Why learn music?

No seriously – why?

This is a question I struggled with most of my life.

I loved singing and dancing from a very early age, and started piano lessons because my big brother and sister were doing them. I enjoyed the challenge of learning how to read the notes on a page and trying to get them EXACTLY right (and I mean EXACTLY, thanks to my strong perfectionist streak) – but I didn’t love that challenge enough to persist for long if it was too tricky.

In fact, that was a general rule of thumb for me: doing the bare minimum to coast to my satisfaction. Unfortunately, I also wanted to be the best at everything.

You can see why I found music as frustrating as I found it enjoyable.

Ultimately I loved being on stage. I loved the external validation I got when everybody stopped to watch me and then applaud at the end. I fantasised about being a famous rock star (who also sang pop, musical theatre and opera, because why not?) and joined every school band and choir I was allowed in. I eventually took up saxophone not because I particularly liked that instrument more than others, but because there was a shortage of saxophonists at my high school so learning it would be the quickest way to get into the stage band.

And yet I was never satisfied. I was a competent musician, but clearly nothing special (despite my mum’s protestations to the contrary) as I was generally passed over for starring roles and solos. I got accepted into a Performing Arts high school in year 11, but it was for saxophone more than voice, and again, I was never tapped for solo singing in any choir or other performance.

The frustration only grew.

When it was time to apply for university I auditioned to get into Sydney Conservatorium for voice, as well as jazz and classical saxophone. I got rejected outright by the Voice and Jazz departments, and placed on the waiting list for the Woodwinds. I got used to the idea of a BA instead.

But then I miraculously got into the Con anyway.

My academic record there was a solid Credit average for performance, with Distinctions for theory. So still competent, but nothing too special. In performance workshops my most consistent feedback was “you’ve just got to FEEL it more.” It drove me nuts! I wanted to grab people by the throat and scream “HOW EXACTLY DO I DO THAT??”

At the end of my Bachelor degree I was disenchanted with saxophone. I did enjoy playing it, but wasn’t obsessed enough to make it as a performer, and too neurotic and nihilistic to teach it. “What’s the point?” I thought. “I’d just teach kids so they can get the occasional gig but make most of their living teaching other kids, so they can get the occasional gig but make most of their living teaching other kids, etc. and onwards ad nauseum…” I tried doing a Masters in Musicology while I taught ear training and theory to undergrads (which I loved! I can geek out about theory for hours if you’ll let me) but eventually I burned out and succumbed to pretty severe depression. I happily dropped everything and walked away for a while once my kids came along.

So now here I am, almost a decade later, rediscovering myself as a musician, and I finally – FINALLY – understand what I’ve been doing wrong all this time.

Making music should not be an outcome-oriented activity. Sure, setting goals is a great motivation for improvement, but the act of making music itself IS the reward. All that external validation I was seeking? It was actually hollowing out my musical experience and making me blind to the sheer joy of simply being musical.

Nowadays I’m not as interested in performing FOR anyone as much as I am performing WITH them. Western society has lost our musical soul. We’ve compartmentalised the act of making music into all these specialist categories – composer, performer, sound engineer, soloist, producer – and turned music itself into a product to be consumed by a passive audience rather than an activity to be shared in a communal setting. The natural blurring of lines between creator, performer and audience that you see in more traditional practice is gone, and we are poorer for it.

Make no mistake: we are all born as musical creatures. Our ears develop early in the womb where we are bathed in the rhythms of our mother’s circulatory systems and lulled by the vibrations of her voice. Once born, we feel safest and most secure when we are skin to skin with someone, so we can feel their heartbeat and the rocking of their gait. Add in a lullaby being sung by an adult you trust? Bliss!

Music is the internal world of the psyche made audible. Listening to it can utterly transport you and tame or inflame whatever state you find yourself in. Being involved in making that music – even if it’s just singing along in your car or slapping the drumbeat on your thighs (preferably not while driving for that one!) – triggers all sorts of extra pleasurable cascading in your brain.

We evolved to associate music with safety, celebration, community and belonging, and at the end of the day, that is the main reason you should learn music. Not just because the science says it’s good for your brain (although that is a great reason too), but because practice says it’s good for your entire self, inside and out.

My job as a music educator isn’t so much to teach you, as it is to help you reconnect with the musical creature lying dormant within and to help you make sense of the skills that your ears and body actually already know. Regardless of your age, unleashing this power will add more depth and joy to your life than you could possibly imagine.

I’ve already made the mistakes for you. Let’s find your way together.

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