The sustainable musician makes music now in ways that nurture music tomorrow. Like an organic farmer, the sustainable musician enriches the cultural soil to increase our human capacity for expression. Sustainable music is both art making and arts advocacy; it talks and walks the embrace of culture as living, since no matter how excellent, an extinct, unsustainable music serves no one. Sustainable music nutures both musician and listener, making our communities into more vibrant, meaning-full environments for communication. Sustainable music provides immediate spiritual sustenance, while increasing our ability to listen, to think, to experience, to love, to care about art, about ourselves and each other.
Today the status of professional musician is under siege. We can blame this on the global economic crisis (and that’s certainly a problem), but it’s also a predictable effect of unsustainable musical thinking. When excellence becomes more about serving music than serving humanity, music withers, art dies away. For well over a century, the notion of the musician amateur, the “lover of” music who makes music for pleasure and enrichment of self, family, and friends, has been discounted in part to create the category of professional. Yet the resulting gap between music lover and music earner while it may temporarily elevate the status of the professional in the short term, degrades the fertility of the cultural soil that feeds human culture and connects music to life. It pushes the professional away from his or her listener. Any gap between artist and audience—between art and engagement—distances the listener from participation in musical experience. It is this gap that makes music making elite, disconnected from its audience, an absent partner in its community. It rips the roots of music as art from the soil of community and that gives musicians their purpose. It removes music from life itself.
What would happen if we thought about musicianship as sustainable music making? How might the thinking of a musician change? Would it change a lot or just a little? Would music be less about competition, about beating others, and more about the embrace of the human capacity to think through artistry? Would playing music at a school, a retirement community, or the town square suddenly seem as important as performing in the concert hall? Would playing in a concert hall seem more significant, more potent, and more likely to enhance the human experience? Would the walls dividing classical from popular, improvisation from note reading, hip hop from fiddlin’, film music from concert music seem less in need of defense?
Would the sustainable musician see the World Wide Web as an opportunity rather than a threat? Would it seem more natural to invite youth orchestra musicians to sit in with members of the Boston, Chicago, or Your City Symphony Orchestras? Would more orchestras imitate Baltimore’s “Rusty Musicians Project” or create New Horizons Ensembles? Would the requirements for a music school degree in sustainable music making change to include learning how to teach as well as perform? Would it include advocating for public policy that supports art, not for art’s sake but for the sake of global peace, public health, and human understanding? Would excellence find additional purpose? Would music matter, even just a little more?
In this spirit, I’d like to propose “the sustainable musician.” What do you think this would mean?