Why we get bored, or: managing a complex artistic identity

Last night, I had the honor of being a guest presenter in James Falzone’s class on DIY Musicianship at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. James, whose multifaceted career has been a source of inspiration for me since I met him, has a fantastic group of students there at SAIC. They are studying, in James’s words, “how musical communities organize and sustain themselves” — and how individual musicians sustain themselves, often without institutional support. It’s an exciting area of exploration, and in this diverse yet intimate classroom of aspiring studio artists, art journalists, and arts administrators, the discussions we had yesterday were provocative and eye-opening.

When I arrived at the classroom, the class had just discussed how musical improvisation can be an apt metaphor for creating a career in art. A brilliant idea!

James and I improvised briefly for the class, and then I shared some of the projects and work samples I’ve been most proud of in my seven-year career as a working musician in Chicago. My musical life has, indeed, been an improvisation, with lots of twists and turns even in its short time. As I spoke to the class, I half-jokingly named “getting bored” as the reason I’d moved on to various new areas in my work — the reason Chicago Q Ensemble started staging theater pieces, or even the reason I took a day job.

James pressed me on this. “So, when you say getting bored,” he said. “What do you mean by that?”

I laughed. “Perhaps getting bored isn’t the right way of putting it,” I said. “The truth is more that as a musician, I long to explore new territory. For me, the most exciting thing is an unfamiliar challenge, a foreign land. That’s where the good stuff is for me. And once I’ve learned how to do it, I feel ready to tackle something new.”  

And this, too, is a career metaphor that can be described in terms of improvisation. The moment when a piece of material has been fully exhausted, and it’s time to pivot left, or right, or to begin anew. Time to be reborn. But one of the key challenges is how to communicate this pivot to the community around you. While everyone else is understandably focused on what you’ve done in the past (and have constructed an understanding of you around that), you’ve got to communicate about what you want to do in the future.

One of the students asked me how my network as a writer on NewMusicBox, which is quite broad, has fed into my work as a violinist. “Well,” I said, “I was really afraid when I started writing on NewMusicBox that my identity as a writer would eclipse anything I’d accomplished as a violinist.

“And it did,” I admitted.

Ultimately, this isn’t a problem, if we multifaceted artists can find a way to communicate the whole of who we are. While I may have initially cringed at how much more impactful my writing was than my violin playing, I now embrace the connections that the platform enables me to make. Regardless of how people get to know you, it’s invariably a positive thing that they get to know you!

Stay tuned for the second installment of my SAIC follow-up posts, where I’ll share the insights that came up in our discussion of gender in musical communities.