The Significance of Music

A talk by Heather Hay, the International Liberation Reference Person for Musicians, at the Musicians’ Liberation Workshop in British Columbia, Canada, January 2010

It’s a big deal that you came to this workshop. You decided that musicians’ liberation is important to you—important enough to set aside the time. One of the themes for this weekend is to notice how significant musicians’ liberation is—in our lives, in the RC Communities, and in the world. It makes a bigger difference than we can always remember.

One of the many things we have in common here, besides being human and deciding to use the discharge process to reclaim all of our humanness, is that we all care deeply, in one way or another, about music. We vary from culture to culture, country to country, style to style, but we have in common our love and passion for music, and we’ve decided to dedicate a weekend to thinking about that.

Music is so much a part of benign reality. It’s one of the ways we remember how good it is to be alive, how exuberant we can be, how much we love to experiment and explore all kinds of different things. We human beings love beauty. We love to move, we love rhythm. If you watch young people, they gravitate toward any beat or music. They want to be right there in the centre. I love that the word “play” goes with music. Human beings are naturally, inherently playful, and when we make music, we are playing.

In RC we talk about intelligence, about reclaiming our complete intelligence. I think creativity is the same as intelligence. So when we are making music, we are using our intelligence. It’s the same.

Music can be a wonderful model of using our intelligence and showing our humanness. It’s not just something extra that we do on the side or have to apologize for because it’s not “real work,” not “getting anything done,” not “productive.” Making music is being human and showing our intelligence. One of the ways repressive regimes try to keep people down is to wipe out their music and books and art. Obviously they know how important these things are to being human.

We’re leading as musicians. We’re reminding people about being human. When music is happening, people get more connected. The capitalist system is about disconnection, and music reminds us of our connection; it draws us together. We musicians are in the role of counselor in society. We are contradicting hopelessness, despair, and urgency. And we’re not just doing it for somebody else, we’re doing it for ourselves.


I’m going to talk about the terrible “O” word: oppression! One part of musicians’ oppression is how creating music is not valued as highly as it should be. (I am speaking from the perspective of the Western world.) An analogy that hits home for me[1] is the job of parenting. We parents make an absolutely key contribution by thinking about young people. It’s an extremely important job, like being a musician, yet it’s not supported or highly valued.

Musicians’ oppression has a funny[2] twist to it. As musicians we’re also put on a pedestal, treated like we’re special and to be applauded. In one way creating music has a low value, but in another it has a high one. It can look like only “special” people—the few, the talented, the gifted—are able to participate in music. Of course that isn’t the reality. Everyone is born with an inherent love for music and the ability to explore it in his or her own particular way. It’s like leadership. Leadership is for everyone, not just a select few. We simply decide how much time and attention we choose to put on a particular part of life. It’s not about the “gifted” few.

Musicians are part of the working class in that we’re not paid the full value of our work, we sacrifice our bodies, and we have to push hard to make a living. In feudal times musicians in European society served either the church or the state. In current times, in the capitalist system, musicians are serving the market—are doing whatever the market will support.

Another part of musicians’ oppression is that we have to look good, like we know what we’re doing, like we’re handling everything. We have to be cool.[3] As performing musicians we don’t get to discharge, although our audiences might. There are superstitions that if we show that we’re scared it’s only going to make things worse, that we’ve got to keep it together.[4]

Only in the last hundred or so years has there been a separation between what we call amateur and what we call professional. With the music industry we have the passive listeners and the active participants. In many Indigenous cultures, music is a part of everyday life. There is a song for waking, a song for pounding the flour, a song for putting one’s baby to bed at night. We’ve kept some of that, but so much of it has been lost. Celtic people would sit around and have kitchen parties and céilidhs[5]: they were a way for people to connect. There was no distinction between who was a musician and who wasn’t. Maybe even the title “musician” should be up for question. What role would music have in a rational society? How would it be played? Some people would still put a lot of time in on it and hone a skill, but everything would look quite different. Part of our leadership as musicians is to model that making music is for everyone.


