How To Become a Musician or, Have You Earned That Euphymia
First, try to fit in with the rest of the crowd at an early age. Be a jock, a brain, the school’s fashion icon. Fail through complete humiliation. Go home and sift through your sibling’s extensive CD collection. Look up an “emo” artist. Simple Plan. Yellowcard. Find their old guitar lying dusty and neglected under a pile of old games instead. Pick it up. Tune it. Fool around with different chords. Grab your old notebook filled with lousy poems – a recent attempt at finding a clique – and hunt for one that rhymes. Give it a melody. Play it for your mother when she gets home. She’s grounded and sometimes irritable. She has a son who’s failing out of school and a husband addicted to vicodin and booze. She’ll listen halfheartedly while scrubbing paint from her hands and advise you to put the guitar back where you found it before running to her third job in an attempt to make ends meet, turning off the heat on her way out. Continue playing in the kitchen until your fingers have lost feeling from the cold and bleed.
In your high school, fill an elective by signing up for a music theory class. Your teacher bears an uncanny resemblance to the druggie on “That 70s Show” and plays guitar with a violin bow. You discuss the importance of tonic and dominant and the magic of modulations. Your final project is to write a short composition. Walk home instead of taking the bus. Muse at the natural rhythm of things. Pull out the guitar and start strumming a melody. You want to write a barcarolle. Play a few lines. Pen them down. Count the beats. Wrong emphasis. Try and fail four more times. Move on to a waltz. A march. Feel chained down by time restrictions and write a piece without measures. Fail the project.
Save up your allowance and walk to Mrs. Capo’s – the local piano teacher – when you have enough for a lesson. This is middle C. The lines are E, G, B, D, F. Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge. Make your own mnemonic. Even Green Baboons Deserve Friends. Start staying after school to practice on the school’s piano. Tell your mother you’re tutoring.
Next year join band. They need a trombone. Get laughed at by kids on the bus when you get stuck in between seats. Forget to put it in the car one morning and have your mother back over it. Drop band and take chorus instead. Graduate with a high GPA and no friends. Go to college as a history major. Toss your sibling’s guitar in with your luggage while no one’s looking.
Decide that college life isn’t all it’s cut out to be. Your roommate is loud and always there. Take to living in the music building and only return to dorm life to sleep. Attend every performance held in the music hall. Fill an elective with a music composition course. Your teacher wears keyboard suspenders and talks about music as the universal language. You listen to operas and learn the rules set by the masters. Mozart. Beethoven. Brahms. Learn to hear things in music – death, longing, a conversation between lovers.
Fall in love and have your heart broken. Write a piece about the experience. Share it with your class and have them discuss your repeated use of parallel fifths and chord progressions that make no theoretical sense. Take it home and rewrite it to fit their unyielding rules. Hate it. Write another piece about the pain of a tree losing its leaves to the bitter winter. Your class says much of the same things “Your rhythms flow smoothly but you can’t logically have a IV, III, ii chord progression. The proper ending is a IV V I progression. Always IV V I” Get your manuscript back covered in red ink. Return to your dorm angry with Mozart.
Spend the rest of the semester putting sweat and blood into your composition class and let other classes fall by the wayside. Make the logical choice. Switch majors.
Pick up a smoking habit in the hopes of that scratchy jazz voice and live in a practice room. Coffee is your new best friend. The only happiness you experience is pounding out your emotions on a keyboard. Your mother thinks you’ve developed a social phobia.
Why are you a musician? Where does the music come from – sound, or silence? These are the questions you will ponder the rest of your career. They are akin to life questions like: Why do people love? Or: Where does love come from, familiarity or desire?
These are the questions you will keep tucked in your portfolio, like musical notations. Your theory professor says these are good to keep your music honest.
Develop bags under your eyes and a subtle twitch from that one piece that just won’t write itself.
Your composition professor this semester is stressing music as a way of telling a story. He wants you to compose an albumblatt that tells of a traumatic experience in your life. You compose a piece in A-Major titled “Brittle Hearts” and give Addolorato as the instruction. Pained. Afflicted. Your class looks at you blankly after you play. “You have a beautiful melody but you need to think about what story you’re telling”. Algorithmic composition states major is happy. Minor is sad. Return to your room angry at the supposed universal language that continues to elude you.
Later on in your career you will discover that musicians are simply souls with no real understanding of how to convey things through conversation and therefore must live and die through wordless communication. You have not yet reached the point where you can accept this social outcast state. You continue to attend parties and stand in the corner, the same way you tried to fit in with everything in middle school.
Start to wonder where music will ever get you. Will you compose? If so, what? Do you have any message to put out there? Or, will you just continue to make sure the dead masters are heard?
You will hear somewhere that there are two types of musicians: those that choose music, and those who music chooses. Limit pondering this truth to twice a week, like paying bills, it can make you weary.
Your mother will pay you an unwanted visit. She will notice the bags under your eyes and the nervous twitch in your left temple from high caffeine intake. She will exhale loudly and say: “Jeanne, honey, remember when you were going to be a teacher?”
Reply: “Mother, I like to play.”
She’ll say: “Right. You like to play, Of course you like to play.”
Write a composition about the life of a street rat. Write for unconventional instruments, like trashcans and brooms. Your class finds it too far fetched, and half your floor hates you for stealing the only trashcan.
Be glad you are taking some core classes. They further strengthen your resolve that your are a musician. There is room for no other identity.
Graduate with your master’s degree and complete a piece two years later. Your colleagues look at you vaguely and deem it “Absolute music”. Maybe some small, unknown group will play it in a few years.
Sit outside and lay on the grass. Feel the texture of the brown sun burnt blades in comparison to the sleek rich green ones. Think of what progression would best exemplify that. F-minor. ii to vi. Add this to your portfolio of tattered manuscripts.
Go on an occasional date with an interesting face and use them as your newest muse. They ask if being a musician is as freeing as they think it is. Say that sometimes it is, and sometimes it’s like wearing chains. Say it’s like living on a strict diet.
Your date smiles and hums the end of the piece playing in the restaurant – IV V I. Always, IV V I.
Euphymia – Song of Praise
Albumblatt – short 19th century piano piece
Absolute Music – The antithesis of program music. Condemned by most composers for lacking the necessary basis of poetry and drama
Algorithmic Composition – Predefined procedure and set of rules for composing