Standing behind the curtain, instrument in hand, my heart begins to pound, deafening.
In a few short moments, where each second could be a lifetime, I will be ushered onto the stage to perform for a crowd of 1,200 people.
Each heartbeat is louder than the last, and my stomach is turning itself over and over. Django of Elephant Revival puts his hand on my shoulder and asks “are you ready?” No turning back. With each step my heartbeat softens, my posture straightens, and I step out, feeling naked and raw, in front of a sea of people at the Boulder Theatre in Boulder, Colorado.
The next thing I know, I am backstage, wiping the sweat from my brow, as if waking from a dream. Yet the way it felt then, and always feels after every performance, is that I am really returning to the dream after having totally awakened for a few fleeting moments.
Music is a path like any other. It is failure and glory. For hours of hard work, repetitive rehearsals, intense practice, and endless performances, there are short and special moments of perfection.
Knowing the music becomes being the music. Memory is stored in the body, and in order to remember clearly the artist must relax to be clear and confident. The product is not a painting, not a statue, nor a prototype, but a living and breathing movement that is over as swiftly as it begins.
Before and after the stage there is normal life. When the artist walks on to that stage, there is only that moment. Exposing oneself to that moment completely, a musician must fearlessly endure criticism and praise, depression and elation. The only healthy remedy for the emotional strain of artistry is devotion to the art itself. Like any art, musicianship requires persistent discipline. Technical ability and genuine expression are continually evolving motifs. Making music is about living inspiration.
Playing everywhere from the Red Light District of Amsterdam to the boardwalk in Venice Beach to the Boulder Theatre, from the clean streets of D.C. to the mean streets of NYC my own path of music has been an unrelenting devotion to the discipline of my musical adventure.
Performing for princes, paupers, hipsters and homeless, music does not belong to anyone, and for every person that appreciates a certain work or artist, there is another who does not share that appreciation.
Like the path of meditation, or any serious discipline, being a musician involves many stages of accumulation, preparation, and play.
Learning the technique is always the first step, then continual, repetitive practice of that technique until it becomes an effortless synchronization of body and mind are the never-ending steps thereafter. Learning to play compositions by other artists, the student learns the various formulas and structures by which music is made.
When the student accumulates enough knowledge, then the element of personal creativity, which has been present all along, allows the student to develop original compositions. Discovering one’s own voice moves the student into the path of seeing, a path of connecting to music on it’s own terms, simply.
Every performance is a unique experience, and pockets of synchronicity occur effortlessly. At such a point the student-musician enters a path of play, where the magical potential of music-making is always taking effect and works are generated at high volume. Creative output constantly flows.
Hearts and minds are transformed by every performance. Details and subtleties are constantly explored and expressed.
Without pandering to any specific genre, instrument, or style of playing, the general applications are semantic. Music as path is not discussed in terms of marketing music, whether pop, classical, or grindcore. Music that inspires aggression, materialism, and destruction is not the concern of this particular topic, and all are valid expression of art.
When discussing music in this context, we are referring more specifically to a dharmic approach to art. Dharma means, in Sanskrit, “truth.” Truth indicates that it is without deception. Dharmic in this sense means making an effort to be free from deception. In the teachings of Dharma Art by meditation master Chögyam Trungpa, deception is the reflection of personal aggression. Aggression in this case means any contentious view to appearances, which results in dualistic fixation.
In other words, defending ego’s fortress, the cocoon of ego. There must be no sugarcoating, for the sake of authenticity. Surrendering to the way things are is the way to see things clearly. The struggle to preserve a particular point of view, a particular angle of reality, is an act of aggression in itself. Trungpa writes:
“When we talk about aggression, people get angry. They don’t want to hear any of it; they want nothing to do with it. ‘Tell me something peaceful, good. You’re supposed to calm my mind.’ I’m afraid the truth of the matter is it doesn’t work that way. We have to explore what we have, and how deafness and blindness come about because of our personal aggression” (The Collected Works of Chögyam Trungpa, Volume 8: Dharma Art, Shambhala Publications, 95).
This mirror of deception is what perpetuates much of the suffering of the world. Our personal aggression towards ourselves is reflected in judgment. Judging others is not only a subtly aggressive act, but also demonstrates ignorance.
Making art based on judgment, or art that aims to disseminate a particular point of view is aggressive art. To communicate non-aggression, or rather to propagate peace, is to make art that is not constricted by fear or has any particular agenda. It is art for it’s own sake, for goodness sake.
In an ideal performance, a musicians primary service to the audience is to provide a release from this constant aggression by inviting the audience to let down their secret defenders of ego’s fortress and allow consciousness to communicate with the music.
In order to inspire such audacity, the artist themselves must demonstrate that they are performing from a relaxed attitude of non-aggression. Any person can tell that a musician is doing this service when the audience is dancing, silent, or cheering.
Zakir Hussain, reputably the world’s foremost tabla virtuoso, mentioned to me that the way in which an artist treats their instrument is a direct reflection of their relationship to their daily life.
In Trungpa’s teachings of Dharma Art, it is the way in which a person relates to their daily life that allows art to be effortlessly expressed. Every aspect of life can be approached as a work of art, with the kind of attention and gentleness and precision that goes into a painting or performance.
A non-aggressive attitude must be practiced in order to truly produce non-aggressive inspiration. Not separating the mundane and profane, all of life is an artistic expression.
Non-aggression does not mean that people don’t get angry and emotionally distraught, but when they do, they are aware of it. The energies of emotion are the spices of life, and every flavor could be expressed in a movement, a measure, or a note.
On stage, in the heat of a solid show, when all the musicians are locked in a pocket which goes deeper with every beat, the raw, juicy core of the music raises intensity and gets pushed into further dimensions of nowness elevating the minds of the audience to heightened levels of deep emotional elation, totally intoxicating.
Only in that moment can liberation truly occur for a large (or vast) group of people. That is why music and the arts are the key proponent and essential vehicle for creating a sane and enlightened society.
Edited by Hayley Samuelson.