Part of our internalized oppression as musicians is how we are pitted against each other. I’ve decided to call it “The Nasty C’s”— competition, criticism, and comparison (which are part of the other “C”: capitalism).

I want to tell you a story. Recently a fellow musician (someone I didn’t know well) was going to perform at a concert. Because she hadn’t performed in a while and was worried about it, she asked me if she could play through her piece for me. She came over to my house, and this is what was going through my mind: “She’s really nice, I like her, she’s a good teacher. I hope she doesn’t play too well.”

She started out, and it was beautiful. She played the first movement, which was difficult, really well, and I was sitting there thinking, “Damn! That was good. I hope she starts messing up.” It was such a beautiful piece, and when she played it was like she was dancing. She continued, and it was going very well. I was feeling like everyone would like her better, would want to play with her and not me, and other unpleasant things. I also thought, “Okay, this is internalized oppression and you really shouldn’t be thinking these things.” (Laughter) I was taking note of it and thinking I’d have to have a good session about it.

Then at some point—I don’t know if I made a decision or if it was the music—I thought, “I’m just going to sit here and enjoy this.” And it was so beautiful, and she was beautiful to watch. When she finished I said, “That was so beautiful!” And she said, “Really?” and started to tell me all the things she’d done wrong, and how scared she was, and so on. It was all about her internalized oppression and how she wasn’t going to be good enough and nobody was going to like it. I thought, “Great opportunity. I get to counsel her!” And I was counseling myself at the same time, because when she was playing I had been feeling lots of stuff. Anyway, it was the start of a really good friendship.

I was recently able to tell her a little bit about how I’d felt, which also gave her the opportunity to talk about how something similar goes on[6] for her. It opened up the possibility of our being able to talk, which is another great part of the story. I haven’t been able to find many places where I can talk to my colleagues about these kinds of feelings. It has seemed too dangerous.

With music we have the possibility of rich togetherness, but we have to work on the harshness of the oppression that gets internalized as competitiveness, jealousy (that’s a really fun one to work on), and the ways we are critical of each another.

Another way the internalized oppression affects us is that there are myths about being a musician that we really like, that we’d like to hang on to. “Being the special one”—I kind of like that; I have to discharge that one. We’re a little weird—that’s often a popular one. We’re talented, we’re sexy, we know everything about every kind of music, we’re good listeners, we have good rhythm, we were born already knowing how to do it, it comes easily, we deserve applause.

Then there are the ways that other oppressions have influenced us—have separated us from each other and given us misinformation (and no information) about each other and the music of other cultures so that we grow up with negative ideas about other types of music. Internalized classism can make us feel like certain kinds of music are better or worse. Because of racism we don’t know about the music of other cultures or we believe that certain kinds of musicians always do such and such or are good at such and such.

There is also the scarcity myth—that there is only so much to go around. I don’t think there could ever be too much music. I don’t think there could ever be too many choirs, too many bands, too many musical groups. If every meeting (or every gathering of any people) began with people singing, what kinds of decisions would be made and how would meetings go?


Musicians get separated from each other and from the society as a whole, and a lot of that is due to class oppression and racism. I talked earlier about the relatively recent division between the “professional” and the “amateur,” which affects everyone whether he or she aspires to being a musician or not. The words in themselves create a division. (This isn’t to say that some people can’t decide to dedicate a lot of time to music, but there doesn’t need to be a hierarchical sense to it.) There’s also been an historical division between “art music” and “folk music,” which is basic classism. It shows up in the ways we think that one kind of music is better or worse than another. And it’s not like one is always on top. In one moment one type of music is idolized, and in the next it gets switched around. Racism fits in there, too—a certain type of music might be higher up because it’s exoticized. We’ve forgotten to take pride in our own music, in our own roots and culture. We need to do this as musicians. We need to go back and work on our class and cultural heritages and take pride in them.

