Cooperating with your musical material, rather than trying to dominate it


Perhaps the first thing that [the average man] can learn from the artists is that the only way of mastering one’s material is to abandon the whole conception of mastery and to co-operate with it in love: whosoever will be lord of life, let him be its servant. If he tries to wrest life out of its true nature, it will revenge itself in judgement, as the world revenges itself upon the domineering artist.
-Dorothy Sayers, from the essay Problem Picture

This passage really struck me to the heart when I read it, as it seems to describe the antidote to the bulk of the frustrations I’ve experienced as a musician.

Instead of mastery, cooperation in love. This goes first of all for one’s body. Are you really a baritone? Stop trying to bang your head against the wall singing the tenor part. Soprano’s who are really alto’s? The same goes for you. Do you have weak hands but still love to play the guitar? There really is a tremendous amount of music that can be played without continuous bar chords, but a lot of the classical repertoire may be agonizing to you. Don’t make yourself miserable. Work WITH your body, not against it, and find a way forward. Find some different stuff to play. Eyes don’t work very well? Don’t get angry – start memorizing. There is a time to discipline your body into shape, but there is also a time, when youth has passed, to just STOP and figure out what works and what you’re actually capable of. The person who lost an arm in a car accident knows this and will obviously take a one-handed approach to the piano. But YOU are not whole either. I am not whole either, even if my “disability” may be less obvious. Work with your body in love – with it’s nature.

The other angle involves collaboration with other people. Push to much for your own way and things will blow up in your face. The other musicians will revenge themselves upon the domineering artist. The primary way they do this is by quitting, and then you are left to play by yourself, which isn’t much fun at all. As Sayer’s says, we should abandon mastery and cooperate with the material (the music, the instruments, our friends, our bodies) in love. Rather than trying to Lord it over these things, be their servant.

I’ve only begun to meditate on what this means.