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When Following Your Passion Turns Toxic: Why I didn't take Music classes at Cornell

Throughout my 4 years at Cornell, I never completed a single music class. Despite being a professional musician outside of the classroom with regular bookings throughout my semesters at Cornell, I couldn't bring myself to sit in a classroom and study music.

Multiple semesters went by in which I actually enrolled in music classes, with the thought in mind that "hey, maybe I should check out the music scene at Cornell" or "what's it like to take an Ivy League music class?" but every time, after 1 or 2 class sessions, I dropped the class. I even initially thought about doing a music minor, so that at least on paper my aptitude for music could be represented, but I really was unable to bring myself to study music in an academic setting.

My whole life, my primary exposure to music had been "after-school" or "extra-curricular" and so while yes, I did technically "study" music and even take ABRSM Exams (both practical and theory), it wasn't something that I showed up to school classes for regularly. I'd built a career out of music without any linkages to my typical academic life, and so for some reason, being lectured at about music theory by a Cornell professor just didn't feel good for me. I don't say this to say that the music classes don't carry merit, or that studying music in an academic setting is invaluable, but rather to share that my nexus of passion and career wasn't a direct consequence of a formalized schooling system.

I think for me, this is an important nuance that I've noticed in my music career.

Music, for me, of course is a passion of mine. The feeling of being on stage, of being in front of audiences and entertaining and sharing emotions through melodies is a feeling that has driven that passion for over a decade for me. Recently, I wrote about the "hobbyficiation" of the creative arts in the Jamaican education system and the ways in which education systems and society oftentimes relegate the creative arts to being less-than actual careers. In thinking about my stance there, I certainly believe everything that I wrote about in that blog post, but in retrospect, I also think there is some value in disconnecting passion from obligation.

What do I mean by that? Recently, I had lunch with a friend of mine from high school who asked me how I essentially "tow the line" between doing what you love as a career and turning it into something that's almost mandatory. By that, he was referring to the blog, and how I've turned my love of writing into this weekly blog post obligation, but also my passion for music and turning that into a career. That conversation was so refreshing, because it made me rethink how I thought about my journey to where I am today as a writer and a musician.

Clearly, my entire career is not music. I haven't yet had the courage to launch myself completely into music nor the creative arts. However, there has always been a question of conflicting priorities when I'm balancing things like music and school or a performance versus other responsibilities like school and exams. I've certainly turned music into something that's profitable for me, and it's usually - 9.9 times out of 10 - something that I can do without feeling stressed or uninspired. This blog is the same way. I write when I feel like writing, and although my friends on a weekly basis will hear me talk about the fact that I haven't written my blog post yet at 5pm on a Saturday, I know that I reserve this space of thought and mindfulness for writing. And while yes, publishing a blog post every Sunday has been a small challenge, it's created an intentional space every week for me to reflect and think.

To that end, my response to his question was that I've had to learn how to say no. There's gigs and performances that I of course, turn down sometimes. Why? Maybe not enough compensation to warrant the performance, not enough rehearsal time, not enough value proposition in terms of exposure for me or no real meaning to the performance in terms of brand and quality. I ensure that I reserve the right to say no to a booking, because even though it's nice to be paid to perform, I never want to feel like my passion is something that has become an obligation. I never want to feel like I'm doing a performance "just because."

For me, it's been really important to be able to tow the line between doing what I love and being obligated to do what I love because it can cause creative burnout. In retrospect, that's why I couldn't sit in a music class at Cornell more than 2 class sessions - because it took what I loved and made it obligatory. It forced me to show up to learn something that I love, and associating the feelings of happiness and euphoria that I get from music with the stress and burnout of typical academia (at least in my case) was not appealing. I couldn't exactly put my finger on the reason why I could never realize my goal of doing a music minor, but the word behind it is energy. The space in my life that music occupies is separate and apart from the space that academia occupies, and so merging the two energies wasn't productive for me. Imagining myself sitting in a library studying music for a class actually makes my stomach turn.

And now back to the blog. I started the blog to tell stories and share a different creative aspect of my life with my audience. (Side note: can you believe it's been almost 6 months since the start of #TheLifeofJLOWE??) These days, blogging is a good release, and I've been towing the line here with the challenge of publishing once a week. What do I mean by that? It's not just a matter of writing once a week for you to read, but a matter of writing once a week for me to write. Read that again. This blog is as much for myself as it is for whoever benefits from reading it (oftentimes I liken writing a blog to sending letters into a void, and sometimes the void talks back in forms of comments or kind messages). I really haven't yet experienced a feeling of burnout from writing the blog, and I think part of that comes from it being my own endeavour, over which I have all the control and autonomy, but more so from the motivation that I get from receiving messages from whoever's in the void that replies and talks to me about the stories I share.

In the coming weeks, the blog will evolve. Whether that means in terms of template or in terms of content, now that I have some free time to myself before I start my full time job, I'll be making some changes around here. I'm looking forward to sharing those with you!

So until next Sunday,

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