I’m classically trained and raised middle class, and I was taught to think that certain kinds of music weren’t good, were “low class.” (No one used those words, but that was the underlying message.) I’ll give you an example. For a long time I thought that drumming was the stupidest thing there was. I thought that people would just sit around and do this thing, and I couldn’t see any merit in it. As I got close to some people who loved drumming, and I loved them, I said to myself, “There’s something you’ve got to discharge here.”

At a recent RC workshop some people started drumming. I drifted my way over and started to listen, and pretty soon the whole room was vibrating. We had an incredible jam session, with people stepping in. People really got to show themselves, and we had a wonderful time. And I realized that something inside me had shifted. I could see that my attitude that this was not worthy or real music had come from how I’d gotten hurt, the misinformation I’d received, the racism I’d been taught.

Colonization and imperialism have led to a proliferating domination of Western music—similar to how the English language is the “language of the world.” Every time a language or culture, including a musical culture, is lost, we all lose something important.

Often music is “borrowed” from another culture, and somebody makes a lot of money off it without acknowledging its source. Sometimes music is appropriated from another culture because it looks more attractive or interesting or exotic. Discharging on our own roots will help us think more clearly about this.

Workshop participant: Threemonths ago a Haitian friend and I were listening to a U.S. band that was playing music from Haiti. The audience was mostly middle-class Caucasians. Throughout the entire concert there was no mention of how the band got its music, and my friend pointed that out.

(Mini-session on pride in one’s own cultural and musical heritage.)

Heather: There’s a way that, because of racism, we white people lose connection with each other, lose connection with people targeted by racism—basically lose connection. This shows up with music. We lose our connection to music at an early age. For example, classical European music is a wonderful kind of music, but the training to play it can be so harsh, judgmental, and critical that people lose track of their inherent musicality and how they would naturally be able to learn, and think about, and feel music. If people could discharge on what they were like as children before they got any ideas about which kind of music was better or worse, they could reclaim their sense of connection and their inherent creativity.


I’m inspired by the reminder in RC to work on any identity we have. (“Claim it, clean it up, and throw it out.”) What we are aiming for is to be human beings—all present together, not divided or separated. Music is part of benign reality. It is a wonderful part of being human, and having it in our lives is rational. The identity of musician, however, can carry with it old yucky chronic distress. I want to explore working on the identity of musician. I haven’t done this at a workshop before, so you’re being experimented on. (Laughter and whoops from the group)

Sometimes we are pulled toward music as a way to feel better or to not feel anything, as a substitute for a person or connection, as a refuge from something, a way to “feel normal,” a way to “feel safe.” I’ve heard people say, “It’s what got me through; it saved my life.” If we go back and work on some of our early connections with music, we can see some of the reasons we might have chosen it, or not chosen it. Maybe it wasn’t even a possibility.

What was going on when you decided to pursue music, or when you decided it wasn’t for you or you couldn’t have it, or when someone else decided you couldn’t have it?

One thing about being a musician is that we can be quite visible. This can be a frozen need[7] for some people. For others being visible is the last thing they’d want.

Music can really connect people, but sometimes there’s a pretense that it’s connecting and actually the opposite is happening.

Music can be an addiction, a way to avoid desperate, lonely, rotten feelings. (Laughter from group) Grrr!

Comment from the audience: You’ve got a lot of nerve. (Laughter from group)

As I mentioned before, we can also think about the myths we really like, the ones we like to cling to—about how we suffer, and we’re gifted and special.

All this work is going to help us, when we’re making music, to actually be there. We talked about the musician being the counselor. We’re not the counselor if we’re the client. If we’re not really there, we’re not connecting with people.


I have been inspired by the work of Marsha Saxton, the International Liberation Reference Person for Disabled People. A few years ago she invited us International Liberation Reference Persons to answer a few questions about how bodies, health, and disability oppression were related to the constituencies we were leading. We all have a body, but it’s easy to forget about our body and only remember that we have a mind.

