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Home for the Curious Musician

Getting Past Our Single Word Descriptors

The following post is part of our new column, Poorly-Guarded Secrets from the Soundfly Mentors’ Guide. Written by mentor and VP of Learning & Curriculum Development Mahea Lee, this series is intended to assist, inspire, and offer a peek into the types of discussions we have behind-the-scenes here at Soundfly. 

If my name was Susan, I might not be writing this.

Do you remember the first time you identified with the word “musician?”

For me, it was on a warm, September day in the late ’90s. More specifically, it was my first day in the fourth grade.

Until right around that time, the only opinions I cared about were those of my mother, my father, and TV’s Jonathan Taylor Thomas. Now, I was beginning to see that how I presented myself mattered. It was thanks to this newfound desire to avoid embarrassment, and an alliteration-based ice breaker, that I first acknowledged the importance of identity and subsequently chose to label myself “musical.”

Choosing to describe ourselves as this or that adjective doesn’t seem like a big deal, especially at ten-years-old, but reaching a point where we can stand firmly behind those descriptors takes understanding, experience, and self-assurance.

Describing Musicians

The word producer carries with it countless nights spent staring into the blue light of a computer screen, chasing sonic inspiration well into what anyone else would think of as morning’s quietest hours. But that on its own, is far from being a complete picture of my wonderful colleague, Martin Fowler.

Lyricist alludes to someone who has faced their demons and spilled the inner workings of their mind out onto an unending series of blank pages, always looking for a better way to say everything. It doesn’t, however, fully do justice to the extraordinary person that is songwriter and Soundfly Mentor, Raven Katz.

Even the word musician often comes with connotations — connotations that may or may not apply to you, me, or anyone else for that matter.

You Could Say I’m a Musician

When people find out I studied music, many of them assume it was strictly classical or jazz. When they learn I work in music, the assumption tends to be that I’m a performer.

Technically, they’re not wrong. In school, I studied both classical and jazz, in addition to other genres. In the past, I did a fair amount of performing.

“If I wrote out a complete description of who I perceive myself to be as some sort of exercise in self-awareness, I could fill a stack of notebooks and still be convinced I missed something.”

That said, my degree’s in something called Contemporary Writing and Production, my minor focused on various types of music theory, and my job title is Vice-President of Learning and Curriculum Development. I (figuratively) stand before you as living proof that the definition of the word “musician” is not as simple as it may seem.

Any Label Has Its Ups and Downs

The labels society assigns us are rarely, if ever, a perfect fit. When we choose our own descriptors, we tend to pick the ones that make us feel most confident, but on their own, they’re unlikely to tell the whole story.

Labels can pigeonhole us in ways that damage our self-perception and limit our growth. They can also become excuses we use to shield ourselves from feelings of disappointment: “It’s okay that I can’t do [this] because I’m not a [that],” or “I’m a [blank], so I probably won’t be able to do [blank].”

On the other hand, there are absolutely times when simple descriptors come in handy. For instance, I love what I do and I’m proud of what I’ve done, but both can be tricky to explain during a casual conversation with a stranger.

If I wrote out a complete description of who I perceive myself to be as some sort of exercise in self-awareness, I could fill a stack of notebooks and still be convinced I missed something.

Though odds are, you and I have never met, I can say the same about you for the simple reason that we are both people. Any individual person is a many-layered, complex, intricate, unfathomable, and ever-changing thing.

Of course, that sort of thing doesn’t qualify as small talk, so sometimes it’s easier to just say we’re “musicians” and accept that whoever’s listening will draw their own conclusions. I understand that their meaning of the word may not be my meaning of the word. I’m fine with that as long as I continue to feel confident in who and what I am.

What It Means to Be “Musical”

Back in the late ’90s, my classmates and I were learning about alliteration while memorizing each others’ names. You were supposed to describe yourself with a word that started with the same letter as your name as a way of helping the other children remember a detail about you.

On the surface, simple. Literally, so simple, a nine-year-old could be expected to do it.

But I knew whatever word I chose had to be both accurate and socially acceptable. On top of that, it had to start with the letter “M.”

  • Mysterious.
  • Maniacal.
  • Malcontented.
  • Myopic. 

At first, I could only come up with things I wasn’t or didn’t want to be. Plus, it was the ’90s, so using a four-syllable word from the spelling list could doom me to years of nerd-dom, which I definitely didn’t want.

Just when I had decided to go with “make-believe,” thinking at least I’d get a laugh and might just be able to pull off the class clown bit, it hit me. Musical.

It was specific enough to feel like an identity, vague enough to grow into. Plus, I was pretty young when I started playing piano, so even then, I knew it was accurate.

“There are things that can be said through pitches and rhythms that could never be summed up in a three-syllable word.”

I still like the term “musical.” It’s a good word — one you and I know very well. Of course, we also know it barely scratches the surface. Who you are as a musician is different from who I am as a musician, and so on.

Our mentors are a very good example of this. They are all experts in music-related areas, but their specific skills and perspectives are incredibly unique. A quick scroll through this page will show you that even when each person is limited to three simple labels, there are countless variations on how people describe themselves in the world of music.

No matter what mood I’m in, “musical” still resonates for me, in spite of anyone else’s perceptions. When I use it to label myself, I do so honestly and willingly, while understanding its limitations as a descriptor. The desire to articulate ideas beyond the scope of spoken language actually plays a significant role in my continued use of the label “musician.”

There are things that can be said through pitches and rhythms that could never be summed up in a three-syllable word.

What about you? Do you identify with the word “musical?” If so, what nuances contribute to your version of the word? Are your answers to those questions consistent, or do they change from day to day? Can you sum things up beautifully and neatly with some well-chosen words, or are you also on a lifelong quest to put everything you are into song?

Ready for a coaching session of your own?

Soundfly’s community of mentors can help you set the right goals, pave the right path toward success, and stick to schedules and routines that you develop together, so you improve every step of the way. Tell us what you’re working on, and we’ll find the right mentor for you! 

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Mahea Lee

Mahea Lee is a classically trained pianist and composer who has a degree from a jazz school and leads an electro-pop band. Her greatest musical passion is lyrical songwriting, but she's been known to write the occasional fugue. She graduated from Berklee College of Music, where she majored in Contemporary Writing and Production and minored in Music Theory. For more Mahea, check out Soundlfly's course, The Improviser's Toolkit.