This past year alone I have performed numerous times in a jazz big band, a guitar ensemble, two rock bands, a hip hop band, a cover band, various small jazz ensembles, and as a solo classical guitarist. I am incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to play with many talented musicians in such a wide array of groups and genres, yet I do often wonder if I am spreading myself too thin. I have a mild fear that I will never be as good at playing any one genre as players who have devoted themselves solely to studying a particular style of music. Furthermore, though it seems the most lucrative strategy right now, I wonder if playing frequently in a number of relatively unknown groups is the better economic decision than striving to have one musical project achieve “brand-name” success. Yet I realize that there are definite pros and cons to either specializing or diversifying and no way to simultaneously reap the benefits of both. As Kwai Chang Caine would say: “you must choose.”
For now, I have chosen the path of diverse musical output: I play background jazz and dance music at parties and events, I play loud hip-hop and rock shows, I give guitar lessons, I compose my own music, and I write about music. I do this, practically speaking, because it is the only way I can currently provide any kind of sustainable living for myself– no single group that I play in currently performs often enough to be my sole livelihood. Yet I am also naturally a “big-picture” person, and I feel satisfied that exploring music from these many different angles is potentially offering me an expanded picture of what music is and can be. Though I may never be the purest jazz guitarist, or the most virtuoso classical guitarist, I do believe that through playing many styles I am going to continue to develop a unique musical voice and generally become a better musician. Furthermore, I am comforted by an awareness that music is not a competition. Though it is tempting to compare myself with other guitarists and musicians (who may be masters of a particular style), I know that I can only express myself musically in accordance with my own tastes, background, and capabilities. To keep myself going, I must always believe that my current level of musical ability is adequate enough for performance, while simultaneously working extremely hard to expand my musical horizons.
Monday night I went to the Afterthought to see the great Bob Dorough, composer and performer of many of the great original schoolhouse rock songs (including the classic “Three is a Magic Number“). He was there playing with some of Little Rock’s finest musicians including Barry McVinney, Joe Vick, Jay Payette, and others. It was humbling to see these incredible musicians (musicians who have labored not for fame, but for their love of music) in all walks of life performing together on stage. Bob is in his 80’s and still has the spirit and enthusiasm of a 20 year old. What he lacks now in vocal power, he makes up for in a warm soulful and humorous delivery. Smiling widely as a row of horns shout the head to Charlie Parker’s “Now’s the Time,” Bob was having a great time (and so was the audience).
This performance stands in opposition to a conversation I had earlier that afternoon with a friend at my office (River City Tea and Cream). Our talk at one point hinged on a humorous, but obviously over-generalized, portrayal of elderly men as being either extremely sweet or the classic “dirty old man.” From here, it was only a small leap to us discussing the possibility of myself being a creepy old man at age 60, playing guitar in a Rock ‘N’ Roll band, hitting on much younger women. Though I don’t realistically envision this happening, I do sometimes have a vague concern that Lucas at age 60, will be stuck playing music appropriate to Lucas at age 20. I think of aging bands like The Rolling Stones and KISS and frankly it is weird to me that they are still on-stage performing songs about not getting satisfaction or rocking all night. I then look at Bob Dorough, and it seems completely natural for him to be singing and playing Jazz in this intimate bar. I find myself wishing to also have a fitting musical outlet when I am his age…
I then hear the voice of my conscience slapping me back to reality: “Lucas, you are 24 years old and still at the very beginning your musical and artistic journey. Worrying and fantasizing about what your musical life will be like in 30-40 years is not helping you right now. You may pursue goals, but understand that you may not achieve them, and even that achieving your goals may not actually be fulfilling. Simply focus on this unfolding process, trust that hard work will pay off, and continue to practice the art, craft, and critique of music.”