“Reclaiming Music in All Aspects of My Life”

I am a former professional musician in the process of reclaiming music in all aspects of my life. I want to share some of my thinking about musicians’ liberation.

I was pleased to hear about the recent appointment of Heather Hay as the International Liberation Reference Person for Musicians. I participated in a musicians’ support group led by Heather two years ago. It took a lot of urging by her for me to join the group. While there I went after early memories of how much I loved music, and I cried for what I had lost. Discharging those feelings was frightening and painful.

I see clearly now, in retrospect, that it was musicians’ internalized oppression that made it so hard for me to get myself to that support group—the sense that there is much more important work to do. This is only one of the many oppressive messages (“When are you going to get a real job?”) that constantly come at musicians and other artists, messages that we internalize and act out at ourselves and each other. It is to Heather’s credit that she persists, despite the oppression, in holding out the importance of doing this work.

Fast-forward two years to the present, in which my life looks very different than it did back then. After decades of “classical” music training and performance, my husband, Brian, and I have both taken up African and Latin-style drumming and have also returned to our earliest musical instruments, our voices.

In a recent drumming practice session I had an experience that motivated me to write this article. Brian, who is also a Co-Counsellor, was teaching me a new rhythm that I found quite complex and intimidating. I was having difficulty mastering it and kept stopping every time I made a mistake. Brian patiently kept on playing and encouraging me to continue trying, yet I found it harder and harder to get it right.

Suddenly I found myself overwhelmed with feelings of failure and frustration, and a flood of memories came up of all the times I was stopped and corrected by my music teachers because I had played something less than perfectly and they felt compelled to point it out to me. I had, at times, spent an entire hour on just six or eight bars of one piece, trying in vain to perform up to the impossible standard of perfection that was held up as “the norm.” This “conservatory education” left me with a “critical pattern,” the feeling that nothing and no one in my life was ever quite good enough, particularly myself. This affected all parts of my life, not just my music.

Back to my session: Brian kept encouraging me in my discharge, and after ten minutes or so, I went back to trying the rhythm I had been having so much trouble with. Within a few minutes I had it “under my fingers.” This experience made me realize that so much of the feeling of the music being “hard to learn” that many young musicians struggle with has nothing to do with the music itself or its level of technical difficulty. Rather, it has to do with the pressure for perfection that is imposed on us, and the isolation of having to practice alone for hundreds of hours with no support for whatever feelings may surface while we push ourselves to master our instruments.

Also interesting is the connection between artists’ oppression and “mental health” liberation. In the July issue of Present Time, Janet Foner described “mental health” oppression as “a kind of ‘adultism’ for adults. It is how adults are made to be unlike children, to be so-called mature and fit into their roles.” The same can be said of artists’ oppression. Isn’t it interesting that we say we “play music”? And when we go to the theater, we are going to a “play”? Whoever heard of anyone getting paid to “play”? People are supposed to work for their money, right?

In white Western culture, people whose work looks like play are “not quite right,” are somehow not upstanding citizens. This is not a trivial matter. Artists’ oppression kills people. In the movie Dead Poets’ Society, a young man with artistic leanings that horrify his conservative father commits suicide rather than be forced to give up his love of theater for life in the military. This is a dramatic example, but it is based on a grim piece of “pseudo-reality,” the stereotype of artists as “kooky” or “unstable.”

We are all born musicians and artists. All human beings are infinitely creative. Our role as artists is to model the possibilities of a life lived outside the boxes that our culture tries to place us in from the moment we are born. When we have fully reclaimed our humanity, the distinction between artists and non-artists will disappear.

Shasta Martinuk
Bowen Island, British Columbia, Canada 

Last modified: 2014-11-06 00:24:11+00