Why We Do This

The 17th-century English author and poet John Milton penned the line: "Such sweet compulsion doth in music lie."1 And this has been a truth throughout the ages. Since the first inchoate musicians sang, blew a flute, plucked a string, or beat a drum, the result has had meaning for nearly all members of the human family.2

Historically, those who choose music as a vocation are driven by a different experience than are music fans at large. Well beyond the passive enjoyment of music, career musicians work tirelessly to ply the tools of the trade to shape the melodies, harmonies, and rhythms that hail from seemingly celestial realms.

For these artists, music is often the centerpiece of life. A bit of Milton's "sweet compulsion" drives musicians to practice thousands of hours, wrestle with notes and lyrics on the page, and toil among the ranks of fellow impecunious musicians to earn a living, hoping for the day when the world will embrace their talent.3 Here, several successful artists from different disciplines whose talent the world has acknowledged share their thoughts on why they enjoy career longevity.

 
  George Benson
  Greg Allen

Inspired Beginnings

 

For many musicians, a key childhood experience was pivotal in setting the course for their musical lives. Hit maker and jazz guitar virtuoso George Benson relates his first transformative experience-at the tender age of six-singing before a large audience.

 

"I heard a live band at a 4th of July concert in Pittsburgh," Benson recounts. "I ran closer to the stage to see the band. The bandleader saw me being crushed by the crowd and pulled me up onto the stage. He handed me the mic and asked if I could sing. I knew the popular song 'I Need You So' by Ivory Joe Hunter. I sang it, and right then and there I was forever changed. The crowd loved it! I would soon become 'Little Georgie Benson' performing locally and on the radio."

During the late seventies, celebrated studio drummer John "J.R." Robinson '75 started his career playing on hit records by Michael Jackson and Chaka Khan, and decades later he continues to be an in-demand drummer. He was also smitten with music at a young age. "My parents, Jack and Helen, filled our house with music, and I naturally gravitated to it," Robinson recalls. "My dad started me playing piano at age five, and my mom always talked about swing and played me big-band records. I got a recording of 'When the Saints Go Marching In' by Danny Kaye and Louis Armstrong on a 45, and that sealed the deal!"

Six-time Grammy Award-winning jazz vibraphonist Gary Burton '62 began playing professionally as a child, but he didn't discover jazz until his teen years. Together with his sister and brother, Burton performed a repertoire of classical pieces, Dixieland tunes, and other selections throughout the Midwest at churches, Kiwanis clubs, and parties, but the vibist didn't envision music as his life's work.

 
Gary Burton  
Phil Farnsworth  

"I started music at age six because of my parents and found it enjoyable and fun," Burton says. "But I never thought about making it a career until I went to the first-ever jazz band camp in 1959 held at Indiana University. The experience of being surrounded by 100 other eager young jazz students was so energizing and inspiring that I came home and announced that I was going to Berklee instead of medical school."

The music that profoundly affects the mind of a developing musician often maintains its luster for a lifetime. During countless interviews and in liner notes on albums, musicians reveal the lasting lure of the work of a singer, instrumentalist, or composer that inspired them to become a music professional. Gary Burton points out that the magnetism exerted by certain artists often relates to the developing musician's peer group. "I think everyone has an intense period of discovery about music," Burton says.

It's the same whether you are a musician or a fan, and seems to take place in the teen years and twenties. Typically, you have an affection for the music you discovered during that maturing process. Someone once said, after you turn 30, something terrible happens to music: true a hundred years ago, and true today.

When I was a student, I remember Herb Pomeroy [a Berklee professor from 1955 to 1995] going on about Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, and others-all of whom I appreciated but didn't have strong emotional ties to. Meanwhile, I was going bonkers over Bill Evans, whom Herb appreciated but didn't have nearly the visceral feeling about Bill's music that I had. I saw this play out over and over during my teaching years with students as I reminisced about Bill Evans's genius, and they're talking about Pat Metheny or Michael Brecker doing it for them. Today, it would be an even newer crop of players.

 
  Daniel Levitin
  Arsenio Coroa

I think there is something very deep and meaningful about how we become one with the world of music in our youth, and we tend to relate all the rest of our musical experiences back to that initial period of connection with the power of music.

Sound Discovery

 

An old saying characterizes imitation as the highest form of flattery. Musicians learn the vocabulary of a given style primarily by imitating the work of their favorite artists. But the music world craves original voices, not imitators. It is interesting to study the early influences that music stylists cite as the foundation of their own work. Paul McCartney and John Lennon revered the work of Little Richard and Chuck Berry and sang their songs. Pat Metheny cites Wes Montgomery as a chief influence and frequently plays tunes Montgomery favored. Still, no discerning listener would point to the Beatles or Metheny as mere imitators. Even as they paid homage to their mentors, they forged their own styles.

