About the Importance of Joy and Pleasure

The Musical U team gets together to talk about the importance of having fun on your musical journey, and how it ties in with creativity, satisfaction, and achievement. 

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Christopher S.: Hello, and welcome to the Musicality Podcast. My name is Christopher Sutton, I am the founder and director of Musical U. And this is another in a series of episodes where we’re exploring themes that came up in our 100th Episode celebration, where we had 26 world-leading experts chime in on the question of one thing you can do to unlock your inner musicality.

And so we’re picking up on some of the recurring themes there. And today’s episode should be a fun one. Because our theme is the importance of joy and pleasure in your musical journey.

Which- seems like it should be obvious, right? We all get into music because we love music, right? But I think it’s probably fair to say that all of us struggle along the way. And all of us occasionally lose sight of what we love in music, and why we’re doing it in the first place.

And I loved some of the comments from our guest experts. We had Brent Vaartstra who- his main tip was to focus on what brings you joy. Because whatever your journey looks like, there will be hurdles. There will be sticking points. And he was saying you need to focus on what brings you joy. ‘Cause that will get you through the difficult moments.

Jimmy Rotherham talked about how learning music should be a pleasurable experience- something that’s at the heart of the Kodaly approach he advocates, and I’m sorry to say is not always at the heart of education. I think a lot of us, whether we’re self-taught or learning with a teacher, get into that murky territory of worrying so much about exams or requirements or affecting pieces, that we forget that actually learning music should be fun, as well as playing music.

We had Matthew and Jeremy from Music Student 101 make several great points about how you can improve your musicality. But I think the running theme was- it should be fun. You should be enjoying these activities. And you should be using the activities you enjoy in music to level up your skills.

And Sara Campbell, who is joining us on this episode, was talking about how children very clearly demonstrate joy in their music-making, much more freely and willingly than a lot of us, as adults, do.

So before we dig into this topic, I’ll just ask each of our guests today to introduce themselves. Adam, why don’t you kick us off?

Adam Liette: Everyone, I’m Adam Liette. I’m the Communications Manager here at Musical U. And I am a trumpet player and a guitar player.

Stewart Hilton: Hello. My name is Stewart Hilton. I am the Community Conductor on Musical U. And I also play guitar. And there you go.

Sara Campbell: Hi there. I’m the Resident Pro for piano here at Musical U. And I’m also a voice and piano teacher and a music business coach.

Christopher S.: Wonderful. And I mentioned there your contribution to the 100th Episode round-up where you were talking about the difference between children and adults in learning music.
And for me, it really jumped out that it was partly about joy. It was partly about enjoyment and feeling free. So maybe we could start with you and your thoughts on this topic, the importance of joy and pleasure in learning music.

Sara Campbell: Sure. I love coming back to the initial question of- why did you want to play music. What brought you to learning to play the piano or the guitar. Or what brought you to wanting to sing?

And in almost all cases, the answer is- it brings me joy. It makes me happy. And I like to do it. And it’s easy, as we go throughout our studies, to lose track of that. Because we might get frustrated when we can’t master a certain skill. Or we’re stuck in a piece, and it’s not going well. Or you’re sitting down to improvise, and you’re feeling really stuck. And so you have to come back to, “Okay, why am I doing this, again?”

And for me, as a teacher- if there are any teachers out there listening- oftentimes, we don’t set aside the time to play and practice nearly as much as we should. Because we get a lot of music in the studio. And when we go home, we’re like, “Oh, I’m exhausted.”

So I am making a more conscious effort for myself to, you know, come back to the idea that I do this because it brings me joy. So- setting aside time with my husband so that we can sit down at the piano and improvise an F major blues, and just have fun together.

Christopher S.: That’s awesome. And it reminds me of a very different era of this company. Back in 2011-ish, I was giving this presentation about Easy Ear Training, as it was then. And I kicked off the presentation with this, like, blues-y harmonica solo, just to get the audience’s attention.

And I opened by saying, “Music is incredible. It’s fun, and it’s exciting. And it’s passionate. Learning music is none of those things.”

And I kind of went into how musicality is often the missing piece. And we lose sight of what got us excited in the first place. Because we get mired in scales and etudes and repertoire. And I know, for me, it was a lot about genre, as a teenager and a school music student.

