I come from a short but very emphatic line of musicians. My father was a drummer – not like Ringo Starr was a drummer, but like any kid growing up in the 60s experimented casually with the idea and practice of being in a band. Growing up, we’d stand in line at the bank or post office and he’d tap out a ditty on my little shoulders, asking me to hold up my hand as the splash cymbal. He taught me to count how many “I know”s that Bill Weathers pours out during “Ain’t No Sunshine” and, to this day, he’ll still beat out the same cadence with spoons or library books and I’ll yell out my part – “DING!” – from across the house at just the right cue and without even thinking. From the beginning, music was all around.
And then, my sisters and I formed our own musical identities, quickly, ears wide open, hungry to master this craft and become part of such a captivating social niche. We each played wind instruments from the earliest age that public school would allow and up until we all faced the choice to turn our favorite hobby into one of two things: a career or a cherished memory. Now, looking at my musical journey in the rear view mirror, I’m left with a few precious relics to remind me of how I found myself: recordings from all-state ensembles, t-shirts from summer music camps, my drum major gloves, videos of me conducting a gospel choir, my old clarinet in its bright red case at the foot of my bed. Nowadays, I have a nondescript desk job at a giant corporation, but the musician in me continues to reach from my brain and peer around from behind my ears: listening, calculating, finding the rhythm, harmonizing with a train whistle, counting the tempo of my heel clicks on the lobby floor. (I walk quickly; it’s usually between 120-140 BPM.)
Six months ago, I learned that I’ll have to manage a chronic illness for the rest of my life. I now take 21 pills per day and have said a painstaking goodbye to gluten, sugar, alcohol, and caffeine. Some days, I feel normal and act normal and can slip normally and complacently into society. But some days, it’s too much to ask to even swing my feet off of the bed, and seven hours later I’m approaching toxic levels of trashy dating game shows and America’s Next Top Model. (Fucking Tyra Banks, that show is catchy.) Regardless of whether you share my plight of chronic illness or not, we’ve all taken turns spending a day on Reddit or binge-watching Netflix or engaging in some equally banal, almost involuntary colossal waste of time and, in doing so, have stared into the face of Worthlessness. Mine just happens to be medically induced.
I’m not afraid of my illness; it’s one that probably won’t kill me, but rather will just cause extreme pain and physical degeneration if untreated. What I fear is worthlessness: of not being able to go to work and roll up my sleeves and push inputs to create outputs and have my finger on the pulse of societal growth and change. I’m afraid of sitting idle and drifting into the background and that the shadow of physical inability will creep up my legs and cover my face and shield me from the world altogether. Not death, but a shadow of a life. That’s my fear.
As innocuous as it may seem, music is my shield from this threat of worthlessness. Watching those videos and listening to those recordings reminds me of my irrefutable un-worthlessness: that at one point, I was a cog in the wheel of a machine that would have been truly (if not overtly) different without my help, that I was a body in a wave of motion and sound that celebrated art and culture that was hundreds of years old and allowed others to share joy; that, if I was to disappear into the shadow that I so fear, I would still leave the world with these relics and leave my fellow musicians with the most beautiful memories and that someone, somewhere, will someday dust off a video of me singing in my gospel choir and may not have known who I was, but will always understand what I did and how it made them feel.
The point is not that music is the great healer, necessarily. The point is that we all need to find what we love so undeniably that it gives us true perspective. Music is humbling: to push out the last movement of Carmina Burana or to sing an unwritten gospel spiritual is not only to celebrate history, but to join and perpetuate it. You become part of something that is so much bigger than you and that people have loved and will love for hundreds of years and you can’t help but be grabbed and shaken by how incredibly worthwhile that actually is.
And because of this, because of this culture, because of this demonstrated and witnessed contribution to the betterment of a collaboration so magical, I will never be worthless.