What Makes Me A Musician?

I just spent a wonderful weekend taking a visual art journal class and making journal pages at Catherine Anderson’s studio. We talked about her journey to becoming an artist, and how for a long time she didn’t consider herself an artist because she didn’t draw or paint. And of course, you have to be able to draw and paint in order to be a “real” artist.

I realize that I have that same sort of story about considering myself a musician. In my mind, “real” musicians know how to play the piano. Even if they now play other instruments, “real” musicians had piano lessons and learned how to play the piano first. I never had piano lessons and I don’t know how to play the piano. Therefore, I can’t possibly be a “real” musician.

I don’t know how or when or why I decided that to be a “real” musician you have to play the piano. Maybe it’s that I only saw people playing the piano when I was a small child. I just know that’s the definition of a musician that has been hiding out in my head all this time. That’s the definition of a musician that’s kept me stuck in some “musician-wanna-be” no-man’s land. That’s the definition of a musician that makes me look around for whoever my recorder teacher is really talking to when she says to me, “You don’t know how good a musician you are,” because I know that she certainly couldn’t be talking to me.

So I’ve been asking myself, does being unable to play the piano keep me from playing my harp or my recorders? Does it keep me from singing?  If I’m not a musician because I don’t play the piano, then what exactly am I doing when I play my harp, or when I play my recorder in our ensemble? What exactly was I doing this spring when I was in the chorus and singing the Verdi Requiem?

Can I really believe that knowing how to play the piano is the essential knowledge, the one and only password, that will admit me into the musicians’ guild? Can I really believe that I must know how to play the piano to feel worthy to call myself a musician?

There’s more debate in my head: What about medieval and Renaissance composers and players? The piano hadn’t been invented when these long ago people were creating and playing the music I love so much.  And what about all the people who’ve learned to play instruments and traditional tunes by ear, or by listening to and sitting at the feet of their elders, learning directly from the music’s source? What about those people I’ve met (and envied) who can play anything that has frets and strings, without lessons, without reading music, and without being able to play the piano? I call all of these people musicians, with nary a piano or a piano lesson in sight.

This musician definition has been lurking around, unrecognized and unnamed, for too long. It’s been powerful stuff, making me unable to claim that I am a musician for a long time now. But today, that definition is kind of like the “Fresh Meat for Baby Owls” copperhead that trapped itself in my garden netting – it’s out in the open, tangled up and unable to reach me to strike. I might have to poke this old definition around a few more times, see more of what it looks like and think more about what kind of damage it can do. But I expect I’ll be taking my loppers to it soon.

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