Staying Sane in the Music Business (Part 1)
Updated: Jan 17
One day in the Spring of 1977 I came to a fork in the road and made a choice that affected the rest of my life. I was in my junior year at a state university studying philosophy. I was specializing in ancient Greek philosophy with an emphasis on Aristotle's Metaphysics.
I hadn't really chosen my degree program. There was never a moment that I decided to be a professional philosopher. I was just coasting through college, following the path of least resistance; I took classes I enjoyed and in which I was interested - mainly philosophy, theology and a little bit of music theory. The kicker was when I discovered that, in philosophy, I could substitute logic classes for math classes - I loved logic and hated math!
A moment of clarity was triggered by a letter from the school informing me that I would not be allowed to enroll the next semester unless I officially declared a major.
I realized that there is only one thing one can do with a degree in philosophy - teach philosophy. It seemed very circular. The bread-and-butter of even the most famous writers was teaching. Not to say that philosophy doesn't affect the world - it does, big time. Aristotle mentored Alexander the Great; major portions of the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence come from the writings of John Locke - to name just a couple of examples. Nevertheless, the moment of clarity revealed my philosophy career trajectory as follows;
Six or eight years of study to earn a PHD (I was already 3 years in with a 4.0 grade point average).
Obtain a tenured position at a university somewhere.
Write on the side.
Teach 30-40 years and retire with a nice pension.
Not a bad plan, especially since I loved philosophy. It was safe and predictable. But...I would have to get up early every day, put on nice clothes and go teach Plato and Aristotle to a bunch of undergrads, most of whom weren't interested. Also, I knew by experience that the philosophy classes drew a disproportionate number of weirdos - one day a student came in (pretty sure he was high) and dramatically announced to the class, "Nothing is my God!" The professor didn't blink an eye and responded, "If nothing is your God then nothing is something" - aaand the argument went downhill from there with the student stomping out 5 minutes later in a fit of pique, never to return - which was probably the professor's intention in the first place.
Did I want to deal with all that the rest of my professional life?
I love philosophy; I'd been inclined that way for a long time (I was reading Immanuel Kant while still in high school), but the answer was, "No!"
"Well then," I thought, "I want to do something I love. What else do I love?"
The answer was immediate; "I love to play the guitar; surely there must be a way I can make a living at that!"
With philosophy off the table I couldn't think of anything else I loved more than playing the guitar. I'd always loved it. I loved it long before I even knew what philosophy was. If you've read even a few of my blogs you'll know I was playing guitar from a very young age. I was playing professionally at 14 or 15; all through high school and college I played in bands. My college days were spent studying philosophy and playing/writing music and doing gigs at coffeehouses, clubs, parties and campus facilities. It was a wonderful and carefree period of my life. I paid for it all myself with money earned from summer jobs and music gigs. My dad was sending me $40 a month for groceries; I didn't tell him I didn't need it - I spent it on record albums. My car was paid for. I rented an off-campus 2-bedroom house with 2 other roommates for $100 a month. That's $33 a month apiece for rent! I could live for a school year on a thousand dollars. Those were the days!
As I sat in my living room pondering my situation I had the sensation of multiple puzzle pieces clicking into place; there was the place that the guitar already occupied in my life. There was my personality type; I hated regimentation, dress codes and the like. I had a rebellious, self-reliant independent streak. I hated high school and did the least amount possible to get by, short-cutting the system at every opportunity. I loved college because I could come and go as I pleased and nobody cared if I skipped a class. I thrived in a less structured environment. There was also the fact that I have always been nocturnal. I remember being in first grade and absolutely hating the feeling of my mother flipping on the light at 7am to wake me up for school. I don't wake up until the crack of noon, no matter what time in the morning I get up! For the first time, I realized that having to face a lifetime of early rising as a philosophy professor was a nightmare prospect. I knew from experience my biorhythms were better suited to being a musician rather than being in a classroom at the break of day. There were many other pieces - and they all tilted towards guitar player rather than philosopher. I had a strong intuition it was meant to be.
At that point, in light of the decision to be a musician instead of a philosopher, I squarely faced the fact that as a self-taught guitarist I had no idea what I was doing, and I was going to set myself up to compete with guys who did. I got serious about learning music and really getting a handle on the instrument.
At the time of this significant life-decision, I had no idea how my decision to become a guitarist as a profession would play out; I could foresee no "career trajectory" like what was discernible as a philosopher. I just naively (some might say, "stupidly") stepped out in blind faith. I quit school, moved back home to Kansas City and enrolled as a Classical Guitar Performance Major at the Conservatory of Music there and started gigging full-time in the clubs at night. I knew I wasn't interested in becoming a classical guitarist but that was the only thing I could think of to do (my exposure to classical guitar and my lessons with Douglas Neidt proved to be invaluable). Thus began a decade-long process of formal training - the equivalent of a PHD, so to speak. Officially, I have no degree; I dropped out of the Conservatory after 3 years to study privately with the local jazz guru (John Elliott) - seven years worth of study there but no credit towards a degree. So ten years of study and no degree. I never cared about a degree; I cared about being the best guitarist I could be. As far as I know, not having a degree has never cost me a gig.
I would have a different attitude if I was interested in a tenured position at a music conservatory somewhere: a degree is very much required for that kind of situation. However, a tenured position at a university was what I was choosing against back in 1977. I have walked away from several institutional-type teaching opportunities over the years for precisely the same reasons I made my original decision.
I have blogged extensively about this process, if you're interested, start with A Little Story.
I tell you all this because it is my training in philosophy, logic and analytical thinking that has helped me to stay sane as a musician.
Life is funny that way - things that I thought were dead ends and wasted time turn out to be an integral part of what I do today, contributing in ways completely unforeseen back when I thought I was giving them up.
The fact is though, I never gave up my interest in philosophy, it was just recategorized (in good Aristotelian fashion) as, "hobby." If I'd chosen to continue with my philosophy studies, playing guitar would have been relegated to "hobby." That was the fork in the road.
The irony is, of course, that there are waaay more weirdos in the music business than in philosophy, I've had to wear some of the stupidest clothes imaginable and I've gone with no sleep at all more nights than I can count - and thus the need to maintain sanity.
So how has my training in philosophy helped me survive as a musician?
Read about it in the next blog coming soon from Master Guitar School!
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