Music is an opportunity. Music is an invitation. Music is an open window to a world beyond the walls of our conceptual mind. For musicians and listeners alike, music cleanses our souls and washes smooth the rough edges of our lives. Music heals. If not for music, most of us would go insane.
Music is the most powerful and mysterious of art forms. We enjoy its intrinsic value, but we also learn from its potent presence. Music is a masterful teacher. After over 40 years as a performing musician, here is what I’ve learned from the wisdom of music.
Practice. Transformation is possible if you are willing to discipline yourself and practice the behaviors you wish to embody. We become better songwriters by writing songs. We become more compassionate by practicing compassion. We become more courageous by practicing courage. There is no short cut. Just begin to behave like the person you want to be. New habits will form as old habits fall away. It isn’t mysterious at all. Action creates transformation. Do what you want to be.
Stay in the moment. Unlike other art forms, music happens only in this now moment. A painting, on the other hand, hangs statically on the wall and it is the viewer who controls the experience. We decide when and for how long to look, the eyes freely wandering across the canvas.Â Music robs us of this autonomy as we fall under its spell, drawn inexorably deeper into the present. In this sweet surrender we are unburdened of the exhausting task of egoic control and slip instead into a liberating selflessness. Usually caught up in the twin thought streams of past and present, we rarely experience the freedom of this now moment. Music reminds us and brings us back. What beauties would be revealed if we lived our life as music and surrendered to it with the same willingness?
Find the natural rhythm. When playing with other musicians, and even in solo performance, there is always a rhythm underway and it is our task to find it and fall into it. This requires deep listening, rapt attention, and the longing for union. When you allow your own body’s rhythms to align with the rhythm around you, the walls of the limited self dissolve leaving only boundless awareness. Bringing this same attentiveness to all aspects of your life creates the opportunity to move into accord with the energies around you, enhancing both your effectiveness and your joy.
Find the balance between effort and effortlessness. The best musicians know that the ideal is only realized in the mysterious alchemy where effort and effortlessness merge. Those who try too hard or not hard enough are equally doomed. A good rule of thumb is to put vigorous effort into the practicing process, but on stage let it fly. The same rule applies in life. Show up prepared, then get out of your own way.
Take the lead, but be guided. Having the courage to step forward and lead — in a difficult moment of parenting, in the struggle for social justice, or in a guitar solo — is essential. But every leader knows that the most important quality in leadership is attention. Listen, perceive, and feel with the utmost sensitivity and be willing to be guided by the truth of what is.
Play. There’s a reason they call it playing music. Despite the years of discipline and hard work that lay behind musical mastery, in the end it is from a deep sense of joy and fun that music arises. As Confucius asked, “Is it not after all a pleasure to express what one has learned?” Playing music with friends, dancing at a wedding, or blasting your favorite song a little too loud in the car is just plain fun. And fun is the body’s way of rewarding itself for doing such a great job of staying alive all these years.
Let beauty happen. Something amazing happens when you awaken to the confluence of elements that make up this now moment. Beauty is not wrestled to the ground by muscle nor is it trapped by cleverness. Beauty, like happiness, is the natural byproduct of a well-lived life, born into fullness when you stop seeking and start allowing. Simply do what is yours to do, let go of the outcome, and let the joy of the work sink in. Beauty is the eternal presence shining through the veil of the fleeting moments of our lives. It is seen, heard, and felt; never grasped, possessed or controlled. When you try to hold it you lose it.
Become an instrument. Just as a guitar is a channel through which music flows from the musician to our ears, so too our bodies, thoughts, words, and deeds are the instruments with which we play our life-song. The instrument does not make the music, the musician does. The instrument is the means by which the unmanifest is made manifest. As the composer weaves threads of memory, longing, melody, rhythm, and rhyme into a song, so too the constituent elements that make up our lives are woven together by an unseen hand into a work of singular beauty and power. Find the courage to be your instrument, that is, live your life, in a way that honors its sacred source.
The courage of intimacy. Are you brave enough to let all your defenses drop? Are you willing to be seen as you are, unguarded, naked, bereft of all pretence? The courage to allow real intimacy requires a deep sense of self-acceptance — the conviction that who you are, just as you are, is enough. This is what makes master musicians so compelling. They’re fearless. We can’t take our eyes off them. They somehow find a way to let everything fall away except the truth of this moment, and their honesty becomes a mirror in which we see our own authentic life emerging.
Be tender and tough. Great music requires a light touch and relentless heart. Novice musicians often overdo it. They play too much, they play too loud, and they play too hard. They mistake toughness for talent. Only later do they discover that real power lies in subtlety. Their eagerness is understandable — we all mistake bluster for mastery at first. In music, as in life, real strength lies in the ability to be tough and tender all in the same moment. Let there be silence and restraint, but strike boldly when the time is right.
Surrender. If we do it right, music overpowers us and takes us over. It sets the rhythm of our heart, binds the meter of our breath, flushes our face, fires our soul, and frees us from the arid drudgery of our intellectualized existence. So too our lives can awaken from their dreary slumber when we stop struggling and surrender to the energies of the cosmos flowing through and around us. By opening our ears, our hearts and our minds — this is how we learn from the wisdom of music.
Peter Bolland is a professor at Southwestern College where he teaches eastern and western philosophy, ethics, world religions, and mythology. Off campus he is a writer, speaker, and singer-songwriter. You can find him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/peter.bolland.page or write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org