I got a free 30-day trial of Ableton Live 9 Suite, which is a music production program. You can record, mix and master fairly professional sounding songs from one program. It costs $750 to buy and I was considering getting it, so I gave myself a challenge: If I can get a decent sounding song out of this thing in a month, I’ll buy it.
I was planning to write an article about how I figured out Ableton and recorded a great song on it. I was going to have it play when anyone read this. Jamesistrying.com goes multimedia!
Instead, I was faced with a truth that I’ve been denying and ignoring for the past five years. I am not a musician.
Last fall, I wrote a story about changing my life and getting into medical school. It was an inspirational tale about achieving a goal, following a dream. However, the birth of that dream was the death of another. And it’s a death that I never properly mourned.
I started playing music and writing songs before I can remember. I had my first live performance with a band when I was in the 6th grade. From that point on, my musical abilities improved. I was always getting better. I was learning more instruments, writing songs, having fun. I practiced with every free second I had.
By the time I was 22, I was good. I was in a band that I really believed in. I believed in them so much that I quit school, overly confident that I’d eventually be able to make my living off of music. I didn’t see any limits to my abilities. I knew I wasn’t the best, but I thought it was achievable. I’d hear songs or performances that completely blew me away and I’d think, “Hmmm, maybe I’ll be able to do that one day.”
And it was believable. I practiced so much and improved so constantly that I had no reason to think that I’d stop progressing as an artist. It didn’t matter how far away I was from greatness because I kept getting closer. I used to think that even if I slowed down, I’d be as good as my heroes by age 40 or so and if I didn’t slow down, by 30 or earlier.
When I was 23, the band I was with recorded our debut album (The Queensmen) and it was not an overnight success. I wasn’t immediately discouraged. In the back of my mind, I figured it would either take some time to catch on, or the next album would do it.
But my own musical progress slowed significantly. My song writing was not making leaps and bounds like it had been since I started writing. The unthinkable happened. I reached a plateau.
This is exactly when I woke up one morning and decided that being a doctor would be amazing. There was a lot leading up to the doctor decision, but the timing played a crucial role. If this realization had happened before my band released our album I wouldn’t have taken it seriously.
I acted on the doctor thing. I got into a pre-med program starting the following fall. The amazing band I was with imploded. I immediately started playing with other bands and started working on a solo album. As the fall drew closer, my focus moved away from music and towards my future. I left the bands I was playing with, didn’t finish my album and moved to Hawai’i.
In school, I seriously struggled with practicing and writing songs. I didn’t realize that I quit my music career. It wasn’t a decision I made consciously. And since the day I started pre-med until…now, I’ve been struggling. I’ve been getting worse at music, not better.
I have phases where I’m back to my old self; working on songs, singing, playing different techniques, but it always ends the same way. I realize that I’m nowhere near where I was when I was 23. I get fed up. I forced myself to release an EP (The Warp and the Woof) and it’s mostly terrible.
I used to listen to my heroes and say, “How did they do that!? Amazing! I’ll do that someday!” And now I listen to my 23 year old self’s music and say, “How the hell did I do that? I don’t even know what chord that is!” It is really disappointing.
I had a phase recently where I was trying to get my voice back. I was singing a lot. I decided to learn a song that would challenge me. Jeff Buckley’s “Everybody Here Wants You”. I put headphones on, cranked up the volume and listened to the subtleties. It’s so beautiful. His voice is unbelievable. It brought me to tears. This sort of listening experience used to inspire me to be better. This time, though, it inspired me to take a nap. I decided not to learn the song. I’d much rather listen to Jeff Buckley sing it.
Now we get to the Ableton free trial. It was supposed to be my reemergence as a musician. I started working on a song I wrote a few years back. It wasn’t turning out how I wanted it to. I figured it might be hard to jump right in like that, so I decided to record a cover song. I learned “Burial” by Miike Snow on the piano. I began recording the basics of the song and recorded a vocal track. I played back my first take. I immediately deleted the vocal. I did it again. Listened back. Deleted. Terrible.
I don’t want to do this anymore. This constant struggle is way too painful for me. And then my moment of clarity. I quit five years ago. My progress as an artist died. My dreams of being a professional musician were in the mud. I am an amateur. A bedroom guitarist. Finishing this recording would be my contribution to the crappy cover songs on YouTube. I don’t want that.
That sounds a little depressing, I suppose, but I don’t view it that way. I’m coming to terms with a decision I made a long time ago and I don’t regret it. It’s a bit of a relief. I’ll never stop playing music. It will always be a huge part of who I am. But I’m going to stop pressuring myself to be great. I am not a musician. And I am ok with that. I am becoming something that I’ve decided is far more important to me. I am a medical student.
*If you’re interested in hearing the albums I listed above, don’t buy them, let me know and I’ll send them for free.