In your introduction you mentioned that you would be interested in explaining why your work is meaningful to you, and I was really curious to hear what you had to say. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the importance of what I’m trying to do as a performer, and sometimes I have difficulty with feelings of it being a selfish endeavor. I guess it’s just important to recognize the contributions that music can make, and as you’re someone who dedicates a lot of time to making tangible contributions with your music and organizations, I thought you might have some things to say that could help me figure some things out...
Thanks for your thoughtful email. I appreciate that you are asking this question, and it is such a Big Question. My guess is that different people think about it in different ways, and I encourage you to keep asking it of yourself and others who you encounter as you proceed in music. In fact, there's no reason to ever stop asking it, because you, your musicianship, and the shape of your career are guaranteed to continue to change over your lifetime.
What I can offer from my personal experience is that I find the most meaning in my relationships, and music is an incredibly powerful opportunity to connect people. I imagine that some people want their music to reach thousands (millions?) while some people are (seemingly) content to play for themselves. Either of these mindsets is fine, and it is crucial to not fool yourself into being or pursuing something that is not true to you. First and foremost, your connection to music is personal and unique, and it doesn't have to "do" anything besides bring you joy.
I also want to make the point that one needn't think of performing as selfish or unselfish. It is important that you do what means the most to you. Performing music can benefit others and benefit you simultaneously. In fact, this is the most sustainable recipe for the longterm.
One way of thinking about this question that I've found to be helpful: A museum director named Nina Simon wrote a brief book last year called The Art of Relevance. EM just purchased it for the NEC library and I highly recommend it. It contains at least fifty examples of arts organizations that are attempting to connect what they care about with the rest of the world, figure out why other people should care.
It turns out that, according to Nina, and I totally agree, the highest value of art is in the word Empathy--the ability to have two human beings be emotionally connected. Maybe because I care so much about relationships, this makes absolute sense to me.
She shares one example of an arts organization in New York State that designs artistic experiences for an audience of one(!). They get commissions to create something that is meant to reach a specific person. They spend time researching that person, etc. Very cool and totally not at all practical, right? But... what an interesting proposition for us musicians to think about. What would you do if your next performance was to be for an audience of one? Especially if you knew that person, knew something about his/her life, his/her likes and dislikes, what he/she is going through right now?
That example of creating (or recreating) art for an audience of one became personal for me this year. In the spring, summer, and early fall, I paid a number of visits to an elderly friend who was in rehab for a stroke, and then hospice until she died in early September. She couldn't speak, but she could listen. It was so interesting to notice how playing for her--and often members of her family who were in the room--influenced the way that I thought about performing music. I had so many thoughts and feelings while I was involved in playing music for her. I think my visits were beneficial for her; I know that they were beneficial for me! Not altruistic; mutually beneficial. In other words, a relationship.
From time to time, having the experience of knowing with certainty that my musicianship/performance has truly been important--relevant!-- to someone's life is definitely valuable and affirming. I think this is often hard to achieve in the Conservatory environment where we are surrounded every day by music performance. However, just outside of these walls, you will encounter people who experience daily life quite differently than professional and student musicians. They may not have the same access to something (music) that has the potential to evoke an emotional response. Your performance may be the key that unlocks something inside of them...
Never fear, there's plenty more time to ponder the importance of performing music and how to make it feel meaningful--years and years and years!
Sharing student project documentation and, more recently, my own.