Why I Play Music

Sometimes I wonder why I put so much time and energy into music. Is it really worth it? I know I’ll never make a career out of it, or any decent money to speak of. I’ll never be one of the best, or anything remotely close. I don’t have the desire or dedication to practice for hours a day. Even if I did, I’m such a latecomer to Bluegrass that I don’t have a chance against all my peers who’ve been playing fiddle tunes since before they could walk. I’m surrounded by so many amazing musicians in the San Francisco Bluegrass scene who can play circles around me, and most of them only do it as a hobby on top of some prestigious tech job. Every time I see children less than half my age shredding solos I could never dream of playing at half the speed, I get the urge to give up on music altogether and confine myself to a life of pious meditation. What’s the point of even trying?

The thing is, when I listen to music, I don’t care about how skilled the artists are, how fast they can fiddle or how long the singer can hold out a note before turning blue in the face. What I care about is how the music makes me feel. I want the music to change me, to uplift me, to mean something. I crave the authentic emotion, the beautiful sounds that speak to me like nothing else can. I don’t care about fancy licks and impressive solos unless they contribute to the meaning of the song.

Most of my favorite music is incredibly simple. This song by Molly Tuttle and John Mailander is one of my recent obsessions that I’ve listened to more times than I can count. Even though Molly is one of the most skilled Bluegrass guitar players I know of, she doesn’t play anything flashy to show off. I can tell she’s bursting with feelings that she wants to share with the audience, and she does it in a way that moves me every time I hear it.

This is the kind of music that helps me make it through life. It calms my storms of emotion, comforts me when I’m lonely, nourishes my soul with beauty. It gives me hope on dark days and inspires me to overcome challenges. It heals heartbreak and fills the aching emptiness. It touches parts of my soul that are out of reach to anything else and unlocks feelings that have been trapped inside. It amplifies my joy and nurtures connections with people I love. Music has been more powerful than any therapy.

This is my goal—to create music that helps other people in the same way. If I can in any way help someone make sense of the chaos of life through my music, I am satisfied. One of the best feelings ever is to make eye contact with someone in the audience while performing and see that they’ve been moved by a song, maybe even with a tear in their eye. Those moments of connection make everything worth it.

It’s so easy to get caught up in seeking recognition and prestige, playing to impress people and craving the quick high of external validation. When I get stuck in that mindset, I catch myself wishing terrible things onto other fiddle players and gravitating towards jams where I can feel like I’m the best. Then I inevitably get my ego shattered when anyone plays better than me, and I plummet into a self-defeating spiral of thoughts that I’ll never be any good and I might as well give up now.

The only way out is to forget about competing with other musicians and focus on playing music to connect with people. I’m still going to pursue technical mastery so that I can more freely communicate everything I’m feeling, but I don’t have to feel threatened by all the musicians who are always going to be better than me. I can admire them and learn from them and know that I still have something unique to offer. When I let go of my ego, I end up playing better and having more fun.

Music has a unique ability to bypass people’s defenses and go straight to the heart. It’s a universal language that can forge deep connections between people who have nothing else in common. Even if you’re just a beginner, it’s always worthwhile endeavor when you’re creating something meaningful.