I was learning classical pieces, for the most part, which was great for technique. But I wouldn’t go home and listen to classical music. And looking back- no wonder I wasn’t super excited about studying my repertoire. Because that wasn’t the music that got me excited.

And obviously, there is a place for exercises and things that are not, in themselves, super fun. Although I think there are often ways to make them more fun. But I just think you can’t allow yourself to so completely lose sight of what gets you excited in music. I think you’ve demonstrated that really well, Sara, by talking about playing with your husband. I love that.

So Adam, you are married. I don’t know if your wife plays guitar, as you do- or trumpet, as you do. But I like the idea of the Liette family band.

Adam Liette: Well, I’m getting it started now with my children. I’m fortunate enough. I’m in this wonderfully joyous time as a parent where my kids are getting old enough to start playing. And so I’m teaching them piano, mostly, right now. Their fingers are finally getting big enough for a guitar.

So every night, I come home from work. And it’s like, “Okay. It’s dad and music time.” And they just literally line up at the door. It’s one after the other, these 10-, 15-minute increments where they all come in for their lesson.
So it’s super fun. But when I think about my kids, there is this great things that happened a couple months ago. My 9-year-old comes up to me. And he plays piano. And he’s like, “Dad, we have a talent show at school. And I want to play a drum song.”

I’m like- drums. Why drums? He just wanted to play drums. It sounded fun to him. Well, I don’t have a drum. And it’s Monday afternoon. It’s like, when is this talent show. Friday. Great. Thanks.

And so I go downstairs. I’m like- drum, drum, drum. What can I do for a drum? And I grabbed a big pan, a pot, from the kitchen. And I was like, “Okay, here’s your-” … And he was playing a [inaudible 00:58:42] at the school. He told me what it was. And it was like, “Okay. Here’s your drum.”

And I turned it upside down. And he started just tapping on it. I’m like … “Okay. So what are you gonna play?” He’s like, “Well, I’m just …” And he just started tapping something. And I’m like “Okay, no need to help you.”

And he just played some stuff that was in his ear. I transcribed it, helped him organize it into a song, which he called the “Dino March.” He loves dinosaurs. And he was so happy for the next four days, playing that song over and over again.

And then the day of the talent show came. And I got off work, went to his school where I got to see it. And he definitely got, as Melody Payne put it, “off book.” [inaudible 00:59:21] he played. ‘Cause he didn’t have his music in front of him.

But he was so excited to get in front of his school and just play. And if I wouldn’t have allowed myse– “Jay, you don’t have a drum. We’re not. No. Let’s play your piano.”

But he found such joy in playing that in front of his fellow students. And now next year, he joins band- I just know he’s gonna want to be drummer. So I’m gonna have a drummer in my house.

But you know, as we’re getting to that age, it’s like- well, what instrument gives you pleasure? What speaks to you?

And think, sometimes, especially with kids, we want them to learn a certain instrument. Or we want to learn a certain instrument, for whatever reason. And we all have this inner desire. And you need to just nurture that.
And whatever instrument your children want to play, let them play that instrument. Even if it’s the oboe, and you know it’s gonna be just a tuning nightmare in your house for the next four years.

Christopher S.: (Laughing)

Yeah, it’s interesting. I wasn’t expecting to talk a lot about kids on this episode, but it is such an interesting lens to see things through. You know?

I’ve mentioned on the show a couple of times now- I’m learning drums myself. And so I have a practice pad and drum sticks around. And my daughter, who’s two and half, will wander in. She’ll pick up the drumsticks, and she’ll just kind of wail on it.

And I watch her do that, and it genuinely reminded me that- that’s what I want to do. You know, I’d been doing these rudiments and these drills with the metronome. And then I was like- oh no, wait. I should just put on a punk song and drum. And suddenly it gave me a totally different perspective that got me excited about learning drums again.

[inaudible 01:01:01] You can get very sugar-y and cliché talking about how kids open your eyes and that kind of thing. But I think this is the case where they have that pure interest in joy that I think we as adults are too, kind of, serious to allow ourselves. You know?

I think, for me, the tricky thing about remembering joy and pleasure is that can feel like it’s clashing with being ambitious. You know? If I’m serious about music, if I really want to accomplish this stuff, I can’t be just having fun.
And the two don’t have to be contradictory. You know? It doesn’t have to be either/or. But I think that kind of protestant work ethic- that you should be suffering in order to improve- is often actually holding us back.

