What happens when being a musician feels useless?
In a video call the other day, my friend stepped onto the balcony of her apartment to show us New York City, cheering on its healthcare workers from windows across a greying horizon. Their cheering reached my ears as music.
At the time, I was reeling from a crisis that started with reading the news.
During a break from practicing flute, I began to read a news article about the displacement of people in rural parts of India — having read, earlier that morning, about the inability of people to bury their loved ones in a town in Ecuador.
Since high school, reading the news has been a way for me to have some grasp of what's going on beyond me. As a result, I have grown accustomed to reading about tragedies.
But somehow, this time I couldn’t find a way back into my normal headspace.
To pick up my flute, to create music with my breath, and to engage all the muscles involved in playing felt impossible. Silence seemed the only possible soundscape in a world where this kind of suffering is happening.
So instead, I wept. I couldn’t escape this grief that I was powerless to do anything to alleviate these people’s circumstances. Why was this different from before? In all those years of reading the news, how had I continued so easily with my life?
Before, there was no entry point for me into what I read about in the news. Now, the pandemic has immersed all of us in its effects. Simply being part of the crisis sharpened my sense of its impact on hard-hit communities.
For the middle-upper class in general, being affected by what shatters communities who lack adequate resources & infrastructure opens our eyes to deeply rooted problems that constantly produce suffering, whether it affects us or not.
But with an acute sense of others’ suffering, there seemed no way forward. Continuing to pursue my goals and dreams would be like putting blinders back on.
If I were to go back to making music, then I wished music could fix these tragedies by giving food to the starving, sheltering the displaced, burying the dead — in short, everything music cannot be and was never meant be.
But what are the alternatives?
Even if we feel guilty about the privilege of our health and relative comfort, we can’t simply languish in despair because we're powerless to alleviate the suffering of others (which is not entirely true, as one of my favorite writers, Cinelle Barnes, shared through this link).
However, we do have the ability to grieve. Yet as we grieve, we are more than bodies that get sick and die. We have souls that thirst for meaning, and one way we find meaning is through creative expression.
For those whose lives have been shattered, we could feel all the grief in the world — but amidst their suffering, though unimaginable to me, they are more than bodies that get sick and die. They have souls and an agency that isn’t defined by their circumstances.
This is where musicians aren't powerless. We have this gift to sustain the soul of humanity by making sincere contributions to its expressive culture.
But we have to believe in the power of what we create. To be a musician, I didn't realize how much I depended on positive energy — a sense of impulse and lightness — until I didn't have it anymore.
Feeling powerless to alleviate others' suffering, positive energy seemed like an illusion through which I had to strain myself to play. Even then, it was only playing, not creating.
I know this will pass. Which has wrought a guilt of its own, that my personal crisis about others’ suffering will pass, but their experience isn’t so transient.
This question — how to negotiate personal experience with global awareness — brings to mind my takeaways from Global Studies. At the bottom of the list, I wrote, “a belief in the urgency of creating art.” I hadn’t expected to approach my point from this angle, but this crisis forced me to see where this urgency unravels, and to decide whether I still believed in it or not.
After plenty of inspiration from others, introspection, and prayer, I've settled on these things:
Music is worth my breath, my exertion, and my commitment to positive energy. Music is the New Yorkers cheering from their windows, knowing it won’t cure the sick or bury the dead, but knowing also that the human spirit can't be stifled into silence. Music is knowing that the sound of our voices is enough to uplift and unite. And that as human beings, this too is necessary.
In this performance from 2017, I was celebrating the end of my first year of college. Music was something I believed in because I never had to question it.
It might be some time before I can make music like this again. But I know it'll come back.