By Read Connolly
There’s a quote by Epicetus that I think about often: “It’s impossible to learn what you already think you know.” This past year, I lost what I knew about being a musician. From that experience, I learned what I thought I knew, and found something I didn’t know I had.
Pre-lockdown, the daily grind of playing a concert didn’t give me pause for reflection. I envisioned it more as a checklist, to an end. Advertise the show weekly, and every other day week of; make sure there’s air in the tires; load-in at 5, sound check at 6; stay hydrated, but don’t break the seal. Once these boxes were crossed off, I could enjoy the experience—locking in with the band, responding to the crowd’s energy, pulling something out of the air. Those moments, those connections created, I relished. And then the moment was over, and the checklist resumed—pay the bar tab, pack up, drop off everyone; get some rest, think about when to start advertising the next show. The moment of contentment was always surrounded by the perfunctory aspects of being a musician.
The pandemic took away more than just live music, it stripped us of shared experience. Out of safety and concern, it became our duty to respect isolation. The alternative was grim. At first, the new situation created replacements for what we were missing: virtual concerts, remote collaboration, sharing old memories. The old world was “Pre-COVID,” drawing a clear line in time, with our mantra being to get back to Normal.
The funny thing about Normal, the capital-N version that we think rules over life, is how malleable the concept is. From person to person, day to day, there is no one Normal. As I was sitting at home, contemplating loss and an uncertain future, I was greatly influenced by Arthur C. Brooks, a social science professor at Harvard, who writes a column for The Atlantic called “The Art of Happiness.” As Brooks describes the ideal of capital-N Normal: “Life changes are painful, but inevitable. And as hard as they may be, we only make things harder—and risk squandering the benefits and lessons they can bring—when we work against them instead of with them.” Given this time and space for pause and reflection, I started to lean into my greatest, driving fear: failing.
Failure, to me, was an unknown force that I avoided at all cost. The idea of it, the concept of wearing that banner, fed my self-doubt, my lack of confidence, and my never-ending excuses to myself. As I peeled back the walls I had built for myself, I realized that capital-F Failure was no different than capital-N Normal. As Brooks had described, I had spent entirely too much time and energy working against the inevitability to even realize the potential of growth, learning, and understanding that could be gained.
That was the moment that I allowed Normal to be normal, and Failure to be failure. A subtle change in learning what I thought I knew.
With my walls down, I gave myself permission to try and explore parts of myself I hadn’t externalized before. I began learning music software called Max/MSP that I had long been interested in, but never had the time or confidence to explore. Suddenly, during lockdown, I had both. By exploring this new world, and building a personal interface to create music, I was able to make something that was uniquely mine. Against a litany of fear and self-doubt, I released it under my name—something I never could have conceived of in the “Pre-COVID” world.
I also explored being a band leader, writing Christmas music that explored my personal fascination and appreciation of Christmas music, in of itself. In a complete reversal of Normal, the band I formed had no expectation to ever play live—they have never even been in a room together. My “Pre-COVID” checklist surrounding the moment of musical bliss had no corollary to this experience. Everything about writing, recording, and collaborating with my friends was enjoyable—I could see now that my happiness didn’t come from an end, but from the work itself.
As the world begins to safely open, and “Post-COVID” grows from a concept to a reality, I will still carry these new lessons with me. I am allowing myself to fail—it’s an opportunity to grow, not to fear. I am not pushing against normal, I am creating my normal—the work makes me content, not the result. I still reflect on Epicetus’ quote often because I know the work isn’t finished—there are many things I think I know, and I’ve yet to learn. I welcome all of it.
–Read Connolly is a freelance musician and steel guitarist. His work can be found at readconnolly.com