A lot of our earliest hurts were physical ones. Marsha has talked about how when we were babies we were completely dependent for everything. The ways people handled us may have laid in physical hurts. She has also said that not discharging is a physical hurt. I don’t know about you, but then I’ve had a lot of physical hurts. (Laughter from all) Some of us started music early. It’s a physical thing, playing music. We use our bodies. Physical hurts stay with us just like emotional hurts. Until we discharge them, they’re still there.

Musicians’ oppression targets our bodies—with overwork, being forced to be in situations in which we don’t get to pay attention to our bodies, being exposed to poor lighting, loud environments. One of the prevailing ideas is that “the show must go on”—that the product’s more important than the person, that musicians have to ignore pain and other ways the body is saying, “Pay attention to how you are treating me. Discharge!” Musicians are often discouraged from discharging. Injuries and disability are something we’re supposed to “go quiet” about. “Don’t tell anybody; hide it” is the message, along with “You’re a loser,” “What’s wrong with your technique?” “Why haven’t you figured this out?”

It’s not our fault.

In the classical world, musicians are pushed hard and told they should practice an irrational number of hours per day, by themselves, and not ask for any help. The incidence of tendonitis and repetitive stress injuries is high. And the demands on orchestra players are increasing, because of the greater demands of capitalism. People are being pushed to extremes. Is it time to scream yet? (Everyone in the room screams loud and long, followed by laughter.)

People can be afraid that injuries might be “contagious.” It’s like “hang out[8] with the winners and not the losers.” We need to discharge and think about our bodies. We can ask in a session, “What if I can’t? What if I can’t play the cello? What if I can’t walk?” We can get a head start on it.[9] (Laughter and more screaming from the audience)

How do we work on our physical hurts? Discharge—on noticing we have a body, by telling our body life stories. I remember starting to play the cello when I was twelve. I remember it hurt. I had to hold my arms up, I had to build muscles, I had to get calluses on my fingers. It would have been good to discharge on those things. We can go back and do that work in our sessions now.

There’s a lot that we can heal from. This is not what society tells us. If we go to the doctor, he or she doesn’t talk about discharge; we usually get a pill. Bodies have a huge capacity to heal, and they would heal much more quickly if we got to discharge on physical hurts. 

Because I’ve had a bunch of injuries, I’ve had to think about this a lot. My physical symptoms increase with fear. My back has hurt more this weekend than it did in the days before. It goes up and down—almost like a barometer. We can trust our bodies, and get in touch with them and notice what they’re saying. They’re saying “pay attention.”

We are worth paying attention to and taking care of, and we need to do that as a contradiction to the “show must go on” myth. (Boo, hiss—horrible thing!)


Noticing our connection with people is also important. I like the direction somebody gave me: “When you wake up in the morning and you feel scared (which is standard for me), think, ‘How can I let people love me today?’”

Something else worth experimenting with is playing our instrument or singing in a Co-Counseling session, with someone paying attention to us as we figure things out and notice what’s going on. We don’t have to go off in some room by ourselves, or already know how to play or sing in some kind of automatic, magical way.

Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

[1] Hits home for me means makes sense to me.
[2] Funny means strange, interesting.
[3] Cool means composed and aloof.
[4] Keep it together means stay composed.
[5] A céilidh is a traditional Gaelic social gathering that usually involves playing Gaelic folk music and dancing.
[6] Goes on means happens.
[7] Frozen need is a term used in RC for a hurt that results when a rational need is not met in childhood. The hurt compels a person to keep trying to fill the need in the present, but the frozen need cannot be filled; it can only be discharged.
[8] In this context, hang out means associate.
[9] Get a head start on it means start thinking and discharging about it before it happens.

Last modified: 2014-10-01 19:46:37+00