Letter to a Young Musician
This article originally appeared in Comment magazine, the opinion journal of CARDUS.
You've chosen a noble vocation. Or, perhaps music has chosen you? That's even better. An invitation is preferable to a cold call.
At all times and in all ways, you must relentlessly pursue success. That is, as long as success is defined as increased skill and ability, imagination, humility, generosity of spirit, good humor, gratitude, innovation, love, and empathy, and becoming more like Jesus, not less. Your life as a musician is an invitation to become one kind of person in the world and not another, while leaving the world a better place than when you first arrived. It is a unique calling to live a seamless, integrated, creative life before God and the world, cultivating and enjoying the gift of music. Take it seriously — at the same level of seriousness you hope surgeons and airline pilots take their work.
Music involves many things, and not the least of these is the work of story-telling and storied living after the pattern of Jesus. Your songs and performances will tell stories, as will your life. Make sure both of them are true and winsome. In imaginative ways, shape your work to be inescapably connected to the Father's business in the world. Ask yourself how your musical life might cooperate with God in restoring rightness, doing justice, and showing mercy. Wonder out loud how music might remove impairments to healthy functioning. See your musical life as one faithful way to care for God's creativity — people and place, and all of creation. Be in perpetual dream mode about how music might exist for the good of people and to proclaim God's excellence as Creator.
More than anything, consider that music is one way of loving God with your whole being and loving your neighbor with the same love and care you desire. Good music can actually be a means of doing for others what God has so graciously done for you. Sing over people, mend their hearts, and open them up to a renewed life. Be the wonder and surprise they need and for which they hope.
As you are developing, wind your way up through the circles of affirmation that are family, friends, school, church, city, region, state, province, and country. Do all that well, and then you just might find yourself making a few musical trips to stages in such dreamy places as London, Amsterdam, Koln, Berlin, Sidney, and Shanghai. Make sure you take the phrase "if only" out of your vocabulary (as in, "if only I had a 1953 Fender Telecaster"). Great tools are nice to have, but they are no substitute for great and astonishing ideas. I would venture to say that music is everywhere and in everything. If you must have some tool to discover it, then it's likely you don't even know what you're looking for yet. Confused?
Do this. Put away everything you own that is traditionally considered a musical instrument or tool. Now, for eight to twelve hours each day, work to gain total and complete independence in the fingers of both your hands. For example, tap 4/4 quarter notes with your forefinger on your right hand while tapping 3/4 quarter notes with your middle finger — put a new emphasis on one with each bar of three. Add eight note triplets in 4/4 time with your little finger. With your left hand, tap out the rhythm pattern of a dotted quarter note followed by an eighth note. Let your left thumb tap out two eighth notes followed by a quarter note until a bar of 7/4 time is complete. You now have several independent rhythms going on, as well as three independent time signatures. Imagine working through every possible variation of rhythm, time signature, and tempo with each individual finger and gaining mastery in this. Imagine working on it every day for five years! Once you can do anything you imagine, pick up a guitar and change the world.
For all the talk about how bad the music business is, I offer this: Sing songs, not business. Get your music on, not your mogul. And remember, there is no limit to the creativity of God and no knowable end or limit to the imagination of those who bear his image. The music of God's people is only truly faithful to the degree that it trusts in and reflects this.
Here's the deal: Business ebbs and flows, but the music is not going anywhere. The artists and songwriters may change with every generation, but the music is not going anywhere. The economy may contract and expand, but the music is not going anywhere. Music lives in rarified, protected air
We can never, ever forget that the life, death, and resurrection of one man — Jesus Christ — inspired the greatest body of music and art the world has ever known. The music of God's people is not going anywhere but forward to the new heavens and the new earth where all God's people will sing together:
Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and
wisdom and strength
and honor and glory and praise!
To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be praise and honor and glory and power,
for ever and ever!
So learn the art, find pleasure in your privilege, imagine and love well, learn to read a contract (or at least get a good lawyer), be kind and generous, keep your hands clean, read books, watch films, and listen to lots and lots of music. Finally, if at all possible, learn the secret of making music— not sacred, secular, Christian or otherwise, but true music, just the right sounds and meaning at the right time in history for the good of people and planet.