I’m writing this from the Argentinean Patagonia, as I live in a small city called Bariloche at the footsteps of the Andes. I’m a musician and guitar player, and nowadays I focus on my YouTube channel, on producing music, on writing books about music and giving online music lessons focusing on improvisation. But, above and below all that, I focus on living a useful and happy life, which I do mostly through music.
Music can be seen as entertainment but it can also be so much more. In a world where technology has the means to solve so many problems but chooses not to, in a world where institutionalized religions don’t seem to be working, and in a world where it’s not easy to find the ethics and values of being human, I strive to cultivate and propagate a way to practice life skills through the spiritual practice of music. In this search, I have not found a better perspective than that of secular Buddhism, which I have informally studied in the last few years and that I’m starting to apply in concrete musical studies for myself and gradually for my students.
Do I want to be a famous musician and tour around the world? Not really. Do I want people to come to my concerts and forget about their problems for a while? Not really. I want to change the world, starting with myself, making a day-by-day effort to make this world a more empathetic, peaceful and beautiful place, for all beings to have a deep and meaningful life. Is it working? Well, some days more than others... but, yeah, pretty much!
Stephen Batchelor’s four tasks have provided me with an inspiring framework to cultivate an ethical and flourishing life as a musician and in other areas of my life. My ability to embrace life in all its complexity, to reduce my tendency to be reactive and gain a sense of equanimity, and my aspiration to actualize a life path based on compassion and mindfulness is grounded in the four tasks.
In a future article I will discuss the specific ways that I apply the four tasks to my music. But for now, here’s a vignette that I hope you will enjoy:
I just heard a sound. The sound itself has already disappeared, after coming out of my guitar, reaching the crowd and reverberating off the walls of this once smoky club that, despite current non-smoking laws, still retains the smells and the stories of countless jazz concerts such as the one I'm currently performing. There are sounds that are beautiful, sounds that evoke emotions and sounds that make my life as a gigging musician something worth doing. But the sound I just played was neither. It was just a big fat ugly mistake that sounded terrible.
I trained myself and I practiced improvisation most of my life but it never stops hurting when I play such a bad sound. I know mistakes happen and a voice that lives within me (and that is so much wiser than me) tells me that I should just embrace it. But still, even after all these years, it doesn't come easy.
I feel my shoulders sink to the floor in embarrassment while my eyes lock up with the bass player, an old jazz veteran who has radars instead of ears, who with his stare tells me ‘You alright, boy? I thought you went to Berklee.’ He knows I messed up, of course he knows I messed up. I start thinking about the couple sitting in the first row, they probably went through all sorts of troubles (did they have to get a babysitter? they look as if they have a child) to come to my concert and then, foolish me, I play the worst possible sound.
I look down to my guitar and see my frightened hands tensing up about to react, but just a millisecond before my fingers shoot a second arrow into the air, I decide to pause. "Don't just do something, sit there!", my teacher used to tell me. So, I collect myself to follow his advice, and I witness myself starting to forget about the bass player and the couple on the first row. With the rhythm section still swinging hard (what would I do without them), I wait until the music tells me to act.
I ask myself, ‘What should I play next?’ Let me rephrase that. ‘What is the music asking of me?’ Or maybe, even better, ‘How can I best serve the moment?’ Anyway, it's not really thinking which goes on during those moments, but after a gap of no more than four beats I choose to give myself permission to burst out with a laugh, in response to my previous mistake. A big fat, but this time beautiful, laugh. ‘Yeah, I messed up!’ is what my laughter expresses and the bass player responds with a chuckle. I think the couple on the first row gets it, too, as I see them smiling knowing that there is more to a good concert than just hearing the correct sounds.
I finish up my solo quite decently and the rest of the concert goes by smoothly. Of course, other mistakes happen, but somehow those don't seem to matter so much. I mess up, I let go, I pause and I keep on playing.
After all... aren't those my tasks as an improvising musician?