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The Musical Blues


The musical blues are prevalent to an alarming extent. It is a well-known fact that the spiritual strain of any art has its reactions, and this is especially true of music; the exalted state of mind into which one passes occasionally, in which everything earthly seems to pass away and leaves nothing but music, must, of necessity, have its corresponding depression. It is as impossible to avoid it as it is to avoid being tired by some especially exhausting physical work.

But the lesser forms of depression, commonly called “the blues,” are most incomprehensible. The “blues” which come from listening to a great pianist, or violinist, or whatever form the genius may choose for expression,—not the reaction from intense, absorbing interest, but the “blues” which are ill-concealed envy,—are the petty side of a nature.

One’s discouragement may be great, when daily plodding and study result in so slow a progress that one is tempted to say, “I have gained nothing”; but surely a great artist should give one courage to improve, if the petty jealousy can be thrust aside. A clear interpretation of the great masters, an exhibition of fine technic, a perfect command both of the instrument and of one’s self; surely these should be taken in the light of a lesson from a great master, not greeted with a sigh and the bitter thought, “I might as well give up; I could never do that.”

In allowing one’s self to pass into that state of mind which admits the impossibility of great success, coupled with almost a grudge against the performer who shows one’s own shortcomings, one loses force, opportunities, that he can not afford to lose. Every yielding to discouragement is a step backward.

Understand, I do not mean the higher discouragement, the feeling of unworthiness to attempt the greater works, to interpret the great masters; but the fatal habit of yielding to the “blues,” which is death to musical accomplishment. It is narrow, warping.

Music demands the best, both of body and soul. How can the best be given if time and strength alike are wasted in idle wishing instead of honest work?

The whole thing resolves itself into the question as to what motive the would-be musician has for being a musician. If it is for personal advancement or an ambition to be admired, he is more apt to fall into these “blues” than if bent on being the best he can be, not stopping to consider how very far that may be from the world’s best.

Some one has said that it takes genuine courage to be one’s best when that can be only second best; but it seems as if one could go further than that, and say that it is the highest courage that tries to be the best, knowing that his best will probably be accounted by the world, and, harder still, by his closest friends and perhaps by himself, as thoroughly ordinary. It is hard, indeed, to fall back into the rank and file when one has been straining every nerve to become fitted for commander.

It all depends upon the individual’s definition of “success.” Of course, everybody starts out with a well- formed plan of storming the world, of accomplishing marvels. Perhaps he hopes for a year or two abroad. Well and good; but right here he will meet with a discouragement. In the first place, if money is any object with him—and it usually is with students—it will take some time, perhaps years, before he can feel himself financially able to go, and perhaps in the struggle he may find himself forced to give up his cherished dream of foreign study, and compelled to settle down in a comparatively uneventful life. Or, perhaps, he may begin teaching and discover that teaching is really his vocation, that he is more capable of showing others the path toward success than of treading it himself. His disappointment will be intense, naturally, but if he is worth anything he will not let it embitter him, nor will he lapse into periodical fits of the ”blues”; he will accept his destiny calmly.

There are fewer good teachers than there are good students, although perhaps few teachers will be found to agree with this statement.

Think how discouraging it is to a scholar to find his teacher sunk in the depths of the “blues,” from probably a trifling cause, and giving his lesson in a halfhearted, self-pitying way that is calculated to bring out anything but the best of the pupil. A teacher yielding to this casts a sort of restraint over his pupils, until in time they begin to associate moodiness with the name of music. It is impossible for a pupil to keep his interest in his work unless the teacher shows some decided animation in regard to the subject.

The strangest part of it all is that so many musicians seem to consider themselves professionally licensed to be “blue,” not realizing that music demands courage, and that teaching, which is in itself an art, requires both cheerfulness and concentration.

These attacks of the “blues” become more frequent when they are indulged in, until at last they are chronic, and one’s vision of music, and, in fact, all higher things, is blurred by discontent. Have a high ideal, by all means, and grow as near to it as possible, not content with letting good material go to waste; but, above all, do n’t waste good material by indulging in a very egotistical, melancholy pleasure, that of the “blues.” If you must be unhappy about anything, take your unhappiness into some other phase of your life, but cut it off entirely from your music, if you have determined to be your best, whether that be first or twentieth rate in the eyes of a critical public.


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You are reading The Musical Blues from the July, 1898 issue of The Etude Magazine.

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