware. And now to the brass tacks…

God has seen it fit to bless me with the ability to become fairly good at whatever it is I set my mind to – my students can attest to this to an embarrassing degree – and before anything else, I would like to say I am thankful. Of course, to a certain degree, I believe anyone can become good at whatever they set their minds too, and the only thing keeping them from doing so is that they don’t go about committing to doing that thing until they’re good at it – but I have also recently come to suspect that my ability to span several, often unrelated fields is not a common attribute.

Let’s get on with this post before you start thinking this is really a stirring tribute to me

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Anyway, I say this because this gift of mine often places me in “A Cyclops in the Land of the Blind” sort of situations, wherein I sound like a total genius simply because the people around me aren’t all that knowledgeable about the subject at hand (and not because I’m an expert on the field). Music is no exception.

I would be lying if I said I did not enjoy the boost to the ego that these situations bring – I do notice the looks of admiration; I do hear the words of flattery; and even when I try to brush these off with a smile and a thank you or a bit of social misdirection (During concerts with The Orchestra, whenever I am congratulated by gushing parents and audience members, I point out to them that it is the musicians who did the playing, not me), I do feel good inside. I do like being told that I’m a genius.

I hope you’re not ready to dismiss me as another loon who is totally full of himself. Do read on…Unfortunately, I am aware that my only claim to fame is that I just happen to be among people who know and can do less than I can – it’s not because I really am a genius (I like to say so from time to time, but I don’t really believe it). With this in mind, I am also aware that at some point I will run into someone who really does know more than I do. I’ve observed that when this happens in the context of music, my world comes crumbling down.

In an effort to prop-up (what an ironically descriptive adjective) my ego, I resort to one-sided arguments and shouting matches in front of the bathroom mirror. I say things like, “So what if he/she is talented? He/She is a flipping moron!” I am ashamed to admit that when I do that, I tend to favor the “straw man” fallacy, where I set-up my opponent the way I imagine them to be and attack that. I can see through that trick immediately, but I cannot seem to stop myself. My little coward of an ego demands it.

It’s just ironic that I often tell my students not to feel insecure about someone being better than them when I myself have trouble swallowing my own medicine.I mean, the reality is that no matter how good you get, there will always be someone better than you – just as there will always be someone who sucks worse. It’s just that as you get better, the number of people who suck compared to you increase and you meet fewer and fewer people who actually can show you a thing or two that you don’t know. Maybe this is why when we do bump into people like that, we go in with hackles raised, thinking horrifically murderous thoughts, a fake smile pinned to our faces.

And yet the best musicians in the world – the kind I can’t help but bow down before and adore – often speak of actually seeking out people better than themselves in order to further expand their learning. Now I think this is great – what I’d like to know is how they can be so…un-insecure about it! The guitar instructor at school has my eternal envy for being so downright humble! In case you didn’t know, going to a teacher when you’re a capable musician yourself has all the appeal of an unnecessary lobotomy; you don’t want to do it! In fact, the more I think about it, the more I realize that part of me would rather continue in this fantasy that I am some musical genius rather than face the grim reality that I still suck, and suck badly. 

…and I am so ashamed of the fact that I cannot seem to suck-in my ego, swallow my pride, and relish my humble pie – and yet I have the reckless audacity to demand that others do so.

I tell myself I’m willing to be taught – as long as the teacher is not some stuck-up, self-important buffoon. However, a little voice in my head quickly retorts, “But what if the teacher is a stuck-up, self-important buffoon? Will you let your pride get in the way of the opportunity to learn?” At this point, I am squirming uncomfortably in my seat – I want to say I will humble myself and submit…but deep inside, I know I won’t, and in so doing I become a stuck-up, self-important buffoon myself.

“If only all teachers were like me: kind, patient, supportive; I swear I’ll have no trouble submitting to that kind of teacher.” I tell myself. But the fact is that there are a lot of teachers who are the exact opposite of those qualities…and they can play rings around me. What will I do?

I am often tempted to just throw in the towel and hunker-down with my instruments and their respective exercise books – I imagine myself emerging from my woodshed a fantastic musician – and being able to claim that I am indeed “self-taught”, complete with a disdainful sniff and a scornfully upturned nose.

Sigh. The sheer hubris of my imagination is staggering.

To my dearly beloved students: Forgive me if at times I made you feel like the scum of the earth – I assure you this was never my intention (unless you were being a royal idiot, in which case you were the scum of the earth). Please be patient with your teacher – he has issues he must wrestle with, just like you. He just doesn’t share the wrestling with you.

Well…tonight, he just did.

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