Sometimes the simplest of questions are the deepest. “Why are you here?” was asked at a prison recital last month. The prisoner wanted to know why performers would come to such a place when we could be anywhere else.

But that question meant more to me than just why I would perform music in a prison. That question is a question any musician should be able to answer honestly at any point in their career.

Why was I doing what I was doing, anyway. It is a question that forces one to analyze their own stance and purpose in the field. But in analyzing the Why, I realized that for many artists, the questions are usually limited to What and Who. Musicians get focused on what they do and who they are–as dictated by their job titles. “I am a cellist with the Philadelphia Orchestra.” That’s good, but….why do you do this?

Sometimes the Why answers don’t come immediately, and they are often impacted by circumstances beyond a musician’s control. For example, if an orchestra leader (either artistic or administrative) is rude, abusive, or plain incompetent, the answer to Why is going to be different from where a musician is in a supportive, respectful, and fully functioning situation.

Getting to the real answer of Why, a Why might start out with a personal conversation with oneself.

Here’s an example of how a positive self-conversation might look:

  1. This is my job; I need to make money.
  2. I’m lucky to do what I love while making money.
  3. Why do I love this?
  4. I love the way music makes me feel.
  5. Why do I like the way music feels?
  6. I like sharing the experience with colleagues and friends.
  7. Why is sharing so important?
  8. Sharing music brings community and purpose to my life and my community’s life.
  9. Conclusion: My job is to enhance society and bring relevance to it.

Or a negative conversation could look like this:

  1. This is my job, I need to make money.
  2. This is my only job skill, so I’m stuck.
  3. Why am I stuck?
  4. This is a full-time job and I have no time or extra money to pursue something new.
  5. I used to love music but now it’s just a job.
  6. Why do I not enjoy this anymore?
  7. I don’t like my work environment, I don’t like the lack of stability and support, I’m tired.
  8. Conclusion: My job pays the bills and it’s too late to start something new.

Another situation that impacts a musician’s Why answer is how much connection that musician has with the audience. For some musicians, knowing how an audience enjoys or needs a concert adds an important dimension to the purpose of Why. Even if that musician came up with a negative Why self-conversation.

Being able to answer the Why gives authenticity and validity to a musician’s purpose.

What are your answers to Why? Leave a comment!

About Holly Mulcahy

After hearing Scheherazade at an early age, Holly Mulcahy fell in love with the violin and knew it would be her future. She currently serves as concertmaster of the Chattanooga Symphony Orchestra and spends her summers at the celebrated Grand Teton Music Festival where in addition to performing in the violin section, Holly volunteers as an active chamber musician. Holly performs on a 1917 Giovanni Cavani violin, previously owned by the late renowned soloist Eugene Fodor, and a bespoke bow made by award winning master bow maker, Douglas Raguse.
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7 thoughts on “Why Are You Here?

  1. (disclaimer: I’m not a musician) Have had paychecks for 40+ years, but never had a “job” or “worked”. Teaching engineering and designing medical equipment were my spiritual mission to serve and my hobbies, simultaneously. Never ever felt stuck in a “job”, often told my “bosses” that I appreciate their positions and challenges, and I was always looking for opportunities to support the “team”. Footnote: did an immense amount of computer programming over the years and always had music playing in the background. Concertos and Pink Floyd really helped my psyche.

  2. I am here (teaching Kindermusik) because I love experiencing music with little ones. They are so open with expressing themselves in movement and instrument play. Here, there is no wrong way to play (unless you are hurting someone or the instrument), there is just the joy of playing.

  3. Great post (as usual)! How lucky we are to be musicians at a time when that question is being asked more – I don’t remember too many people thinking this way when I was growing up, or in music school. My answer is the same as yours, and I’m grateful for that every day!

  4. As you know, Holly, before retirement I was a high school English teacher, then assistant principal, and for 22 years a public high school principal. I loved my career in public education because I loved the interaction with high school students and was gratified to see their growth as intelligent, responsible, and creative human beings. That’s why I did what I did. The opportunity to encourage and energize the development of these young people—alongside wonderful and supportive colleagues—was as rewarding as I always imagined it would be, as I watched and was inspired by a whole family of educators from the day I was born.

  5. At the risk of being slightly contrarian, it’s actually a bit of a combination of your two examples. I became a musician because I loved it and didn’t want to pursue anything else. I’m still a musician because I’m able to make a living at it. But additionally, I continue to be curious about how to achieve a higher level of music-making, and I really love pursuing different corners of the business and, tangentially, public service. (Interesting article, Holly!)

  6. I think the initial question remains unanswered. I think the prisoner asked: “Why bring your (presumably) classical music here, to me, a criminal in a prison? Where is there a meeting between my outsider status, the loss of my rights and freedoms, the total lack of aesthetics in my environment, the ( I’m assuming) constant presence in prison of personal violence and despair and your classical music, the beauties of your various environments and personal freedoms?” Maybe that’s not a more complicated question but just a different one.

    • You are correct, that was exactly what the prisoner was asking. But in his asking, it occurred to me that question could be a broader question for us all in the field. My answer to that prisoner from that evening was roughly: I am here because nobody should be denied access to the arts. And that answer morphed into a greater question for the entire industry. I think having our individual answers helps us share the art more sincerely.

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