By Justin Locke
When I was a teenager, I suffered from the ubiquitous raw vulnerability that is endemic to that time of life. It was felt in all things, but perhaps more so in my musical activities. I knew that, lurking behind a frail facade of some bit of “talent,” the imperfect reality of my true self and its uneven technical skill might be exposed to public view and derision at any moment.
When I went off to music school, things got worse. I was surrounded by people who also suffered from the same high anxiety of being exposed for the imperfect beings that they were. One common survival response was to attach oneself to a grandiose standard of “artistic excellence.” But sad to say, another common coping mechanism was to heap scorn and derision upon other students who were even less technically proficient. Whenever I was the object of this sort of thing, it cut home like a razor.
In protective response, I made a fervent vow that I would make myself into a perfect double bass playing machine. I would make myself invulnerable to these sniping comments, also to the more official institutional judgments of my ability that pained my spirit so deeply. I started to practice in earnest, seeking to destroy my imperfections by pushing myself to the furthest edge of physical capability . . . which, at age 19, is pretty far.
After practicing scales and intervals for eight hours a day, well, no surprise. I got good. Dare I say it . . . I got really good.
But no matter how good I got, I never got to a state of “perfect.” I still played an occasional wrong note. So, my plan failed.
But this is where I stumbled onto the Treasure of the Sierra Madre Symphony: You see, after having pushed myself as far as I could go in this temporal realm, and still failing, I found calm acceptance of my imperfect self, as I had done the very best I could do with what the universe had given me. Going forward, whenever I played an occasional wrong note, or if some colleague or conductor made some scathing remark about my abilities, I no longer fell into a vortex of shame. True, I was not perfect. But . . . I no longer condemned myself for being so. I had accepted the fact that I wasn’t perfect, and could never be. And I took great solace in knowing for sure that no one else could achieve it either.
In the bigger picture, we can talk about patch fixes of more gun regulation, or love being greater than hate. But if we do not acknowledge the universal imperfect truth of ourselves, we will continue to see it morph into destructive actions being visited on weaker individuals or groups. Disapproval of our own personal imperfections needs to vent itself. This usually takes the form of blanket condemnation of some other group of people. The ensuing vitriol and violence feels righteous and justified, because it feels as though the icky internal shame is at last being cast out and defeated, at least by proxy.
At its core, arts education forces a hard examination and acceptance of the truth of ourselves. In seeking a cogent argument for arts education, perhaps we should start there. The lack of this dimension of arts education, and the internal and external intolerance its absence allows to fester, is a threat to our very existence.