[01:01:30] And so, I don’t know, I’ve just had a few moments like that with my daughter, where I’m like- oh yeah. Learning music should be fun.

How about you, Stewart?

Stewart Hilton: Yeah, I was just thinking, when you were talking about that- having that as your beginning point, is probably good to bring you into music. Because I’ve seen- I wrote down a couple of things.

[inaudible 01:02:13] Because I know a couple of guys that I went to high school with. And one- he went as far with bassoon to go to Eastman School of Music, for bassoon. He got his master’s degree in bassoon. He played at one of the large places in New York City, with an orchestra behind him, and all that. Now he doesn’t play any music at all.

And I have another friend- he played trumpet. He went on- he’d gotten into playing trumpet for country, oddly enough. So he was actually on Nashville Now, way back when cable first started. He was in the band on that. He went to Vegas, played there. Now he doesn’t play at all.

And I asked them, “Well, what happened?” And they’re like- well one, he kind of said it. He’s like, “All I did was music, music, music. I never took a break.” He said, “You know, from the time we woke up to the end, it was either working on an instrument or performing. And doing that.”

So it was almost like the joy was taken from it. It became work. You know, versus something he enjoyed- which was something. A guy I played music with- he always kind of talked about- ’cause I would run sound for a country band. And he always said, “Now, we have to make sure we’re having fun. If we’re not having fun, then it’s work. And then why are we doing it? You know. Because if it’s a passion, we should have a smile on our face when we’re doing it.

And that has always kind of stuck with me. It’s like- man, we’ve gotta have fun. And that includes- [inaudible 01:03:47]we’re getting to a point when we’re in a band, playing with other guys that we’ve looked forward to be getting with and doing music with. You know?

Because I hear the other things- you get a band together, and there’s constant drama. The last thing you’re looking forward to at the end of the day is like- oh, yeah. Gotta get together with these guys. And you have all the issues and drama that come with it. It kind of takes out the fun of things.

So yeah. So I try my hardest to find ways of keeping it fun and joyful. And it actually brings to mind when we were on the road last weekend- going back to the long guitar solos. We were playing in Ocean City, Maryland. And the crowd was quite influenced by liquid refreshments.

So anyway, we’re playing. And there’s one guy- during most of the show, he’s bouncing up and down the whole time. And I’m just like- he was cracking me up. So I go into the solo, and in improvisational mode, I started playing a note, inventing it up and down as the guy was bouncing up and down. And I just- it cracked me up. And I see a couple other guys [inaudible 01:05:07] dancing around.

And I’m like- that’s what keeps it fun. You know, just finding the little ways to do that. It’s like- the other band I have, we- outside. You know, there are a lot of bands that go, and it’s all of us that perform, so we have to be professional- can’t do this. Can’t do that. You know?

But you’re in an audience. So you want to make these connections. So there’s a song out right now called “Tennessee Whiskey.” And we were doing it. And it’s kind of a slow song. And we, instead of doing the guitar solo in the middle, we do a harmonica solo.

So we’re playing this at a campground, and this little girl came walking up to the front of our singer who was doing the harmonica solo. And she just kind of looked and put her hands up. And without even a second [bite 01:05:45], put the harmonica down and picked her up on his shoes. And he slow danced with her while we were playing the song.

And I was like- that’s what it’s about. You know, that keeps it fun. And those are good memories.

Christopher S.: Nice. Well, I- you know, we do our team call every Monday. And you often have stories from gigs on the road. And it’s been interesting because I think you’ve definitely experienced both sides of this. You know- being in the band where everything’s fun and joyful, and being in the band where it’s a drag.

And you know, we can’t expect every musical project to be a joy from start to finish. But I think your stories always remind me that, if it’s not at least fun most of the time, you’re probably not going to stick with it. And that’s the reality. And you shouldn’t stick with it, I think.

So I hope this conversation, for anyone listening, has reassured you somewhat that it’s okay to enjoy learning music. I’m sure some people are listening to this being like, “Duh, I enjoy it all time.” But I know that there are also a lot of people listening who are like, “You know, it has been feeling like a bit of drag lately.” Or “maybe I can make some changes that would remind me why I got into this.”

