One of my mentors is a pianist named Mike Longo who worked with Dizzy Gillespie for many years; he’s part Yoda, part Henny Youngman, and all BeBop. I sing with his big band and study jazz piano, rhythm and harmony with him as well. Mike’s as fluent in species counterpoint as he is in the language of blues and bebop. He’s as apt to quote Stravinsky as he is Baha’u’llah. You get the idea.
One day I arrived at my lesson wondering just what the hell I was doing with my life, anyway. Broke, tired and utterly convinced that I’d never “make it,” I was lost in the perpetual hustle of trying to stay afloat as an artist in New York City. Living hand-to-mouth felt bohemian and romantic in my early 20s; by the time my 30s came to call, scrambling for rent just felt exhausting.
“Well,” Mike began, stroking his goatee, “you didn’t choose music; music chose you. So now you have a choice: you either say ‘yes’ to it and be a musician, or you say ‘no,’ do something ‘safe,’ and be a frustrated musician. But either way, you’re a musician. That part’s not up to you. Dig?”
I wish I could say that, shortly after Mike’s words of wisdom, a “big break” descended from on high and made me a Cinderella story. Ha. I’ve sung countless weddings, worked at a restaurant, taught private voice lessons, and given my heart and soul to gigs that paid nothing. None of this is likely to change any time soon. What has changed is my definition of “making it.” “Making it,” for me, means spending the majority of my time engaged in the pursuit of truthful, authentic creative expression rather than trapped in a cubicle, watching the clock.
People have remarked over the years that I would do well to have something to “fall back on,” something more “secure,” and then I could do music in my “spare time.” Safety. Security. Such comforting ideas. Yet when the economy collapsed, IRAs dwindled and jobs disappeared. Many of the traditional markers of success and security vanished. People who spent years pursuing the comforts of a “safe” job and “secure” retirement had their lives turned upside down.
The truth is, safety is an illusion. There is no such thing as security, nor is there any such thing as “spare time.” All we’ve got is this day, this moment, this inhale. And all of those things are on loan. So why not, as Joseph Campbell said, “Follow your bliss”? What’s your true calling?