 

"At the beginning when you start, the horn plays you," says Grammy-winning saxophonist Joe Lovano '72.

You don't have a personal sound. After a while, if you embrace the world of music and are creating inspired, spontaneous expression, you're not playing in one style, it's your own approach. Throughout your lifetime, that grows and changes. When I'm playing now, I don't hear anybody else; I'm hearing my own voice. Where do you get your ideas from? It's not what you practice. That provides a foundation to express ideas that develop from who you are playing with and the energy around you at that moment.

In a way, your sound is always in a state of development. For me, experiencing different instruments in the woodwind family influences the way I play tenor or soprano. I'm still inspired by trying to create sound and music rather than recreating something I've practiced. For me, it's always been about playing with different people and playing different repertoire, trying to be creative from within my foundation and to play into tomorrow.

 
Joe Lovano  
Jimmy Katz  

Group Chemistry

 

Lovano's description of how fellow musicians onstage affect what he plays is noteworthy. By and large, musicians seek out players with whom they have musical chemistry. In some cases, core groups of musicians remain together for years, even decades. Many longtime groups in popular music could be cited, including the Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, U2, and the Eagles, to name a few. Other influential groups (the Beatles, the Police, Led Zeppelin) were bound by undeniable musical chemistry for a dozen or more years before disbanding or having key members depart for solo careers. Many headlining solo artists work with key side musicians for decades (Sting and guitarist Dominic Miller, for example, or James Taylor and bassist Jimmy Johnson).

 

Record producer and neuroscientist Daniel Levitin '80, a professor at McGill University, has authored best-selling books on music and the brain and music's role in society. He offers ideas for why some musicians work together for long periods of time while others continually form new alliances.

 
  Kirill Gerstein

"We now know that performing music together typically causes the release of the hormone oxytocin, which is involved in generating feelings of trust and bonding," Levitin says.

Oxytocin is the same hormone that is released when people have orgasms together, and it's partly what causes that kind of bonding between lovers. That musicians share this same chemical bond is especially relevant here to why people like to play music together.

Some people are oxytocin deficient or can be vulnerable to other factors. For example, not all men experience bonding with the people they make love to, and so, by extension, perhaps not all musicians bond with other musicians. There could be biological and chemical differences between people here.

Continual Flow of Inspiration

 

Russian-born pianist Kirill Gerstein '96 began playing classical music and jazz as a child and then continued his jazz studies at Berklee. Since leaving the college, he has returned to classical music and developed a successful career as a soloist with orchestras and as a solo recitalist. "I felt I had to make a choice and decided to concentrate on classical music," Gerstein says. "There is a related but different sort of creativity in classical music. Everyone knows that creation in the moment in jazz requires much preparation and study; it doesn't come out of thin air." Gerstein finds career-sustaining inspiration from mining the classical piano repertoire and creating his own unique interpretation of time-tested works. His recent winning of the prestigious Gilmore Artist Award (for exceptional pianists who also have the potential to sustain a career as major international concert artists) was an indication that he made the right career choice.

 

 
John "JR" Robinson  
Rob Shanahan  

"There is nothing else that could involve me so intensely as music," Gerstein says. "What drives me is my curiosity about music and my love for it. I find it very interesting to be involved with the music and to try things in front of the audience. I find the allusions that I can make with the instrument and its repertoire very interesting. Even at times when I don't feel like playing, these things catch my interest and give me a kick and an emotional reward."

For Burton, who started performing in 1949, the experience and motivation for making music has changed over the years. "In some ways," Burton says, "the experience of performing after decades in the business is both satisfying and not easy. When I was starting out, every night on the gig was exciting. Now, all the elements that go into an ideal performance have to be there for me to get the same exhilaration. It's the high that I strive for, but it's harder to attain because my expectations are greater now."

After playing drums for 47 years, Robinson says, "I'm still am in love with drums. There are times when I push myself as if I were 20, but that's the nature of the beast. I truly relish the ability to create my sound on this beautiful instrument." But what about the times when the session calls for Robinson to play a simple groove he's played a thousand times?

