Motivation is temporary. Inspiration is permanent.

Just don’t give up on trying to do what you really want to do.
Where there is love and inspiration, I don’t think you can go wrong.

~Ella Fitzgerald, (1917-1996, Master jazz vocalist)

Icelanders love a good failure. Truly. An Icelander would rather see someone fail for the right reasons than succeed for the wrong ones. Not that they don’t celebrate the successes, of course. Take Sigur Ros, the fantastic group of Icelanders with the ethereally powerful sound which features the counter-tenor voice of Jónsi Birgisson. He sings in a made-up language, Vonlenska (a.k.a. Hopelandic), a language that aims to deliver emotive content through phonemes instead of through the usual grammar/vocabulary we expect from a language. They are succeeding for the right reasons and gave a tour throughout Iceland to give back to the people who supported them, a journey documented on their DVD Heima.

Jónsi Birgisson

Here I go perpetuating the very thing that makes it difficult to sustain practice in the face of adversity. In our culture, we look to the successes and often believe that if we can’t reach the pinnacles of success, then we shouldn’t bother even to attempt it. Unless it can be done at a professional level, for profit, it’s pointless to pursue. Yeah, yeah, I know it’s not true for everyone, certainly not for me, but this is the kind of pressure I see in our culture, in my students, and in the people I meet. It’s a load of hooey.

Nothing wrong with fame and fortune (or so I assume), but those are empty goals which may not sustain you for the length of time it will probably take to attain them. You don’t have to discard them, of course, but most of us are after something more simple and, to my mind, more desirable and profound. It is to communicate. Not necessarily to anyone in particular, though this is what we usually think of as communication. Perhaps self-expression might be a better term for the music we make only for ourselves. But most of us want to communicate with others, too. Simply to play music well enough to convey a feeling is a profound accomplishment that is its own rich reward. And as far as motivation goes, humble goals are more easily attainable and perhaps more satisfying.

I’m no rock star, jazz legend, or signer-songwriter heartthrob, but those eminent musicians I know or have read tend to focus on these types of goals, too: to make good music; to say something worthwhile; to touch the electric warmth of emotion in themselves and others; to speak truth through music.

Fela Kuti‘s version of truth was oppositional and nearly militant in its political agenda, while the truth of Louis Armstrong was more joyful and celebratory; but both “spoke” truth as they saw it, and that, I believe, is one of the most worthy goals of a human life. And when you speak your musical truth, you can even make up your own language, like Sigur Ros. The desire to communicate truth as you see it can be the source of a lifetime of inspiration.

In the words of surfing legend Kelly Slater: “Motivation is temporary, inspiration is permanent.”


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