For years, I lived with a secret: I loved making music.

Unfortunately, I never felt comfortable with that love. To me, music was something best left to the professionals—bands with songs at the top of the pop charts, divas with silky voices that could hit stratospheric notes, musicians so gifted they could run complex scales in their sleep.

The best I could do was to strum a few chords on my guitar and croak out the occasional tune that I’d written. When I was feeling especially ambitious, I might start fooling around in GarageBand and lay down some backing tracks to accompany my warbling.

But I always felt guilty afterward.

I always felt like I was wasting my time.

Pulled Towards Music

In my mind, writing was my real talent. After all, I had four books under my belt, all published by respected if not especially prosperous houses. With each new essay, new story, or new book I managed to get into print, I was building a resume and a reputation in an industry I told myself I desperately I wanted to be a part of.

Surely, I should build on my strengths and focus on my writing. Surely, I should avoid music.

The more I tried to avoid music, however, the more I was drawn to it. Hours I’d blocked off for banging out prose quickly turned to hours “lost” to playing my guitar or working on a project in GarageBand.

”A musician isn’t necessarily a superstar or a prodigy. Nor, for that matter, is it someone who lives and breathes music. I’d also go so far as to say that a musician isn’t even someone who makes a living through music.”

Meanwhile, I was doing my best to deny the fact that I had long ago soured on writing. In fact, it wasn’t until I got what should have been good news that the full weight of my preference for music over writing hit me.

An agent said she was interested in representing a novel I’d written. She gave me extensive notes on how I could revise my manuscript to make it more marketable.

I sat down in front of my computer, cracked my knuckles, and… Walked away to play my guitar.

Making the Switch

That was the moment I finally admitted to myself that I liked making music far more than I liked writing.

So what if I wasn’t “that good” at it?

So what if I hadn’t been practicing scales since I was a child?

So what if I’d never have a record in the charts or make any money with it?

The fact is that making music made me happy. Losing myself in a private blues jam or playing back an electronic piece that I’d recorded hit me in a way that reading back a passage of my own writing never did.

It was visceral.

It was exciting.

More than anything, it was fun.

Marc Schuster as Zapatero

Marc Schuster as Zapatero

Fortunately, writing was never my livelihood, so allowing it to sink into the background of my life didn’t represent a financial risk. I’m actually a teacher by trade, and the job carries with it the added benefit of being able to take courses free of charge at the institution where I work.

So I enrolled in one music course, then another, and another. I learned about things like pitch and tempo. I learned how to use different programs to record music and sync it to video. I learned how to dip my toe into the music industry, should I ever decide to take my new sideline project to that mythical “next level”. Even better, I started meeting people who, like myself, loved to make music.

Soon, I started coming out to my friends and family. “No,” I’d say, “I’m not writing as much as I used to. I’m more into music these days.”

The more I said it, the more natural it sounded. It wasn’t that I wanted to be musician. All of a sudden, I was a musician! All it took was a slight adjustment to my understanding of what a musician is – and, perhaps more to the point, how I defined “success” when it came to making music.

What Makes A Musician?

A musician isn’t necessarily a superstar or a prodigy. Nor, for that matter, is it someone who lives and breathes music. I’d also go so far as to say that a musician isn’t even someone who makes a living through music. While all of those things are fine and good, music and musicianship encompass so much more.

When you get right down to it, being a musician is about expressing yourself through sound. Make a noise once, and it’s only noise. Make the same noise several times over, and you have a pattern. Change that pattern up a little, then go back and forth between a few variations, and you’re making music!

Marc Schuster Zapatero 2017 Garden Variety release

Garden Variety, Zapatero’s 2017 release

From this perspective, success in music hinges not so much on achieving fame, riches, or technical prowess. Rather, success lies in finding joy—and, with any luck, inspiring joy in others.

As my own experience suggests, we make music because doing so makes us feel good in an instinctive, primal way. It also gives us something to bond over: I strum my guitar, you beat your drum, someone else breathes into a harmonica, and suddenly we’re a community, working together to make something beautiful that no one has ever heard before.

If that’s not success, I don’t know what is.

So, now I play my guitar and sing aloud without regret or apology. I make a lot of noise, I hit wrong notes. I meet new people. And through the magic of social media, I share my music with the world.

Do I expect to make a living at it? Not in a million years. But I know I’m having fun – and that’s the greatest reward I can imagine. Best of all, I’m not ashamed to say it anymore: I am a musician.

We’ve got news for you: if you play an instrument, you’re already a musician, no record deal required. If you want to take that a step further and feel like a natural musician, ear training can help! Read up on how this approach can take you from struggling with the basics to playing like a pro!

Marc Schuster is a musician and educator. When he’s not teaching at Montgomery County Community College, he records music under the name Zapatero. Visit him online at Zapateria Music and listen to him on this podcast.

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