We all know that certain things always work. If the song is good, then anything will work. I could just play beat one on the kick, and it would work. I just finished working with Quincy Jones again for the [2010 World Expo in Shanghai, China], and he and Siedah Garrett wrote an amazing song that presented a challenge. My first impressions were to underplay the song and let it grow on its own. However, Q asked me to do another drum take and put my magic on it by changing the groove to more of a hip-hop, funk-dance vibe that would get attention from the get-go. It really worked.

Beyond the paycheck, what motivates Robinson to give his best at all times? "I know no other way," he says. "If I'm working for Barbra Streisand and making a huge paycheck or playing a small club and my monies all go to cartage, I still play with the same desire and passion that God gave me. I owe it to Him."

 
  Tierney Sutton
  Tatijana Shoan

Sweet Compulsion

 

As the saying goes, you become a musician because you have to, not because you want to. Many musicians speak of being "chosen" by their instrument rather than choosing it. Levitin explains why music can feel like a compulsion. "Music making is an activity that often recruits a large number of disparate brain regions causing the same kind of high we experience whenever we do anything that requires a great deal of skill and focus," he says. "Painters, basketball players, race-car drivers, and actors who are 'in the zone' reach a state of heightened awareness and well-being, and musicians can too. This appears to involve the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is involved in the maintenance of attention and also in mood regulation and pleasure."

 

Grammy-nominated jazz vocalist Tierney Sutton describes music as an inner motivator. "The spark has gone from being a desire or compulsion into a sort of spiritual or meditational practice," Sutton says. "At this point, I feel it as a need, something that keeps me balanced. If I'm not involved in some creative musical process, if I'm off the road and not working on a new project, I get a feeling of spiritual indigestion and have to find time to engage in making music. I might be alone or with my band or with other musicians. I might just be journaling about a new concept or listening actively to another artist's work. But I have to do it - like I have to eat or sleep."

Sustanance for Hit Makers

 

Many young musicians dream of having radio hits and platinum-selling albums. There's a flipside to the financial benefits and large audience hit records attract. For most artists, hit songs must be included on every set list because they are big part of the reason audience members bought a ticket to the concert. Like many successful hit makers, George Benson has found the silver lining to singing nightly hit songs he recorded 30 years ago. "Because of my experience with jazz music, which gave me the ability to improvise, there are no two nights alike," he says. "Each night is a new experience for me and my audience. I'm excited to be on a stage anywhere, anytime. Even when I perform my established hit songs, I get great joy in knowing that the audience still shows the same enthusiasm they had many years ago."

 

For Timothy B. Schmit, bassist, vocalist, and songwriter for the Eagles since 1977, the thrill of playing with the band has never faded. "It is still great to play with the Eagles," Schmit says. "I try not to take for granted the good fortune I've had. When you're up there in front of thousands of people, you're part of this big machine that's well known and people are wide-eyed. You're larger than life and people expect you to completely bowl them over. I've played some of the songs for so long, that some nights I have to force myself to stay in the present because I can play the songs without any thought. If I let my mind wander, I could forget what verse we're on or if the chorus is coming up. Generally, you get so charged up by the audience reaction and all eyes being on you that you automatically do your best."

 
Timothy B. Schmit  

Schmit has found new inspiration by appearing as a headliner to support his latest album Expando. "I'm finally doing some solo shows," Schmit says. "I've had albums out before, but this is the first time I've gone out on the road as a solo artist and it's really exciting. It gives me the feeling I had when I was younger. The energy is different when I play with the Eagles. My shows are in 300-to 500-seat clubs or theaters. That's more challenging and gives me more adrenaline because all eyes are on me and I can see everybody. It's not an ocean of people like at the Eagles shows."

Appearing as a headliner puts Schmit in touch with some of the things that drew him to a music career years ago. One big factor is that he doesn't have to do solo gigs to support himself. "I'm not dependent on them," he says. "I sell fewer albums than the band and don't play big venues. From a financial standpoint, it doesn't matter whether people come to see me. I'm doing it more for the expression and it's way fun. We all got into music because it's really fun. That's what you need to retain as the years go by. The key is to keep that spark and the joy."

 

Footnotes

 

1John Milton, "Arcades." The Complete Poems. New York: Penguin Books 2004, 40.

2Interestingly, Oliver Sacks writes about a small segment of the population affected with amusia and dysharmonia, disorders that make listening to music unpleasant at best and unbearable at worst. See Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia. New York: Vintage, 2007, 106.

3Daniel Levitin has noted that current research indicates that 10,000 hours of practice are required to reach the level of mastery of a world-class expert. See Levitin's This Is Your Brain on Music, New York: Dutton 2006, 193.