And I’d like to think that is a big part of the spirit of Musical U and the Musicality Podcast- is trying to remind us that music should be about joyful, free creativity and expression, not just ticking the boxes, passing the exams, playing each note perfectly.

That, to me, is not the spirit of music. And the spirit of music is about joy and pleasure. So I hope, for anyone listening, hearing the experts on our Episode 100 round-up and hearing us, today, talk about how joy does not have to be in contradiction to achievement- these were some of the world’s most expert music educators, people that you can look up to, who were talking about the importance of joy and pleasure as their one tip.

So unless you are looking to be a world-touring concert pianist and train from the age of 8 through 30 to achieve technical perfection, I think it’s fair and safe to assume you can allow yourself some joy and pleasure. And as Brent Vaarstra pointed out, that may actually be the key to succeeding long-term and achieving what you want to in music.

So as was to be expected, this conversation was, itself, joyful and a pleasure. Thank you to Adam, Sara, and Stewart for joining us on this one. And stay tuned for more in this series, where we’re picking up on the common themes from our Episode 100 celebration.

Hey, we’re not quite done in fact. Anastasia from our team couldn’t join us for the group session but she did want to share something on this topic, so here is Anastasia.

Anastasia: Hi, my name is Anastasia Voitinskaia, and I’m the assistant content editor here at “Musical You.” In my own musical life, I play the piano, bass, guitar, synthesizer, and I’m an occasional vocalist. I currently play in a band where I play the bass and the synth, and I have a solo experimental electronic music project.

So when it comes to the importance of joy and pleasure in your musical life, honestly that importance cannot be overstated because it’s not as if we really get into music thinking we’re going to make the big bucks. We get into it because we’re fascinated by it, because we want to create music just like the stuff we hear and love.

So the first thing I think to remember is that these kind of concrete measures of success do not always correlate to how much fun you’re having in your musical life, how much you’re enjoying what you’re doing. It’s great to pass your music exams with flying colors. It’s great to get awards for recitals or for music that you’ve written, but that really doesn’t mean that you’re enjoying yourself.

So questions that you can ask yourself to see if you’re kind of on the right track with happiness in music is, if you’re taking lessons, do I like the way that I’m being taught or the way that I’m learning? Do I like the music that I’m playing or the music that I’m writing? Am I writing something that feels true to myself or to someone else? How often do I play just for fun rather than sitting down and practicing? Have I ever passed up trying something that’s musically interesting to me because someone else deemed it a waste of time and so I listened to them and said, “Okay, maybe it is a waste of time,” and then didn’t go for it?

So being honest and checking in with yourself about, not just your musical progress but your musical wellbeing and happiness, is massively, massively important. I’ve definitely been guilty of placing more emphasis on this arbitrary measure of success rather than my own happiness in music, and in my experience this failure to self-evaluate your happiness leads to kind of this general disillusionment with music that kind of hangs over you like a fog. So again, the way to avoid this is just be honest with yourself.

For example, I was in a band for about a year and a half that will remain unnamed. Then the last three months really it was like pulling teeth. I wasn’t having a good time anymore, but my logic was okay, I’ve been doing this for about a year and three months; I guess I will just keep doing it. But I was so unhappy. I think my bandmates could see that I was unhappy, and it was literally just time that would be better spent doing something else. So, after a particularly long and long-distance tour, I kind of sat down with myself and was like, “Okay, I don’t think I want to be doing this anymore. Musically, this does not align with my interests any longer. Again, this is time that would better be spent exploring something else.” So I quit, and that’s one of the best things that I ever did in my musical life. I was just honest with myself, and I said, “This doesn’t work for me anymore. I need to find something else that will bring me the happiness that this band used to bring me.”

If, for example, you are taking lessons, then a great thing to do is really sit down with your teacher and communicate with them to sort out how lessons can be better tailored to your musical inclinations if you’re not happy with the way it’s going. Traditional lessons may not leave much breathing room for what you want to play and how you want to learn, in which case find a new teacher. Find something that works for you. If you’re not enjoying it, it’s not worth giving a teacher the money.

In general, don’t get so hung up on your musical goals also that you forget to enjoy the ride because something I for sure found is that I think kind of the joy of music lies not so much in achieving these concrete milestones, which feels great don’t get me wrong, but the greater joys are kind of in the little revelations and the steady progress that you experience on a day-to-day basis.

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